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How a failed Thatcher experiment in community radio helped create Kiss FM

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In an exclusive extract from his new book Party Lines: Dance Music and the Making of Modern Britain, Ed Gillett resurfaces a failed Thatcherite experiment in community radio and, with the help of Kiss FM co-founder Gordon McNamee, shows how it helped the station become the dominant pirate of the 80s and a future mainstay of UK radio. Through this and countless other examples in Party Lines, Gillet affirms dance music's role in the building of modern Britain and how important it still remains as an overtly political act. 

 

The MC’s voice swirls up from the past, through a fog of radio static, tape hiss and YouTube compression: ‘382a Lea Bridge Road, Leyton E10. Kiss FM going live, the Christmas ’86 warehouse party. Get on down here if you can, we’re gonna be rocking, shocking and everything else until 7 a.m.’ Even at nearly forty years’ remove and with only low-fidelity audio to go on, recorded off the radio onto cassette before being uploaded, you still get an unmistakeable sense of the party itself: a gloomy, low-ceilinged post-industrial space, in a corner of East London decades away from anything even approaching gentrification, knots of soul boys, rockers and hip-hop heads shuffling in the gloom. Things sound ramshackle, maybe even a little unsure of themselves, but bracingly full of the minutiae of life. At one point the MC refers to the DJ "trying to get the people moving and grooving", as if tacitly admitting that they still need a bit of encouragement. "If Lyndon C’s around would he please reach," says the MC of one of Kiss’s then-resident DJs, "there’s a little question of some money you owe me."

As UK dance music evolved from niche hipster interest to mass-market youth culture in the late 1980s, so the nature of the crowds it brought together, and the means by which it did so, shifted. As acid house and rave took over the pirate radio airwaves, they ceased to be cultures defined by people dancing in the same physical space; dance floors could now be geographically diffuse, made up of a community tuning into each other from afar rather than sharing a specific physical location. For many of its listeners, pirate radio provided all of the same cultural connections (and several of the social ones) as the rave itself, forming a crowd as potent and unified as any that gathered in person, without them ever necessarily stepping foot in the same room as each other.

"I was DJing on this station called JFM," recalls Kiss founder Gordon McNamee of the latter’s creation in October 1985. ‘JFM closed up because they was going for a community radio licence, and the guy that ran it said to me 'Gordon, if you get a chance to go elsewhere, go there, because you don’t speak well enough to come back on the station if we get a licence.' I thought, fuckin’ hell, I’ve just done three years for you." McNamee combines a laid-back ease with a sense of steeliness: with several other pirates also shutting down in 1985 to apply for legal licences, he flipped the potential setback of being dumped by JFM into an opportunity. "Everybody went off air: Solar, Horizon, JFM, LWR for a bit, there was no pirates on. And I thought, well, I’m not gonna get a fuckin’ job when they come back on anyway. So George Power said to me, let’s start a pirate up."

Music had been in McNamee’s blood from the very beginning, when his parents started throwing blues dances in their flat above a shop in Anerley, near Croydon. "My stepdad had propped up all the floors with bricks, and him and a local soundsystem guy was running a shebeen there every Friday and Saturday night. There was just this one light in the middle of room, with a red and green lens on it, going slowly round and round. It was the first time I’d ever seen a soundsystem." By the time he was in his teens, nothing else mattered. "I was into reggae because my cousin Mandy used to go out with one of the top skinheads up at Chelsea, when skinheads weren’t National Front or anything...she introduced me to discos at Butlin’s and stuff like that, and once I’d been to disco, that was it...I wanted to be a disc jockey." Having done his time in the reggae and soul clubs of South London and at more established soul pirates like JFM, starting Kiss felt like a natural progression, even if the decision itself was sudden. Seizing the airwaves at the precise moment they’d been cleared of any potential competition, Kiss cleaned up; by January of 1987 they were voted the second most popular radio station in London – encompassing both pirate and legal outlets – beating Radio 1 to a spot, just behind Capital FM.

The seeds for Kiss’s creation had been sown several years earlier, not just with McNamee’s life story but wider political and economic forces. Just as the ability of bedroom producers to churn out acid tracks had been catalysed by the mass affordability of drum machines, samplers and synths, the arrival of small-scale FM transmitters on the semi-professional and hobbyist market at the beginning of the 1980s sparked an explosion in pirate radio activity. For an earlier generation, broadcasting from boats anchored in international waters (and thus outside the UK’s archaic and restrictive radio licensing regime) had been laborious and occasionally life-threatening: in 1980 the MV Mi Amigo, home to one of the original rock music pirates Radio Caroline, sank during a Force 10 storm; pop-pickin’ DJs Stevie Gordon and Tom Anderson signed off in unsettlingly upbeat Smashie and Nicey fashion, before hopping from the studio directly into a lifeboat. But as cheaper and more portable transmitters hit the market, those financial and logistical barriers dissolved; within a few years a new generation of land-based stations playing reggae, dub, soul, jazz, funk, hip hop and electro had taken over. At the time, radio listeners had an almost comically limited set of legal options: four BBC stations and one local independent broadcaster, or two (LBC and Capital FM) in London. Music and editorial policy across all of these was overwhelmingly staid and almost exclusively white, leaving vast sections of the UK population ignored and silenced: a void filled by illegal broadcasters of every conceivable perspective and background.

Within the inner circles of Margaret Thatcher’s government, this outbreak of grassroots community spirit was the trigger for vicious factional squabbling. On one side of the argument were free-market Tories who saw the wholesale flouting of the UK’s radio regulations as merely a symptom of unmet demand, and one that justified the liberalization of Britain’s airwaves. Set against them were the Tories’ nativist and authoritarian wing, locked in a fight for survival once again with ‘the enemy within’ and highly resistant to the idea of Black, Asian and working-class communities being allowed to speak for themselves.

In July 1985, the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, outlined the details of a "community radio experiment" originally promised by the government in 1984: twenty stations serving small local neighbourhoods or more geographically diffuse ‘communities of interest’ would be granted two-year licences, on the condition that they stopped broadcasting illegally while the decision-making process was undertaken. A dizzying 266 stations applied, 180 of them in London (including JFM, leading to their firing of Gordon McNamee), each hoping to get on-air legally by early 1986.

A Cabinet reshuffle in the summer of 1985 saw Brittan replaced by Douglas Hurd, whose quibbles over licensing terms served to repeatedly delay the process. It was only in June 1986 that Hurd signed off on the list of successful applicants put forward by an independent advisory panel: a national patchwork of primarily talk-based stations (as opposed to the less contentious music-led stations Brittan had originally envisaged) serving marginalized communities, from the Afro-Caribbean Community Radio Project in London and Sunset Radio in Manchester, to Radio Gogarth in Wales, the Shetland Island Company Limited, and Cornish Waves Radio.

The response from Hurd’s Cabinet colleagues to the proposed list of new broadcasters – who under the draft licence terms would be given substantial leeway to broadcast whatever they wanted – was apoplectic. "Some of the chosen stations were judged to be politically 'sensitive' (seemingly the ones with local authority grants)", wrote the pirate radio magazine TX, "and it seems that the Conservatives were worried that stations with a left-wing bias, however slight, might damage their chances at the next election." Welsh Minister Nicholas Edwards sent a scorching letter to Hurd: "To say that [the selected applicants] pose political problems is to seriously understate the hazards ahead." A meeting of ‘H’ committee – a sub-group of Cabinet ministers with interests in domestic policy – was arranged, at which Hurd was ambushed by Edwards, Malcolm Rifkind, Norman Tebbit and half a dozen others.

"To the Home Secretary’s displeasure," a subsequent briefing to Thatcher reads, "his proposal to continue with the community radio experiment for a further 2 years was rejected." Community radio was, in the majority’s view, "not a financially viable business, and consequently it needed subsidy and support from organisations that had a vested interest in putting out propaganda, such as local authorities, trade unions, and pressure groups...Community radio was not a matter of normal free speech." The entire plan for community radio was scrapped, with Hurd forced to make a grovelling written statement to the Commons, which disingenuously blamed a lack of regulatory oversight and unsatisfactory licensing conditions, before announcing that "the Government have therefore decided to give up the idea of an immediate experiment in community radio." Pirate stations like JFM who’d come off the air in good faith over a year earlier, submitting extensive business plans and detailed cultural justifications for their applications, ended up with nothing to show for it but vague promises that the question would be revisited in an upcoming Green Paper.

For better or worse, Kiss owed everything that came after to this repressive knee-jerk from the inner members of Thatcher’s Cabinet. When Hurd announced that all 266 community radio applicants had been taken for a ride, several returned to pirate activity only to discover that Kiss had stolen a march on them in the year they’d been off-air, building an audience estimated to have peaked at half a million listeners.

"We came on, we had an amazing run for the first eight weeks," says McNamee of his exploits with Kiss co-founder Tosca Jackson. "We didn’t get taken off air once, because me and Tosca put the transmitter on top of this rickety old roof in Carshalton, and no one could get it down. The fire brigade had to get one of those turnstile ladders and block off the whole road. So we had a non-stop run of eight weeks, which just boosted us into the stratosphere." In addition to annexing the frequency dial in the absence of their competition, Kiss also moved to pick off the cream of the capital’s DJing talent. "Tosca had a great ear, he could pick a good DJ, y’know? So he went up to Trevor Nelson and said 'You’ve got to be on the radio', went up to Norman Jay...between the pair of us we had a really good team of DJs."

As the first flickers of pre-Ecstasy house began to filter through to the UK club scene (Kiss’s 1986 Christmas broadcast features Adonis’s ‘No Way Back’ mixed in with the prevailing sounds of soul, funk and electro) their edge over the pirate competition only sharpened. Danny Rampling, soon to launch Shoom, was already a resident on the station by the time he took his infamous trip to Ibiza in the summer of 1987, while Kiss’s first rickety antenna had been hoisted in Carshalton opposite fellow station regular and ‘Ibiza Four’ member Nicky Holloway’s flat.

When acid house and rave began to take over UK popular culture in 1988, pirate radio – with Kiss as arguably its most visible proponent – formed a critical part of the nascent scene’s infrastructure: between adverts for upcoming raves, its premiering of new tunes and its ability to build a DJ’s career, it swiftly became UK dance music’s primary marketing platform and national intelligence network. Pirate radio helped sell tickets for raves, those raves paid the DJs, then the DJs paid subs to the pirate stations, along with rave promoters buying airtime for adverts: a perfect, self-contained ecosystem powered by spiralling demand for dance music and the inability of the UK’s licensed premises and legal broadcasters to keep up.

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