In a small studio in Brixton in 1990, a new station for Black Londoners started broadcasting. Choice FM became the first British station to play a diet of reggae, soul and hip-hop every day.
Today, Choice has announced they're changing their name to Capital Xtra. They will refocus the station around dance music and have given new shows to Tim Westwood, Craig David and Avicii. They have fired the station's legendary reggae DJ Natty B, who only found out about the change this morning. He told The Voice: "It is with deep regret that last Sunday…was my final show on Choice FM. This has come as an unexpected surprise as has the news that the station will be now known as Capital Extra & will no longer [offer] reggae programming."
We've been here before. In 2003, when Choice was first bought by Capital, it was gutted. All reggae music was removed from the station's daytime playlists, some of the biggest DJs were fired and the hip-hop centric playlist of Mos Def and Nas was replaced by the commercial R&B sounds of Nelly and Destiny's Child. There were protests in Leicester Square, and many felt that black London had lost a voice on the airwaves.
In the end, it wasn't quite the death knell. Choice's nighttime schedule included world-class hip-hop and UK bass shows and on weekends there were dedicated shows to reggae, soca, dancehall, Afro beats and gospel music. While the daytime schedule was more commercial, it still kept a focus on hip-hop and black music that wasn't shared by competitor Kiss. This week's daytime playlist included UK MCs like Smiler and Bashy, Bashment from the likes of Atumpan and Moelogo and proper hip-hop from Big Sean and 2 Chainz. They even playlisted Kanye West's batshit crazy "Black Skinhead". Choice shares just 11% of its playlist with Kiss FM and never plays artists like Macklemore or Calvin Harris.
That's all going to change with Capital Xtra. All traditional black music specialist DJs, with the exception of DJ Abrantee and his Afro beats show, have been fired. The new music policy of the station is not yet clear but the Capital Xtra's playlist taster mix opens with Daft Punk - a little-known artist who could really do with the exposure - and features a song from London Grammar and Disclosure, home-counties pop acts without about as much connection to black music as the Lib Dem Party conference. I like all of these artists a lot, and if I wanted to listen to them I might tune into Capital, Kiss, Kiss Fresh or Radio 1. But what is the point of Capital Xtra copying this formula? They're just reducing choice in the market place and excluding a huge group of Londoner's who identify with Choice's heritage.
Ironically, the people who'll be celebrating today are BBC 1Xtra and Rinse, stations that will no doubt gain a whole new raft of listeners from people turned off by Capital Xtra's more mainstream offering. But there's another issue here. When the BBC's black music station was launched it began with a proud and reasoned explanation of what the term "black music", I remember the station's head of music explaining how Daniel Bedingfield came from a black music heritage within UKG and was as much apart of what they were trying to create as Jay-Z. It was controversial, but it created a sense of purpose for the station.
A few years ago, 1Xtra changed the stations slogan to avoid any mention of the term "black music". Choice, too, are severing their ties with traditional black music and catering for a black audience. There is a purposeful attempt on radio to divorce music from its culture, politics and lineage. I say this as a white Jewish boy born and raised in Crouch End, but I think that's a mistake. There is more to music than good songs and bad songs. There's music that you share with your peers and your community, that demonstrates your history and identity. Black music, often formed through diasporic influences going back decades, doesn't exist in isolation. Radio should reflect that. There's nothing wrong with having a youth station, a UK underground station, a high art station, an oldies station - so why not a black music station?
The big part of the answer comes from the ownership of radio stations. The UK use to have strict licensing regulation that made it impossible for brands to own a large amount of stations and encouraged a huge amount of diversity in the marketplace. It meant radio contracts were awarded to small, community groups and former pirates. Choice wasn't just a black music station, it was a station owned by the publishers of Root magazine, a black culture journal from the 1970s and was part of the community in Brixton. As those laws have relaxed, stations have been merged and taken over, always with the promise of maintaining the station's unique identity, only to have an originality eradicated after a 12 month cooling period. Today, local music radio has almost been eradicated by massive national complexes like Capital, Kiss, Magic, Smooth and Heart which broadcast all over the UK. Choice was one of the last exceptions.
Choice celebrated black history month and the anniversary of Jamaican independence, and provided a unique point of view on London news. At my Sixth Form, with a majority afro-carribean intake, there was no question of what station would get played in the common room, it was Choice evere time. But Choice's owners Global Radio, who also manage The Wanted and run Classic FM, don't care about that. And why would they? They're just looking at the bottom line. The thing is, they're not even doing that right.
Commercial radio spends a lot of time getting butthurt about the massive audience share of BBC stations. But the fact is commercial radio has got itself into this position by being relentlessly unimaginative, grossly misjudging its audience and removing any semblance of personality from its stations. Global radio has made the same mistakes over and over again. It changed the XFM playlist from new alternative music to post-Britpop pish and, for a while, removed all daytime DJs. It shed over half its listeners. It increased the number of records played on Capital, giving DJs less time to talk to listeners, and watched the numbers plummet. On Choice, listeners increased at the start of the decade when Capital took over. But since 2007, as they moved specialist shows later and later in the night until you could only hear reggae after midnight, they fell away.
So Choice FM, we'll miss you. We'll miss tuning in the cab home and listening to the only soca show in London. We'll miss the way you sponsored all those gully bashment raves in Ally Pally where you went with a phone and a wallet and left with nothing. And we'll miss the only radio station where you could switch on at anytime of day and be guaranteed to hear a massive tune.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamWolfson
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