13 August 2023

One small step for radio, one giant leap for black music radio in London : 1990 : KISS 100 FM launch day

 The final few days before KISS FM’s official launch were a blur of frenetic activity and outright panic. It was only at this late date that construction of the three studios was completed by the contractors. Now, at last, they were ready for the engineers from the Independent Broadcasting Authority [IBA] to test and inspect. Much to my relief, their report required only a few minor alterations to the air conditioning system, after which the IBA issued KISS FM with a certificate of technical competence. I affixed it to my office wall, alongside the poster of Betty Boo [I had pinned as my memento of DJ Tim Westwood’s ‘reason’ for reneging last-minute on his scheduled daily daytime show].

With only days to go, I held two long, evening meetings with all the part-time DJs to explain what they could and could not do legally on-air. As former pirate DJs, they were unfamiliar with the conventions of libel, slander and other legal niceties which legitimate radio DJs have to learn. It was important for me to emphasise how essential it was for KISS FM to protect itself against prosecution or rebuke by the commercial radio regulator, the IBA. I went through their employment contracts, page by page, explaining what the jargon meant and what implications the clauses had for their radio shows. Also, I had to stress the importance of playing the right advertisements at the right time. This was a contractual requirement that had been relatively relaxed on pirate stations.

The night before the station’s launch, I was still busy putting the finishing touches to the inside of the studio until the early hours of the morning. Although two on-air studios had been built, there was only time to bring one of them up to scratch with all the accessories required for live broadcasts. With only hours to go, the engineers and I were frantically drilling holes in the studio walls to hang the storage racks for audio cartridges used to play advertisements, as well as wiring up the studio lights on the ceiling. I handwrote several large posters in thick felt pen to remind the presenters of the station’s address, its phone number for requests, and what to say about the station’s launch. Then, I had to spend several hours making labels with a Dymo and sticking them onto each piece of equipment in the studio for the presenters to know precisely which button performed which task. Finally, when everything was ready, I drove home and collapsed into bed.

The next morning, Saturday 1 September 1990, was the biggest day of our lives. Some weeks earlier, [managing director] Gordon McNamee had hung a handwritten sign on his office wall that read “X DAYS TO GO” with the number being changed daily. That number was now down to zero and the sign had finally become redundant. The day had arrived at last, whether we were ready for it or not. McNamee and I met at the station in the morning and locked ourselves away inside the production studio. McNamee wanted to perform a countdown to the station’s launch at midday but, in order to ensure that it went perfectly smoothly, he wanted to pre-record it. I set the timer on my digital wristwatch to five minutes and recorded McNamee’s voice, counting down at one-minute intervals from five minutes to one minute, and then counting down the seconds during the final minute until the alarm sounded. It took two attempts to get it right.

After that, we moved to the main on-air studio, taking the tape of the countdown with us. We had decided not to allow anyone other than essential station personnel into the studio for the launch. It was not a big enough room to comfortably accommodate more than a few people, and the presence of journalists would only have made us even more nervous. McNamee had arranged for Mentorn Films, which was making the television documentary about the station, to erect a tripod camera in the corner of the studio to record the whole event. A video link had also been booked to relay the picture live to a large screen in Dingwalls nightclub, where the official KISS FM launch party was being held that day.

With all the tension that surrounded that historic day, we quickly forgot that we were being watched by a video camera from the corner of the room. I spooled McNamee’s countdown recording onto a tape machine and started it at precisely five minutes to midday. McNamee’s countdown was now automatically being superimposed over the music from the test transmission VHS cassette that had been playing continuously for the last ten days. Over the beats of the Kid Frost hip hop track ‘La Raza,’ McNamee’s voice coolly counted down the minutes. At the one-minute point, McNamee counted “59, 58, 57, 56....” and I slowly faded out the music to increase the suspense of the moment. Accompanied by the pre-recorded sound of my digital watch alarm, McNamee said the magic words “twelve o’clock.”

I turned up the microphone in the studio for McNamee to make KISS FM’s live opening speech:

“This is Gordon Mac. There are no words to express the way I feel at this moment. So, with your permission, I’d just like to get something out of my system. Altogether – we’re on air – hooray!”

Everyone in the studio joined in a loud cheer, before McNamee continued:

“Welcome, London. Do you realise it’s taken us fifty-nine months, four hundred and sixty-five thousand, seven hundred and twenty working hours, plus three and a half million pounds, as well as all of your support over the last five years, to reach this moment? As from today, London and everywhere around the M25, within and without, will have their own twenty-four-hour dance music radio station. I’m talking to you from our new studios in KISS House, which is completely different from the dodgy old studios we used to have in the past [laughter in the studio]. The odds were against us. None of the establishment fancied our chances but, with the force of public opinion and our determination, the authorities had to sit up and listen and take notice. Today, I’m being helped by Rufaro Hove, the winner of ‘The Evening Standard’ KISS 100 FM competition. Rufaro was chosen from thousands of people who entered and she will press the button for the first record. But before that, the first jingle.”

McNamee pushed the cartridge button to play a lo-fi jingle from KISS FM’s pirate days. The sound of a telephone answering machine tone was followed by McNamee’s personal assistant, Rosee Laurence, saying:

“It’s me again. I forgot to say – hooray, we’re on. Bye-bye.”

The jingle ended with the sound of a phone being put down. McNamee continued:

“There we go, Rufaro, now you can press the first one. Go!”

The first record played on the new KISS FM was the reggae song ‘Pirates’ Anthem’ by Home T, Cocoa Tea & Shabba Ranks. The song was a tribute to London’s pirate radio stations. The rallying call of the chorus was:

“Them a call us pirates

Them a call us illegal broadcasters

Just because we play what the people want

DTI tries [to] stop us, but they can’t"

One of the song’s verses narrated the story of pirate radio in the UK:

"Down in England we’ve got lots of radio stations

Playing the peoples’ music night and day

Reggae, calypso, hip hop or disco

The latest sound today is what we play........

They’re passing laws. They’re planning legislation

Trying their best to keep the music down

DTI, why don’t you leave us alone?

We only play the music others want”

These lyrics were the perfect choice for the station’s first record. KISS FM’s pirate history may have been behind it now, but the station had proven that pirate broadcasting had been necessary to open up the British airwaves to new musical sounds and fresh ideas for the 1990s. ‘Pirates’ Anthem’ was followed by the personal choice of the Evening Standard competition winner, ‘Facts of Life’ by Danny Madden. In the studio, the atmosphere was electric. It was difficult to believe that the few of us crowded into that little room were making broadcasting history. This was the creation of the dream that some of us thought we might never witness – a legal black music radio station in London, at last. It was difficult to believe we were really on the air.

Next, McNamee thanked “all the original disc jockeys, all the backers, all the new staff and last, but not by any means least, all of the listeners that have supported us over the five years.”

He introduced the record that he had adopted as KISS FM’s theme tune – ‘Our Day Will Come’ by Fontella Bass. The station’s first advertisement followed, booked by the Rhythm King record label to publicise its latest releases. Soon, McNamee’s stint as the station’s first DJ came to an end and his place was taken by Norman Jay, whose croaky voice betrayed the emotion of the day. Jay told listeners over his instrumental ‘Windy City’ theme tune:

“After nearly two very long years, all the good times, all the bad times we shared on radio ... Thanks to all of you. Without your help, this day could not have been possible. On a cold and wet October day in 1985, KISS FM was born. Gordon Mac, George Power and a long-time friend of mine, Tosca, got together to put together a station which meant so much to so many. And thanks to those guys, Norman Jay is now on-air.”

Once Jay was on the air, McNamee said farewell to the rest of us in the studio and left to attend the station’s official launch party at Dingwalls. We stayed in the studio, still thrilled to be part of the celebration of that historic moment and enjoying the music that Jay played. Throughout the rest of the weekend, each KISS FM DJ presented their first show on the newly legal station. Many of them reminisced about the pirate days of KISS FM and played music from that era, when they had last graced the airwaves of London. To the majority of the station’s audience, who might never have heard of KISS FM until now, the weekend’s broadcasts must have sounded rather indulgent. Far from most of the records played that weekend reflecting the cutting edge of new dance music that the new KISS FM had promised, the songs mostly reeked of nostalgia and the station’s former glory days as a pirate station. This brief moment of indulgence was a healing process that was necessary for the station’s staff.

I remained in the studio the rest of the day, helping the DJs to grapple with the unfamiliar equipment and showing them the new systems with which they had to contend. Despite the intensive training they had been given in the last ten days, it had been twenty months since any of them had spoken a word on the radio, let alone presented a professional show. Nearly all the DJs looked incredibly nervous, and several seemed gripped with terror at the prospect of having to present a show from a fully equipped radio studio for the first time in their lives. I stayed there until the early hours of Sunday morning, with only an occasional break for a takeaway pizza.

Everybody involved in KISS FM, apart from the small group of us left in the studio – the DJ on the air, me, [head of talks] Lyn Champion and programme assistants Colin Faver and Hannah Brack – were at Dingwalls, enjoying the party celebrations. It felt strange, during the station’s first day on-air, that the rest of the huge KISS FM building was entirely empty. In the evening, the only lights visible from outside were in the tiny studio on the first floor. By two o’clock in the morning, I was absolutely exhausted. It had been an incredibly exciting day and everything had run much more smoothly than I had expected. I drove home, having left Champion and Brack to ‘babysit’ the studio overnight to ensure that the rest of the presenters could cope with the equipment.

[Excerpt from ‘KISS FM: From Radical Radio To Big Business: The Inside Story Of A London Pirate Radio Station’s Path To Success’ by Grant Goddard, Radio Books, 2011, 528 pages]

No comments:

Post a Comment