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.

Choice FM R.I.P.: the birth and near death of licensed black music radio in London

31 March 1990 was the memorable day when London‘s first licensed black music station, Choice 96.9 FM, arrived on-air. Until then, the availability of black music on legal radio had been limited to a handful of specialist music shows, even though about half of the singles sales chart was filled with black music. The decision by then regulator the Independent Broadcasting Authority [IBA] to license a London black music station was part of a huge government ‘carrot and stick’ campaign to rid the country of pirate radio. On the one hand, new draconian laws had been introduced that made it a criminal offence even to wear a pirate radio T-shirt or display a pirate radio car sticker. On the other hand, the establishment knew that some kind of olive branch had to be offered to the pirate stations and their large, loyal listenership.

Many pirate stations, having voluntarily closed down in the hope of becoming legitimate, were incensed when the IBA instead selected Choice FM for the new South London FM license. Its backers had no previous experience in the London pirate radio business, but had previously published ‘Root’ magazine for the black community in the 1970s. Although it was impossible for one station to fill the gap left by the many pirates, Choice FM tried very hard to create a format that combined soul and reggae music with news for South London’s black community, which was precisely what its licence required. The station attracted a growing listenership and it brought a significant new audience to commercial radio that had hitherto been ignored by established stations. With Choice FM, the regulator succeeded in fulfilling two aspects of public broadcasting policy: widening the choice of stations available to the public; and filling gaps in the market for content that only pirate radio had supplied until then.

In 2000, Choice FM won a further licence to cover North London with an additional transmitter. For the first time, the station was now properly audible across the whole capital and had access to more listeners and more potential advertising revenues. Its listening doubled and, at its peak in 2006, Choice FM achieved a 2.8% share, placing it ahead of TalkSport and BBC London in the capital. Choice FM had no direct competitor in London, although indirectly some of its music had always overlapped Kiss FM. The station’s future looked rosy.

However, the Choice FM shareholders must have realised just how much their little South London station was worth, at a time when commercial radio licences were being acquired at inflated prices. Already, in 1995, Choice FM shareholders had won a second licence in Birmingham, but had then sold the station in 1998 for £6m to the Chrysalis Radio group, who turned it into another local outlet for its network dance music station Galaxy FM. At a stroke, the black community in Birmingham had lost a station that the regulator had awarded to serve them. Black radio in Birmingham was dead. The die was cast.

The then regulator, the Radio Authority, had rubber-stamped this acquisition, stating that it would not operate against the public interest. The Authority requested some token assurances: at least one Afro-Caribbean member on the station’s board; an academy for training young people, especially from the black community, in radio skills; and market research about the impact of the format change on the black community. None of these made any difference to what came out the loudspeaker. Birmingham’s black community was sold down the river.

Changes in UK media ownership rules were on the horizon that would soon allow commercial radio groups to own many more stations within a local market. As a result, in 2001, the UK’s then largest radio group, Capital Radio plc, acquired 19% of Choice FM’s London station for £3.3m with an option to acquire the rest. In 2003, it bought the remaining 81% for £11.7m in shares, valuing the London station at £14.4m. The Choice FM shareholders had cashed in their chips over a five-year period and had generated £21m from three radio licences. What would happen to Choice FM London now?

Graham Bryce, managing director of Capital Radio’s London rock station Xfm (which Capital had acquired in 1998 for £12.6m), said then:

“Our vision is to build Choice into London’s leading urban music station, becoming the number one choice for young urban Londoners. Longer term, we intend to fully exploit the use of digital technology to build Choice nationally into the UK’s leading urban music station and the number one urban music brand.”

Capital Radio and subsequent owners seemed to want to turn Choice FM into a station that competed directly with Kiss FM (owned by rival EMAP). But they never seemed to understand that Kiss FM was now a ‘dance/pop’ station, whereas Choice FM had always been firmly rooted in the black music tradition of soul, reggae and R&B. Such semantics seemed to be lost on Choice FM’s new owners and on the regulator, but certainly not on Choice FM’s listeners, who had no interest in Kylie Minogue songs.

In 2004, Capital Radio moved Choice FM out of its South London base and into its London headquarters in Leicester Square. The station’s final link with the black community of South London it had been licensed to serve was discarded. In 2005, Capital Radio merged with another radio group, GWR plc, to form GCap Media plc. In March 2008, Global Radio bought GCap Media for £375m. In July 2008, Choice FM managing director Ivor Etienne was suddenly made redundant. One of the station’s former founder shareholders commented:

“I’m disappointed that the new management decided to relieve Ivor Etienne so quickly. My concern is that I hope they will be able to keep the station to serve the community that it was originally licensed for.”

However, from this point forwards, it was obvious that new owner Global Radio had no interest in developing Choice FM as one of its key radio brands. In the most recent quarter, the station’s share of listening fell to an all-time low of 1.1% (since its audience has been measured Londonwide). Sadly, the station is now a shadow of its former self, even though it holds the only black music commercial radio licence in London (BBC digital black music station 1Xtra has failed to dent the London market, with only a 0.3% share).

This week, news emerged from Choice FM that its reggae programmes, which have been broadcast during weekday evenings since the station opened, will be rescheduled to the middle of the night (literally). One of the UK’s foremost reggae DJs, Daddy Ernie, who has presented on Choice FM since its first day, will be relegated to the graveyard hours when nobody is listening. From 2003, after the Capital Radio takeover, reggae songs have been banished from the 0700 to 1900 daytime shows on Choice FM. Now the specialist shows will be removed from evenings, despite London being a world centre for reggae and having more reggae music shops than Jamaica.

Station owner Global Radio responded to criticism of these changes in The Voice newspaper: “Choice [FM] has introduced a summer schedule which sees various changes to the station including the movement of some of our specialist shows.”

Once again, the regulator will roll over obligingly and rubber-stamp these changes. For Global Radio, the endgame must be to transform the standalone Choice FM station into a London outlet for its Galaxy FM network. At present, London-based advertisers and agencies can only listen to Galaxy on DAB or via the internet. A London Galaxy station on FM would bring in more revenue for the brand as a result of more listening hours and its higher profile in the advertising community. It would also provide a direct competitor to Kiss FM London (ironic, because Galaxy FM had been launched in 1990 by an established commercial radio group as an out-of-London imitation of successful, London-only Kiss FM). Global Radio’s argument to persuade the regulator will probably be that Choice FM’s audience has fallen to uneconomic levels. And whose fault was that?

Already, Global Radio’s website tells us that “Choice FM is also included as part of the Galaxy network” which “consists of evolving mainstream music supported by entertaining and relatable presenters.” And yet, according to Ofcom, Choice FM’s licence is still for “a targeted music, news and information service primarily for listeners of African and Afro-Caribbean origin in the Brixton area but with cross-over appeal to other listeners who appreciate urban contemporary black music.” How can both these assertions be true of a single station?

For the black community in London, and for fans of black music, this will be the final straw. Just as happened in Birmingham, the new owner and the regulator will have collectively sold Choice FM’s listeners down the river. Another station that used to broadcast unique content for a unique audience will have been wilfully destroyed in order to make it almost the same as an existing station, playing almost the same content. We have many commercial radio stations, but less and less diversity in the music they play. Radio regulation has failed us.

For Choice FM, the writing was on the wall in 2003 when Capital Radio bought the station and one (unidentified) former DJ commented:

“Choice [FM] was there for a reason [to be a black music station for black people], but that reason changed [since] 13 years ago. That’s why you’ve got over 30 pirate stations in London. If Choice FM kept to the reason why they started, you wouldn’t need all them stations. But Choice has become a commercial marketplace. They’ve sold the station out and they should just say they’ve sold the station out. What’s wrong with that? They have sold the station that was set up for the black community and they know they’ve done the black community wrong. But they’ve made some money and they’ve sold it. Why not let your listeners know?”

For me personally, as a black music fan and having listened to Daddy Ernie for twenty years, I am much saddened. In the 1970s and 80s, I had found little on the radio that interested me musically, so I listened to pirate stations and my own records. During those two decades, I actively campaigned for a wider range of radio stations to be licensed in the UK and, by the 1990s, I had played a direct role in making that expansion of new radio services happen successfully. Where did it get us? Now, years later, I have gone back to listening mostly to pirate radio and my own records (and internet radio). I am sure I am not the only one.

The radio industry and the regulator seem not to understand one important reason why radio listening and revenues have been declining for most of the last decade. They need to examine how, through their decisions, they have consistently sold down the river their station audiences and the very citizens whom their radio licenses were specifically meant to serve. Listeners vote with their ‘off’ buttons when station owners renege on their licence promises and the regulator lets them. Choice FM is sadly just one example.

In 2006, a lone enlightened Ofcom officer, Robert Thelen-Bartholomew, had asked at a radio conference:

“Is there room to bring the content of illegal stations into the fold? One way or another, whether we like it or not, we have a large population out there listening to illegal radio. Why do they listen? We are trying to find out. But, if you listen to the stations, they are producing slightly different content and output [from licensed stations]. Some of it is very high quality. Some of it is very interesting. So, what options are there for bringing some of that content into mainstream radio?”

Seemingly, none. The last FM commercial radio licence the regulator offered in London was more than a decade ago. Last year, when two small South London FM stations (one licensed for a black music format) were closed by their owner, the regulator unilaterally decided not to re-advertise their commercial radio licences (see the story here). A pirate radio station has not been awarded a commercial radio licence by the regulator for two decades.

Why do pirate radio stations still exist? Because, just as in the 1970s and 1980s, there are huge gaps in the market for radio content that – in spite of BBC radio, commercial radio and their regulators – remain unfilled. It is no coincidence that the share of listening to ‘other’ radio stations (i.e. not BBC radio and not commercial radio) in London is near its all-time high at 3.1%.

Farewell, Choice FM. I knew you well for twenty years.

And, irony of ironies, we are in Black Music Month.

[thanks to Sharleen Anderson]