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Pirate Radio Turf War, Raids, and Raves: Looking Back at the Early Days of KISS FM

We talked to founder Gordon Mac and former DJ Lindsay Wesker about how their station—run illegally out of a Walthamstow tower block through the late-1980s—informed a generation of music-lovers.
15 May 2015, 2:15pmUpdated on 15 May 2015, 4:43pm

Gordon Mac in the studio at KISS 94FM, c. 1986, image courtesy Gordon Mac.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

In the 1970s and 80s, pirate radio stations like Radio Invicta, Radio Jackie (lated JFM), London Weekend Radio (LWR), Dread Broadcasting Corporation (DBC), Horizon, and KISS met a demand for black music that wasn't catered to by the BBC. The path pioneered by the likes of Radio Caroline in the 60s had swapped the North Sea for London estates and rock music for soul, reggae, and R&B.

Radio One had formed in 1967, but it predominantly offered chart hits. At the time, there was very limited exposure for black music, I'm told by KISS founder Gordon Mac and former KISS DJ and Head of Music Lindsay Wesker, ahead of a new exhibition at the ICA, Shout Out! UK Pirate Radio in the 1980s. The exhibition looks back at this early tower block pirate radio movement. Beforehand, Mac and Wesker had been forced to make the best of a bad situation, taping specialty shows such as David Rodigan's reggae show on Radio London, and replaying them all week.

"We liked some of that [chart] stuff," Wesker says, "but we wanted to hear our music 24 hours a day. We didn't want to stop every now and then for another Elton John or David Bowie song. We wanted to hear black music all day."

Dancer in Nightclub, London, c.1985-89, courtesy Lindsay Wesker.

"There were big black music hits," he continues, "gimmicky disco records like 'Kung Fu Fighting' and some Jamaican records like 'Uptown Top Ranking,' but underneath that there was just so much stuff. So when KISS launched and our DJs started playing James Brown, people lost their minds. They were like, 'How much music has this guy made?' By the time KISS launched in 1985 there were, like, 40 James Brown albums and we'd never heard them. So when our DJs began playing, that's why there was so much excitement."

No License for KISS FM, 'Written Word' magazine, 1989, image courtesy Gordon Mac.

Early 1980s pirate stations had benefitted from a legal loophole that prevented authorities from confiscating equipment without a court order, but the Telecommunications Act 1984 granted the Department of Trade and Industry's Radio Investigation Service power to enter properties without a license and detain equipment kept for the purpose of illegal broadcasting. Involvement with a pirate radio station could lead to fines of up to £2000 [$3100] and three months in jail, and the ensuing crackdown forced many stations off air.

Mac was a DJ on JFM until it lost its battle with the DTI following a raid in January 1985. Undeterred by advice not to pursue a career in broadcasting—as he didn't have a voice for radio, apparently—he decided to fill the new musical gap on the airwaves with a station more concerned with what the DJs played, rather than how they spoke. "The DJ had to bring something," Mac says. "Paul Anderson could mix—the man could mix oil and water. Norman Jay, Lindsay, Nicky Holloway, Paul Oakenfold, Jonathan More, and Matt Black [Coldcut]—they all brought a real musical knowledge to the table. That was my thing—it wasn't about whether they could speak properly or whether they could be really entertaining."

KISS was born in October 1985, broadcasting 24/7 from a mast in Charlton, but soon disappeared from the airwaves following sustained DTI raids before re-emerging in March 1986 as a weekend-only station. Engineers had to develop imaginative new strategies to outwit the authorities and began using complex systems of remote transmitters. This made it difficult for the DTI to locate studios and, if they found a transmitter, the station could often switch to a backup, minimizing its time off-air.

READ: Motherboard's article on the man who invented Stereo

Mac took further precautions, too, like banning DJs from bringing record boxes to the studio. But shifty men coming and going every few hours could still arouse suspicions. "I had the studio at my flat for while, when we got really stuck, up at Ernest Richards Tower in Walthamstow," he says. "We were up there for about three months or so and we had a visit from the social worker. He asked to talk to my wife in a separate room, and my wife came back in laughing, saying, 'They think you've got me on the game.'"

Dancer in Nightclub, London, c.1985-89, courtesy Lindsay Wesker.

There was also a threat from rival pirates. "One morning I got there just before 6 AM," says Wesker, "and the engineer called me to say that someone had cut our wires and we couldn't even go on." Mac continues, "When [the pirate scene] first started up there was an unwritten rule: you don't come into our turf, we don't come into yours. That was 1985 to 86/7 and then more and more pirates came on and it became a bit of a battle ground."

"We used to have a team of security up on the roof waiting for other pirates. If it was the DTI, you'd tell them to take the transmitter and they'd look the other way, but if it was other pirates there would be a fight. It became a really heavy scene towards the end of it, which is why I was so pleased when we could go for the legal license because you can only do that for so long."

Related: Our documentary on pirate radio:

By 1987, KISS had a huge following. Audience estimates were as high as 500,000 and it finished second, above Radio One, in an Evening Standard readers' poll that year. KISS bolstered its reputation through close involvement with London's growing club culture, including a regular KISS night at the Wag Club.

In 1988, the government announced that stations could apply for one of 22 new community radio licenses, providing they were off air by January 1, 1988. KISS broadcast its final show as a pirate station from Camden club Dingwalls that New Year's Eve. Despite widespread support, KISS missed out on the first set of licenses, but successfully reapplied when the second round were offered and re-launched as a legal station on the September 1, 1990.

As is often the case when a subculture emerges above ground, KISS's move towards the mainstream was not without its critics. But Mac and Wesker believe that the move was an essential part of their mission to give exposure to the music they loved. "When we launched as a legal station, we had to create a playlist, we had to create a daytime sound, and a lot of people were like, 'This isn't the eclectic KISS that I've grown up with,'" Wesker says. "But we discovered that music policy and playlists actually served a fantastic purpose, because one of the things that we really enjoyed about doing radio was introducing new music and acts to the audience, and with a playlist, we could actually rotate songs by these new acts and turn them into hits.

"It was so exciting to take a dub dat tape of the first Jamiroquai song, 'Too Young To Die,' play the single 30 to 40 times in a week, and actually break a new artist. We did that with the Prodigy, we did that with Des-ree, 'Jump' by Kriss Kross, 'Finally' by Ce Ce Peniston, and Robyn S's 'Show Me Love.' 'Show Me Love' was on an import—we bought it, playlisted it when it wasn't even signed in the UK, and turned it into a hit. It was so thrilling and so rewarding."

Though many thought that KISS had swapped subversion for legitimacy, it's hard to argue with the impact that it and other 1980s pirate stations had on Britain's musical landscape. KISS proved that a black music station could be commercially viable and gave black music a prime time platform. Pirate radio had a direct impact on the musical direction of mainstream broadcasters, exemplified by Radio One poaching many KISS DJs like Trevor Nelson, Gilles Peterson, and Judge Jules.

The legacy of the 1980s pirate radio stations can be seen in the new generation that launched throughout the 1990s and 2000s, meeting a growing demand for hardcore, jungle, garage, and grime. Today, the influence of pirate radio lives on in stations such NTS, which adopt a similar model but are able to broadcast legally online while remaining firmly outside the mainstream.

Shout Out! is on at the ICA now and tours to the Phoenix in Leicester, from the July 23 to August 24, 2015.

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