This past week, much of the nations black music lovers and music industry has debated about the sudden; shocking (to some) news that Choice FM was no longer. It has been rebranded by its owner GLOBAL, who also own Capital Radio, and been resurrected with great imagination, as Capital Xtra
During its early years, CHOICE FM held a very special place in the hearts of the black British community when it made history in 1990, becoming the first licensed 24-hour independent black music radio station. The then Brixton-based station covered south London and eventually spread to Birmingham and north London, amassing followers and awards alike. It moved to borough High Street a few years later, but controversy struck the brand when a decade ago, in 2003, it was taken over by Capital Radio Group, and moved from south London to Leicester Square in London's West End.
At this point I agreed with many of their changes to the DJ line up. Many of the DJ's were so disconnected and inarticulate; some could barely string a coherent sentence together, whilst others mispronounced the names of artists, and other more cringe-worthy mistakes regularly.
Today's very pro-urban music generation across London have been brought up by Choice FM, but its owners now want that audience to be a lot younger-preferably teenagers. Of course music brands have to reposition themselves to keep their current listenership fresh and youthful but is Choice FM changing its name, and playing a playlist that's already all over the UK, in hundreds of different stations the way to go?
"The launch of Capital Xtra is a great moment for listeners, for commercial radio, for the DAB platform and for our team here at Global," said Global founder and executive president Ashley Tabor. "People right across the UK will now get to enjoy a truly national station in Capital Xtra - the only commercial station to play urban dance music nationwide. "We're taking the best presenters and shows and building on that by adding even more new talent to the line-up and we believe Capital XTRA has a very bright future."
Firstly, they're calling it Global Radio's latest brand extension" - as far as I'm aware, this is Global Radio's first ever brand extension if we're talking about new sub-branded stations. However, can it be a good idea to align yourself with the Radio 1's brand extension? The word Xtra is so aligned with Radio1Xtra its crazy that Capital has jumped on their bandwagon. It makes the Global creative team look weak, lazy and unimaginative. With all those creatives working at Global is that all they could come up with? Piggy- backing another rival brand?
A prominent industry insider stated '
'I think the short-sightedness even from a commercial point of view spanks of incompetence. Why even try to compete with Kiss, with this 'urban dance' stuff when the market is crying out for a credible, representative outlet for Black music? I don't like or use the term 'urban' because its adaption signalled the mainstream demise in terms of budget and coverage of music stations like this were set up to play in the first place, namely Hip Hop, R&B, Dancehall and Reggae''
With the black music community's disappointment, It's not just the human-interest side of this story that's intriguing, but social branding of the new name- Capital Xtra is bizarre. Radio1Xtra staff are amused, and ready to welcome all the new listeners, that will no doubt migrate across to the BBC in Choice's absence. The debate over black music radio station Choice FM having its name changed to Capital Xtra has divided fans. Some feel Choice was a worthy, boring, more community name and Capital packs a stronger punch. Others feel Capital has never had a history of championing black music, and their back-story with their former R&B DJ Simon 'school boy' Phillips years ago, was testament to the fact that Capital did indeed jump on the black music bandwagon extremely late.
Someone not afraid of the change is long time music manager of acts like Laura Mvula - Kwame Kwaten - who told me
''Its hard on some but every station has an evolution. Maybe the name is a little close to home with regards 1Xtra for many who remember Choice FM as Choice FM . But this is Choice FM's chosen evolution. I have seen the reaction on Facebook and social networks and people are probably more reacting to a part of their childhood and adolescence that they feel is disappearing. Others are fine with it. My view is we can't stop time. We can find new alternatives and new stations if a station has moved on ...Maybe there will be a new Choice FM who knows but there are also many new Choice fans that love the new station and its outlook and it is to these people that Choice is making the change. So that's the future...I don't fear the future''
Grime music leader Wiley tweeted
''The new word for urban radio is #Xtra..So there is a main station for everyone and the #Xtra bit is the urban part of the station for us ''
Awkwardly, it's the latter part of Ashleys statement above where the Choice FM family has had a knife plunged through its creative talent pool's heart. It's been a car crash management of a rebrand that needn't have gotten this messy and left a bad taste in its listeners and fans mouths. '' We're taking the best presenters and shows''.... it's not unusual to have a cull of radio personalities. In fact, over the years I've often noted how poor, many of their past broadcasters were, in terms of articulation, black music knowledge or simple facts about the music stars they were talking about. But the way in which they have kicked their staff to the music street kerb, has been unprofessional and callous. It also speaks volumes about the brand, since they were bought by the Capital/ Global group.
Throughout the years every DJ on a variety of stations has been 'let go' or 'stepped down' gracefully, with both sides managing the 'situation'. However, notoriously at Choice FM throughout the years, ever since Capital took over, loyal hardworking DJ's have been unceremoniously given the boot; told after their last show that their services are no longer required and they shouldn't come in next week. In fact, there is a list longer than my arm, of disgruntled DJ's from Choice that have been treated horrifically. It's a wonder nothing tragic has come back to bite the brand in the ass, in some way. No one is denying that change must come, and Choice have needed a new shot in the arm for years, the situation should be managed with grace and sensitivity. You're dealing with people's livelihoods and music lover's favourite personalities.
Nearly a year ago, former Choice DJ Jerry Bascombe told THE VOICE newspaper
'"I have nothing bad to say about Choice FM. They wanted a new target audience and they got that. They now appeal to the 13-23 year olds and that will make them money. The younger audience is easier to manipulate with the music, so if that means repeating a song 10 times a day, that is what's going to happen."''
Last month there was a big outcry when BBC Radio 1 announced, that Tim Westwood was leaving the station to be replaced by Radio1Xtra's Charlie Sloth. Charlie is liked in the industry. He's fresh, well-mannered and very talented. Clearly Tim had a plan up his sleeve. He's a survivor, and he's connected. His long-time mentor and first boss Richard Park who had hired him for his Saturday night rap show on Capital in the 80's brought him to Choice FM- the station that Tim dissed viciously over the years. The irony.
It was clear that if Westwood went to Choice things were going to get very ugly, very quickly for the hip-hop stalwarts already there. DJ 279 (who has been at the station over 20 years), and Tim Westwood have had a long running, extremely bitter beef for 2 decades. Insiders say that Westwood would block any music stars coming to 279's show, and block live shows that rival DJ's tried to promote, and threaten labels with a black-out of their artists if he didn't get his way, causing much frustration and tension over the years. Westwood's one-time colleagues told me that death threats that were made to Westwood over the years had been traced back via police rival DJs. Who knows really what's what. But clearly the hip-hop music industry wasn't a healthy place behind the scenes back then.
This past week, apparently this is how things played out; THE VOICE NEWSPAPER (Britain's biggest black newspaper), broke the story of the rebrand, before Global were ready to publicly announce their plans. I imagine feathers were flying around the Global offices, and they hurriedly sent out a big group e-mail to staff, stating that DJ 279 was 'stepping down''. Minutes later to the whole group, 279 replied
'I'm not stepping down, I've been sacked'
THE Choice brand used to stand for community in a unique, underground, connected-to-the-streets way. ChoiceFM always had the potential to be the UK's version of New York top urban music station- HOT97 ,the leader across the nation in the urban black music realm. Alas in the battle between trying to stay grounded to their roots and becoming commercial, the stations been confused for over a decade. The DJs who used to have unique, opinionated voices, that represented their listeners have been replaced by great, young broadcasters who are practically spoon-fed their whole shows, which is just as disrespectful to listeners.
The playlist is extremely limited; a couple of years ago, the Choice FM playlist changed to directly reflect Kiss FM's. Next they let the entire music specialist team go, and replaced them with many who are faces but not music connoisseurs.
I listen to the station now, and DJ's still often mispronounce artist's names, song titles are often factually wrong and don't even consider that they know NOTHING about the history of black music.
For a broadcaster that claims to be the nation's first national, commercial urban dance music station you'd think their DJs would not only know about the history of the music they play, but actually conduct the best knowledgeable interviews in this city. There are urban music bloggers conducting more interesting, newsworthy and ground-breaking interviews with urban music stars than the radio station's DJs! When pop stars openly cringe around the industry and whisper behind doors that they 'have to go to Choice for the usual wishy-washy nonsense' you know there's a problem.
How many of Choices DJ's are simply allowed to play music off the main radio playlist? Barely any. Where does this leave new, underground acts? We already have Kiss playing exactly what the newly-named Capital Xtra intends to play - urban dance music. So I guess moving forwards, Radio1Xtra and stations like Rinse FM will lead in the black music field.
Where Capital succeeded in their first takeover a decade ago, was by keeping music genres, but they failed in putting the right gatekeepers in place. So for example, whilst Choice listeners love reggae and soca, their DJ's were out of touch and also blocked younger, fresher names from coming through. Reggae as a genre has become much more dancehall focused so they should have brought in and properly developed younger, street connected names to be the face of modern reggae.
This week Global swiftly chopped the station's reggae, soca and gospel slots. Of some of those specialist DJ slots, an insider (that for obviously reasons chose to remain anonymous) said
'' those guys became lazy and clearly complacent. One was yet another example of a failed gatekeeper like Westwood, in terms of hating on others, and trying to block the progression of certain DJs, and not championing the cause using the position they had''
In recent years the staffing of urban music radio stations all across London has seen them cull a lot of BAME production and behind the scenes staff. Black music has cultural sensitivities. Black music acts talk to their peers in a very different way. I know this. I've observed it over 2 decades in my own role behind the scenes. That's just the way it is. Would it be accepted for the majority of staff at the Asian Network or Sunrise NOT to be Asian?
The gentrification of Choice isn't a shock. Similar black music brands have laid the path before this. World renowned reggae DJ David Rodigan refused to stand by and be side-lined into the twilight hours and said this as he resigned from KISSFM on Nov. 22nd 2012:
''I write this to inform you that today I have resigned from my position as a broadcaster on Kiss FM. I've been with station for 22 years, shared some wonderful times with many fantastic artists and members of staff and it's with great sadness that I've come to this decision. Due to their continued marginalisation of reggae music into the twilight zone of radio scheduling, it has left me no option but to make a stand for my passion and the music I love so dearly.
As Bob Marley famously said "the stone that the builder refused will be the head corner stone." Reggae was originally played on the streets, not on radio, and Kiss' refusal to schedule the only reggae show on their network to a socially accessible time has resulted in this decision. Reggae is worthy of more respect and so are the fans and lovers of this music''
Whether Capital Xtra will be a good move or not remains to be seen. Perhaps it will surprise us all by going back to the original promises made to OFCOM. OFCOM say...
'' We expect the two Choice FM analogue licences to continue to comply with the current published Formats of these licences. This obviously includes the localness obligations, such as the delivery of local news bulletins, in addition to reflecting all aspects of the 'Character of Service.'
Below the published formats;
A TARGETED MUSIC, NEWS AND INFORMATION SERVICE PRIMARILY FOR LISTENERS OF AFRICAN AND AFRO-CARIBBEAN ORIGIN IN THE BRIXTON AREA BUT WITH CROSS-OVER APPEAL TO OTHER LISTENERS WHO APPRECIATE URBAN CONTEMPORARY BLACK MUSIC. SERVICE INCLUDES 21 HOURS PER WEEK OF COMPLEMENTARY SPECIALIST MUSIC.
A MUSIC, NEWS, COMMUNITY NEWS AND INFORMATION SERVICE PRIMARILY FOR LISTENERS OF AFRICAN AND AFRO-CARIBBEAN ORIGIN IN THE NORTH LONDON AREA BUT WITH CROSS-OVER APPEAL TO OTHER LISTENERS WHO APPRECIATE URBAN CONTEMPORARY BLACK MUSIC. SERVICE INCLUDES 21 HOURS PER WEEK OF COMPLEMENTARY SPECIALIST MUSIC.
Yes business is business. But so was the slave trade. In other words that doesn't mean things should remain the same, or continue to happen because it it's the 'norm'. Kiss was hailed as a new dawn and for a while it was. With its sales to EMAP/Bauer it was clear black music and audiences weren't part of the agenda. Choice FM, with all the jokes about its 'cab office' HQ in Brixton, did for a while anyway, try to serve the community for which it was created. It was dry and we complained as it didn't quite do the job - so we didn't really listen. By the time Capital bought it, it wasn't the community's anymore.
And 1Xtra? All I know is when the station launched over a decade ago it proudly called itself a ' Black music station'. Black music lovers will now NO DOUBT switch back to the old way of enjoying their genre- pirate radio. With most radio content now being digested online, maybe this is a great opportunity for a new black music brand. Any takers?