The ICA’s Researcher in Residence Will Dutta explores the background to the founding of Kiss FM and the radio station's journey to becoming legal.
As the 1970s drew to a close, Britain’s economy was thrown into uncertainty as oil prices soared and an international recession worsened. High unemployment and union unrest, notably the Winter of Discontent, saw James Callaghan’s Labour government swept aside by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives with the message ‘Labour Isn’t Working’.
Despite Thatcher’s majority, the voting patterns of ethnic minorities painted a different picture: across the nation 52% voted in favour of Labour against 23% for the Conservatives. Labour’s introduction of the Race Relations Act in 1976 must have helped to rally support.
In the early 1980s, unemployment steadily climbed towards three million and ethnic minorities were hit especially hard. In 1981, tensions between police and West Indian communities in Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth and Chapeltown came to a head. Police forces operating under the controversial stop and search—or ‘sus'—law seemed to many in the community to be disproportionately targeting young black men. The streets in these areas became battlegrounds.
In this context, one of Dread Broadcasting Corporation’s DJs, Miss P, explained how their shows created movement in the music industry for all genres of black music, which had been glaringly neglected by mainstream stations like BBC Radio or Capital Radio. She saw the role of DBC as representing:
"all forms of black music, and have black music presented by black people, have a station run by black people that is for everyone… giving ourselves a chance to really be a part of society."
Against this backdrop, Kiss 94.5 FM’s founder Gordon Mac recalls his experiences of growing up in southeast London and getting into music:
"When I was 10, my mum and dad moved to Anerley near Crystal Palace and got in with the local sound system guys, so every Friday night, every Saturday night, there would be an illegal blues in the shop underneath. It was an eye-opener to have this massive sound system with all these rum barrels with speakers in and just one little light in the whole place… It was a totally different culture but one that I loved."
Mac was exposed to soul and disco at a young age, and his cousin, who was then dating one of the key members of The Shed’s Skinheads, introduced him to reggae. By ten, he had his first outing as a DJ, stepping in after the professional failed to show for his local church’s fundraiser. Mac successfully used this opportunity to lobby the vicar for a DJ residency for any fundraiser or gig that came in. His audacity won him a year’s contract paying £2 a gig!
Mac launched Kiss 94.5 FM in 1985, describing it as a community of interest station for those into house, reggae, rare groove or your dance music of choice. His policy for hiring DJs was based purely on their love of their specialist interest.
There was an unspoken rule among the numerous London-based pirates to leave each other alone, owing to their mutual fight against the authorities to stay on air. While Kiss 94.5 FM did have their fair share of transmitters taken during the three years they were broadcasting, the studio was never raided. Competition between the pirates grew more aggressive towards the end of the decade. Yet, Kiss 94.5 FM would soon become legal.
The internal journey towards legalisation started within a year or so of being on air. Mac bought out his original partners (Tosca, George Power and Pyres Easton) as their interests diverged. He resold their shares back to some of the DJs and this bought Mac enough transmitters to be on air for 9-12 weeks, in which time he could start to make money. The likes of Tim Westwood, Norman Jay, Jonathan Moore (Coldcut) and Trevor Nelson were now incentivised to promote the station and the Kiss FM nights at Dingwalls and Bar Rumba reinforced the station’s ethos of great music. Audiences flourished, and, on their second attempt at applying for a license, Kiss FM was successful.
Mac has since been described as the Godfather of Dance Music. His tireless commitment to new music and that of other 1980s pirate radio stations set the scene for the musical shifts that would follow over the next decades. ■