Radio Invicta: the genesis of black music radio in London …. still unfulfilled

I only knew Roger Tate through listening to his programmes on the radio. He was a DJ on Radio Invicta, London’s first soul music radio station, launched in 1970. Invicta was a pirate radio station. Back then, there were no legal radio stations in the UK other than the BBC.

The notion of a campaign for a soul music radio station for London had been a little premature, given that no kind of commercial radio had yet existed in Britain. But that is exactly what Radio Invicta did. As Roger Tate explained on-air in 1974:

“Who are Radio Invicta? You may well be asking. Well, we’re an all-soul music radio station. We’re more of a campaign than a radio station, I suppose. We believe in featuring more good soul music on the radio.”

By 1982, Black Echoes music paper reported that Radio Invicta was attracting 26,000 listeners each weekend for its broadcasts. By 1983, Radio Invicta had collected a petition of 20,000 signatures in support of its campaign for a legal radio licence. There was sufficient space on the FM band for London to have dozens more radio stations. By then, local commercial radio had existed in the UK for a decade. But nobody in power wanted to receive the station’s petition and Invicta’s Mike Strawson commented:

“I have tried to speak to the Home Office about it, but it shuts the door.”

Radio Invicta eventually closed for good on 15 July 1984, the date that the new Telecommunications Act had dramatically increased the penalties for getting caught doing pirate radio to a £2,000 fine and/or three months in jail. By then, Capital Radio had enjoyed its licence as London’s only commercial radio music station for eleven years. Its monopoly reign was still to run for a further six years.

It might have seemed in 1984 that Radio Invicta’s fourteen-year struggle to play soul music on the radio in London had come to absolutely nothing. The Invicta team went their separate ways after the pirate station’s closure. Roger Tate continued his career as a successful technology journalist. After his death in 2001, aged only 47, one of his friends, Trevor Brook, spoke of Tate’s determination to play soul music on the radio in the face of opposition from the government and the radio ‘establishment.’ His eulogy at the funeral of his friend ‘Bob Tomalski’ (Tate’s real name) included these comments:

“The government told the story that there were no frequencies available. Now Bob was not stupid. He had enough technical knowledge to know that this was simply not true. So, either government officials were too dim to realise the truth of the situation … or they were just lying. Nowadays, we have 300 independent transmitters operating in those same wavebands, so you can probably work out which it was. Anyway, in Britain, the result was that any proper public debate about the possible merits of more radio listening choice was sabotaged by this perpetual claim that it was impossible anyway.

So, we had pirates. Other countries which had not liberalised the airwaves had pirates as well, but some of them took the refreshingly realistic approach that no harm was being caused, and they permitted unlicensed operations to continue until they got round to regularising the situation. Ambulances still reached their destinations and no aeroplanes fell out of the sky. Not so in this country though. The enforcement services here were too well funded and the established orthodoxy too well entrenched. That ‘frequency cupboard’ was going to be kept well and truly locked!

Bob had thrown himself into running a regular soul station, Radio Invicta. He built a studio, tore it apart and built a better one. He eventually sectioned off part of the flat as a separate soundproofed area. He built transmitters – and got them working. But Bob was nothing if not multi-skilled, and he excelled in producing the programmes themselves. Using nothing more impressive than an old four track reel to reel tape recorder, Bob would create highly polished jingles and station identifications. ‘Roger Tate, super soul DJ.’ Other stations, both official and unofficial, listened to what Bob and his colleagues did and their ideas were copied or imitated.

Faced with the authorities, Bob was remarkable, because he was absolutely fearless. He was certain they were in the wrong and, given enough time, were going to lose the battle. It was a war of attrition and only perpetual piracy was ever going to bring about change. And he was quite right about that. The government kept winning the battle in the courts but began to lose the moral one. Eventually the law was changed.

Do we have free radio now? In the sense that anybody can decide to start up a new magazine, find the finance and get on with it, no, we don’t have that for radio. The process is bound up with a long winded regulation and approval process involving a statutory body which has had its fingers burnt in the past by the odd bankruptcy and the odd scandal. So they play safe and issue more licences to those who already have stations. The consequence is that originality and creativity get crushed into blandness and mediocrity. My own teenagers constantly flip between stations in the car, but they don’t care enough about any of them to listen indoors. Fresh people don’t get to control stations. Behind boardroom doors, they might think it privately, but in what other industry would the chairman of the largest conglomerate in the market dare to say publicly that even the present regime was too open and, I quote, ‘was out of date and was letting inexperienced players into the market’? That is a disgraceful statement. Where would television, theatre, comedy, the arts, and so on be, if new and, by definition, inexperienced people didn’t get lots of exposure? The industry is stale, complacent and rotten. Bob, there are more battles out there and we needed you here.”

Ten years later, these words are just as pertinent. It is hard to believe that a bunch of enthusiastic soul music fans who wanted to play their favourite music to their mates could have posed such a threat to the established order. But the history of radio broadcasting in the UK has demonstrated repeatedly that ‘the great and the good’ consider the medium far too important to let control fall out of their hands. Their arguments, however ridiculous, were taken completely seriously because they were the establishment.

Peter Baldwin, deputy director of radio at the Independent Broadcasting Authority, said in 1985: “We wouldn’t want to be dealing with two current local stations [in one area]. If it’s Radio Yeovil [operating as the only commercial station in Yeovil], well, that’s okay … But we couldn’t subscribe to competition [for existing local commercial pop music station Swansea Sound] from Radio Swansea, unless it was in Welsh or concentrated on jazz – and there probably wouldn’t be sufficient demand for that kind of service.”

James Gordon (now Lord Gordon), then managing director of Radio Clyde, wrote in The Independent newspaper in 1989: “It has to be asked whether there is really evidence of pent-up demand from listeners for more localised neighbourhood stations … Eight to ten London-wide stations would be enough to cater for most tastes.”

David Mellor MP told the House of Commons in 1984: “The government do not believe that it would be sensible or fair to issue pirate broadcasters with licences to broadcast. To do so, on the basis suggested by the pirate broadcasters, would be progressively to undermine the broadcasting structure that has evolved over the years.”

However, within five years, the government did indeed license a pirate radio station to broadcast in London. Once Invicta had disappeared in 1984, it was superseded by newer, more commercially minded, more entrepreneurial pirate radio stations – JFM, LWR, Horizon – that played black music for Londoners. In 1985, a new pirate station called KISS FM started, quite hesitantly at first. Its reign as a London pirate proved to be much shorter than Invicta’s but, by the time KISS closed in 1988, it was probably already better known than Invicta.

KISS FM went on to win a London radio licence in 1989 and re-launched legally in 1990. It carried with it the debt of a twenty-year history of black music pirate radio in London started by Radio Invicta and then pushed forward by hundreds of DJs who had worked on dozens of London black music stations. KISS FM would never have existed or won its licence without those pirate pioneers.

Sadly, the importance of KISS FM’s licence as the outcome of a twenty-year campaign seemed to be quickly forgotten by its owners and shareholders. The lure of big bucks quickly replaced pirate ideology during a period of history when ‘get rich quick’ was peddled by government as the legitimate prevailing economic philosophy. KISS FM lost the plot rapidly and soon became no more than a money-making machine for a faceless multimedia corporation.

Right now, there remains as big a gap between pirate radio and the licensed radio broadcasters as existed twenty years ago or even forty years ago. London’s supposedly ‘black music’ stations, KISS FM and Choice FM, now sound too much of the time like parodies of what they could be. Whereas, pirate radio in London still sounds remarkably alive, unconventional and creative. More importantly, only the pirates play the ‘tunes’ that many of us like to hear.

The issue of how black music was ignored by legal radio in London, and then betrayed by newly licensed black music radio stations, is on my mind because of my new book ‘KISS FM: From Radical Radio To Big Business.’ It documents a small part of the history of black music pirate radio in London, and it charts the transformation of KISS FM from a rag tag group of black music fanatics into a corporate horror story. I was on the inside of that metamorphosis and it was an experience that, even twenty years later, remains a sad and terrible time to recall.

In 1974, Roger Tate had wanted more black music to be heard on the radio in London. Ostensibly, that objective has been achieved. But the black music I hear played on white-owned stations in London (there is no black-owned station) is a kind of vanilla K-Tel ‘black music’ that is inoffensive and unchallenging.

If Croydon is the dubstep capital of the world, how come there is no FM radio station playing dubstep in Croydon, or even in London? How come I never hear reggae on the radio when London is one of the world cities for reggae? How come I had to turn to speech station BBC Radio Four to hear anything about the death of Gil Scott-Heron in May? Why is that Jean Adebambo’s suicide went completely unremarked by radio two years ago?

Legitimate radio in London seems just as scared of contemporary cutting-edge black music as it was in the 1970s when Roger Tate was trying to fill the gaping hole with Radio Invicta. Nothing has really changed. Except now there exists the internet to fill that gaping hole. And FM pirate radio in London continues to satisfy demands from an audience that legitimate radio has demonstrated time and time again that it doesn’t give a shit about. Is it any surprise that young people are deserting broadcast radio?

Forty years ago, I listened to Roger Tate and London pirates like Radio Invicta because they played the music I wanted to hear. Forty years later, I find it absolutely ridiculous that I am still listening to a new generation of London pirates because they still play the music I want to hear. As Trevor Brook suggested at Roger’s funeral, our radio system is so consumed by “blandness and mediocrity” that “the industry is stale, complacent and rotten.”

Roger Tate R.I.P. You may be gone, but you and your campaign at Radio Invicta are as necessary as ever today. Sad but true.

Bauer Radio talks the DAB talk, but walks its ‘Magic’ brand off DAB

Bauer Radio is the second largest commercial radio group in the UK. It publicly supports the government’s plans for DAB radio switchover. Only this month, Paul Keenan, chief executive of Bauer Media, told The Guardian: “What part if any is the BBC going to play on the local DAB level?” He went on to ask:

“Will there be some form of seismic content innovation or intervention that really pulls listeners across [to DAB]?”

Keenan need have looked no further than his own company’s DAB radio strategy to discover a form of “seismic content intervention” that might well result in pushing existing listeners away from DAB, rather than pulling them in. While Keenan was talking to The Guardian, Bauer was busy pulling the plugs on its ‘Magic’ brand from the DAB platform in the following areas:
* Aberdeen
* Ayr
* Birmingham
* Bradford & Huddersfield
* Cambridge
* Dundee & Perth
* Edinburgh
* Glasgow
* Kent
* Northern Ireland
* Norwich
* Peterborough
* Stoke
* Sussex Coast
* Swansea.

If you were a loyal listener to Magic in one of these areas, your favourite station simply disappeared from the DAB menu in January 2011 (Magic had 1 million out-of-analogue-area listeners per week, contributing 24% of the brand’s total hours listened, according to RAJAR). This change is surprising given that, as recently as May 2008, Bauer Radio decided to add its Magic brand to the DAB platform in the following areas:
* Aberdeen
* Ayr
* Birmingham
* Bradford & Huddersfield
* Cambridge
* Dundee & Perth
* Edinburgh
* Glasgow
* Kent
* Northern Ireland
* Norwich
* Peterborough
* Stoke
* Sussex Coast
* Swansea.

In 2008, in most of these areas, Magic had replaced another Bauer brand, ‘Kiss’, which could not have pleased existing Kiss listeners. Now, in 2011, it is the Kiss brand that is replacing the Magic brand in all but three of these areas. Musical chairs, anyone?

In 2009, Bauer had said that it was investing in the “right long-term platforms for the right stations at the right time.” So, in 2008, Kiss was right for DAB whereas, in 2011, now Magic is right?

It is hard to believe that such precipitous content changes inspire consumer confidence in the DAB platform. But, sadly, the DAB platform has never really been about ‘radio’ and ‘listeners’. Loyalty to DAB radio? What’s that? For commercial radio, its pursuit of the DAB platform had been about the exercise of power, the expectation of profit and the promise of automatic renewals for the industry’s most valuable analogue radio licences.

It was also about a much coveted transfer of the power to determine which stations are broadcast to a cartel of commercial DAB multiplex owners, and away from the regulator. This is why station changes on DAB, such as Bauer’s (Kiss to Magic to Kiss) can be executed without a public consultation or impact assessment.* The regulator merely nods its head and makes a quick note in a file. So what role does Ofcom play in ensuring that the DAB radio platform “furthers the interests of citizens and of consumers” as mandated by law? The answer is: absolutely none. We might as well have a scarecrow in charge of digital radio at Ofcom.

The reason that Bauer Radio (with a 25% listening share of commercial radio) made these latest changes to DAB is that it is locked in a war with arch rival Global Radio (38%). Neither company has a track record of developing its own successful radio stations from the ground up. Both companies are piled high with acquisitions and mergers of other radio businesses. As a result, the two compete with each other by moving their radio pieces around the chess board, rather than by innovation.

In January 2011, Global Radio extended its ‘Capital’ brand outside London, replacing the former ‘Galaxy’ brand and some local FM stations. Global describes the brand:

“Capital’s target audience of 15-34 year olds are big fans of popular music, they are media savvy and are on trend.”

To compete, Bauer Radio extended its Kiss brand to every available local DAB multiplex (replacing Magic). Bauer describes the brand:

“Kiss evolves around ever changing lifestyles and trends of the UK’s young 15-34 market … Every part of their day revolves around music.”

If, like me, you think that these two brands sound almost identical, understand that this phenomenon is the outcome of long understood business practice in the radio sector. In 1951, American economist Peter Steiner wrote:

“If, as is often suspected, [radio] broadcasters exaggerate the homogeneity of audiences and their preferences for certain program stereotypes, the tendencies towards [programme] duplication will be increased. … The problem, of course, is that a series of competing firms, each striving to maximize its number of listeners, will fail to achieve either the industry or the social good. Here, then, competition is providing a less than desirable result.”

In the UK, this is precisely why we have a regulator for radio broadcasting – to ensure that consumers benefit from a wider choice of content than a free market would provide. However, with its hands tied in DAB policy by the Broadcasting Act 1996, and its laissez-faire ‘do nothing until someone complains about it’ strategy, Ofcom has had no more impact on the DAB station menu than having no regulator at all.

DAB is the Wild West of radio where anything can, and often does, happen. Seemingly, it often happens with little concern for listeners or for those who paid good money for a DAB receiver. Without a sheriff in sight, or a cavalry about to ride over the horizon, the danger is that the public might come to view DAB radio as nothing more than a bunch of cowboys locked in a private war of one-upmanship.

Yet the radio industry wonders why the DAB platform is not stimulating more listening or more receiver sales.

[*Footnote: There was an Ofcom consultation in November 2010 about a change of format for the Kiss brand, but this did not touch upon Magic being dropped from DAB. Magic continues to be simulcast on DAB in nine areas where it is already available on FM or AM, as a contractual condition of its automatic analogue licence renewals.]

Ofra Haza: the making of world music’s first international star

In January 1985, I had arrived in Israel to work as a DJ on a radio station, but this was no ordinary radio. The studios of ‘The Voice of Peace’ were on a ship anchored permanently in the Mediterranean Sea.

Aware of my interest in cutting edge music, the station’s popular breakfast DJ Dave Asher (who had been living in Israel for some time) played me a recent 12-inch single by a young Israeli singer of Yemeni origin named Ofra Haza. It was a traditional Yemeni song, re-mixed and cut up into a state-of-the-art club tune that sounded to me like a new, exciting ‘Middle East meets West’ genre. I wanted to find out more, but the terrible winter storms and shortage of staff meant that I was stuck working on the ship for the next three months.

Eventually, during my first shore leave, I visited the Tel Aviv office of the small independent record company, Hed Arzi, that had produced the Ofra Haza single. They were baffled that a British DJ would be so interested in one of their worst selling record releases, and particularly one that seemed to have such minimal mainstream potential. They humoured me and let me sit at a desk in their office, penning handwritten letters to radio DJs and record labels that I knew back in the UK, sent by airmail along with the single and related album ‘Yemenite Songs’.

Within a month, I had received replies from John Peel at Radio One and Charlie Gillett at Capital Radio, both saying that they had played Ofra’s record on their shows and had received enquiries asking where the record could be purchased. During my next shore leave, I returned to Hed Arzi, whose staff were amazed that their song had been played on national radio in the UK. They introduced me to Ofra and her manager for the first time. I wrote again to several UK record companies and one of them, Globestyle, was convinced sufficiently by the airplay to release both the single and the album.

I returned to the UK at the end of 1985 and spent the next two years trying to convince everyone I knew of Ofra’s talent. By 1987, I had given away so many copies of her records to music industry people that the UK record company said I would be given one last free box. By chance, I had recently been invited to attend a monthly staff meeting of London pirate station Kiss FM (at the London School of Economics) and, as a last resort, I distributed copies of Ofra’s records from this last box to some of the station’s DJs.

Kiss FM DJs Jonathan More and Matt Black, recording together as ‘Coldcut’, had already enjoyed underground success with some highly original cut-up singles on their Ahead Of Our Time label. They liked the Ofra Haza songs so much that they cut up one of them into their homemade remix of US rappers Eric B & Rakim’s latest single ‘Paid In Full’. Island Records in the UK released this remix without seeking Eric B’s prior approval, and without clearing the Ofra Haza sample. By the end of 1987, the single had reached number 15 in the chart, giving Eric B his first British hit and earning significant royalties for the Israeli record company because a third of the track featured Ofra’s voice.

More than anything, the chart success of that Eric B remix stimulated huge public interest in Ofra Haza’s voice beyond the narrow market for ‘world music’ (which had just been marketed as a new genre). In early 1988, I organised interviews for a promotional visit to the UK, shepherding Ofra Haza and her manager to Radio 1, the World Service and commercial radio stations. The UK record company re-issued Ofra’s ‘Im Nin Alu’ single, which quickly garnered radio airplay this time, despite it being sung in a strange, foreign language. However, the public demand for the single was so great that the independent label had difficulty fulfilling orders, so it licensed the track to Warner Brothers. After an initial meeting with the major label, my direct involvement with Ofra Haza ended abruptly, just as she was invited back to the UK to perform on ‘Top Of The Pops.’

After the success of this single internationally, the Israeli record label invited me to London’s Sarm Studios, where the follow-up single was being mixed. It was evident that none of the Warner Brothers personnel involved had any understanding of the unique charm of Ofra’s Yemeni music in the international marketplace. Ofra’s manager was far too keen to turn her into a mainstream pop singer, which is exactly how the public perceived her in Israel. As a result, the follow-up single bombed and, sadly, it seemed as if Ofra was consigned to be a one-hit wonder as a result of poor career guidance.

In 2000, I was shocked to learn of Ofra’s death at the age of 42 from AIDS-related organ failure. Two years later, an Israeli television film crew came to London and filmed an interview about my role in creating their country’s most successful international pop star. They had just filmed a similar interview with John Peel at his home, during which he impressed them by producing the handwritten letter that had accompanied the Ofra records I had initially sent him from Israel seventeen years earlier. The interviewer asked me if I had made a fortune from ‘discovering’ Ofra Haza for the international market. All I had received was one cheque for £200 from the UK record company in 1988 to reimburse my expenses for Ofra’s first London promotional visit.

Ofra’s incredible voice lives on through the music she recorded, although I am always reminded of the parts of her life that had been unbelievably tragic. The crucial roles of the late John Peel and Charlie Gillett in her international success should not be forgotten. Ofra Haza’s music arrived in the Western world at a time when the public welcomed sounds that challenged their expectations. We are musically much the poorer for the loss of Ofra, and of John and Charlie, from our world.

‘The Israeli Madonna’
Thursday 30 December 2010
11.30am-12.00noon
BBC Radio 4