22 May 2024

The genesis of black music radio in London ... still unfulfilled : 1970-1984 : Radio Invicta 92.4

 I only knew 'Roger Tate' (real name Bob Tomalski) 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 forty-seven, 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 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 longwinded 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' [regulator], 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 DJ’s 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 it 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 1970’s 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.

[First published by Grant Goddard: Radio Blog as 'Radio Invicta: The Genesis Of Black Music Radio In London … Still Unfulfilled', 1 July 2011. Available as download.]

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