Q&A: John Kennedy, Xfm
By Andy Malt | Published on Wednesday 9 May 2012
This year Xfm celebrates the 20th anniversary of its first test broadcasts in 1992, which ran for five years until it was given a full licence to broadcast in London in 1997. Having been with the station since those very first broadcasts, John Kennedy is the only member of the current presenting team who has been with the station continuously throughout its 20 years, plus he also hosts its longest-running specialist show in ‘X-Posure’.
First broadcast in 1999, through ‘X-Posure’ Kennedy has been credited with discovering numerous artists who went on to find success, being the first to give radio play to demos by artists including Adele, The xx, Razorlight, The Ting Tings, The Futureheads, Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip and Mumford & Sons. As well as filling sixteen hours of airtime with great new music each week, John also supports new talent through the long-running X-Posure Live night at The Barfly in Camden and the more recent John Kennedy Presents The Remedy at The Tooting Tram And Social.
This Friday at the CMU-programmed Great Escape convention, 6music presenter Jon Hillcock (who got into radio through work experience on ‘X-Posure’) will talk to John Kennedy about his career to date, the thrill of discovering the next big thing, and the role radio plays in 2012.
Ahead of that, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with John to ask a few questions of his own.
AM: How did you get into radio?
JK: I stumbled into it really via a media course for the unemployed run by Community Service Volunteers. I’d started DJing, putting on my own club night and writing about music when I was at University in Norwich and had resolved to myself that I wanted to do something relating to and involved in music.
The course was based at a cable radio station in Thamesmead, South East London and I was pretty much smitten straight away. I suggested to the station, then called Radio Thamesmead, that I do a music show for them and amazingly they agreed. They then got an FM licence in London and north west Kent under the name RTM Radio and I did a weekly show for them called ‘Sharp As A Needle’, named after a Barmy Army track released by On-U Sound.
AM: How did you become involved with Xfm?
JK: While doing ‘Sharp As A Needle’ once a week I read about a radio station being created for the Reading Festival. I thought it sounded like my kind of thing so got in touch with the person behind it and asked if I could be on it. He said all the slots were booked but suggested I send in a tape of my show. I did and he called back with loads of criticisms, but nevertheless he asked if I wanted to do three or four shows across the weekend. I immediately said yes. This became Reading Festival Radio which broadcast for one weekend only in August 1991.
The man behind it was Sammy Jacobs and he said at the end of the weekend that he was going to be doing a restricted service licence broadcast the following spring to North London with a similar remit and asked if I wanted to be involved. The following April, Xfm was born and I did a show at midnight Monday to Thursday for the month long broadcast. Another RSL took place later that year. Then three more month long broadcasts over the next few years. I did the same slot on them all.
Everyone involved thought the idea of winning a full time licence for Xfm was only a matter of time. And it was, but we didn’t realise though that it would take five years to get there. Sammy always said there would be a slot for me if we got the licence, and true to his word I was there at midnight on the first night of broadcasting as a full time legal station and I became a full time DJ!
AM: Did you imagine you’d still be presenting on Xfm 20 years later?
JK: No! But I never thought about ‘the next 20 years’, and foolishly still don’t really. At first with Xfm the one goal was to get a full-time licence. Then once that happened, and once it became a full time occupation, the show is so all-consuming that apart from worrying about still being on air I don’t look that far ahead. It’s enough to cope with what’s happening week by week.
AM: How do you stay on top of new music?
JK: Not sure I do stay on top of it! It’s a rather all-consuming task and I spend far too many hours a day clawing away at the ever growing pile of CDs, links and downloads that come through via recommendation, promotion or unsolicited suggestion.
AM: What’s been your favourite session on ‘X-Posure’?
JK: There’s too many to choose from, as there have been so many over the years. Those that I’m actually present at tend to stand out. I’ve had some brilliant artists perform in front of my eyes in the very same room as me and they can be magical. That would include the likes of Laura Marling, Coco Rosie, Dizzee Rascal, The Raconteurs, Antony & The Johnsons, Adele, Plan B, Kate Nash, Boy Mandeville, Lorn, Kid Koala, Roisin Murphy, Fatoumata Diawara, and that’s just a few off the top of my head.
Someone who was involved in two of my favourites was a singer called Petra Jean Phillipson. She first came in with an American dude called Sean who was behind a project called Exodus 77. It was basically his band with a few other people and was an interesting fusion of punk and dub and rap. He came in to do a pre-recorded session in our session studio but didn’t bring a band, just brought Petra and some backing tracks.
After a really nice interview we went in to do the session and I hung around to have a listen. Some of the tracks were from his EP and upcoming album, but one turned out to be an instrumental by Mogwai that he and Petra improvised vocals over. They turned off the lights and lay down in the dark and it was really magical. Petra then returned a few years later around the time of her debut solo album and played live to air acoustically, again with the lights turned off. She has a beautiful voice which can also be heard alongside Sean in David Holmes’ Free Association project. She released a new album last year but hasn’t been back yet. I must arrange that, as those were two special moments.
AM: Which artist living or dead would you have loved to have done an ‘X-Posure’ session?
JK: Hmm, big question! Nina Simone or Sun Ra!
AM: Of the artists you’ve been an early champion of, which have been your particular favourites?
JK: Too tough to call. Don’t force me to choose!
AM: Other than yourself, who do you think has done the most in the last five years to champion new music?
JK: It’s really difficult to single out one person as there are loads of passionate committed people out there at various different levels who are all crucial. Those people who give artists their first gigs, those who write about them for the first time, take their pictures or give them air time, are all vitally important not just in terms of exposing them to an audience but