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Media: A kiss goodbye to radical radio

It was the dance station that promised always to play innovative music. But now Kiss FM's owner, Emap, has discovered that a mainstream music policy makes better business sense. So is it the beginning of the end for independent radio? By Paul McCann
Despite the hedonism, the skimpy clothing and the drugs that make everyone smile, for many people dance music is serious stuff. Millions are fluent in the language and subtleties of happy house, drum'n'bass, techno, hip hop and garage.

But you don't have to be a white-label obsessive to be concerned about the creeping homogeneity of Britain's commercial radio stations now that Kiss 100, Britain's oldest, most innovative and biggest dance music station, says it wants to be like safe old Capital Radio.

Last week, Emap, the owner of Kiss, unveiled a new pounds 2m television advertising campaign and a fresh identity for the London dance station. Using the tag "Live Sexy", it is the beginning of an attempt, says Malcolm Cox, marketing director of Emap Radio, to make the station "No1 for 15- to 24-year-old listeners" in London.

"For years, we've had around a million listeners," says Cox. "It hasn't really gone up or down and the audience has grown old with the station. We've decided we want to connect with 19-year-olds and having a bunch of 29-year-olds listening is not what we or our advertisers want."

In preparation for the new ad campaign, the biggest in the station's history, Emap has spent 12 months changing the output of the station. Over 10 DJs have parted company with the station, including Steve Jackson, who won the Sony breakfast show award this year. In the words of Mr Cox, the music on the station has been "smoothed out".

"The music has become more intense, we play fewer records and we play them more often. We play what the audiences want to hear." And Mr Cox admits that the station has become more mainstream: "It really depends on what your definition of dance music is. Dance music is an ever-changing culture, so how we define it today is different to how it was defined five years ago."

Mr Cox reaches for a television metaphor when he explains why Emap believes Kiss 100 had to change: "The nature of the teenager has changed - and Kiss hadn't. It was in danger of becoming like Eddy and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous - hedonistic, selfish and irrelevant to their teenage daughter. This concept of `middle youth' has been suffocating real youth culture."

Emap hopes the new programming and the ad campaign can together lead an assault on Capital's dominance. It also owns Magic, the AM easy-listening station that targets Capital's older listeners and now it wants Kiss to nibble at the giant's audience from the other end of the demographic scale.

Mr Cox's marketing-speak is a long way from Kiss's roots as a pirate radio station started by the entrepreneur, Gordon McNamee. Emap was one of the backers of Mr McNamee's bid to make the station legal in the 1990 radio franchise round. It was that round which was supposed to create a patchwork of diversity across London on the commercial wavelengths. Gordon Mac, as he is universally known, left the company last year ahead of the new programming plans.

"They have taken out all the specialist programming," says Rob Blake, a former Kiss DJ who is also an airtime buyer at the agency MediaCom TMB, "and replaced them with pre-programmed music of broad, dance chart appeal. A year ago they wouldn't play anything older than three years old, and if they heard tunes on other stations after they'd made them hits they'd drop them. Now they are playing the big classics of the last five years over and over again. Apart from a few late-night specialist slots, they are not interested in breaking new music any more."

It is neither surprising nor necessarily wrong of Emap to want to increase Kiss audiences by leading it into the mainstream. It is a business with shareholders and one might as well blame a duck for quacking. Furthermore, Emap has shown with everything it owns, from FHM to Q via The Box cable system, that it is particularly adept at turning a buck by taming youth culture. Emapland is a bland, marketing-shaped world populated by women who look like Denise Van Outen in an FHM picture spread, where the soundtrack is chart-topping Ibiza House Music and the whole thing is previewed in Heat magazine.

The changes at Kiss are already having an effect. The station registered its biggest ever audience jump in the latest Rajar figures, taking it up to 1.4m - although there has been a change in Rajar's methodology which boosted many stations' figures. And the media buyer in Rob Blake concedes: "They are taking more revenue than they ever have. Professionally, it's hard to fault what they're doing. It's just personally that I object to it."

One of the former managers of Kiss, who does not wish to be named, believes it's not Emap which has to shoulder the blame for the loss of Kiss's innovative edge: "This all ends up on the door of the Radio Authority. Kiss used to use a series of different DJs from seven every evening to seven every morning who would play whatever they were into. If they were good, they stayed and were asked back and they knew about the music they played. That `freeplay' period, not pre-programmed by a music policy manager, was part of Kiss's promise of performance for getting the licence in the first place. Now the Radio Authority has let them change it. Every time one of the big groups snaps up an independent, the Radio Authority lets them soften their promises of performance."

This is a view shared by many inside and outside the radio industry who want to see some diversity in commercial radio. Many of those who campaigned last year to stop Capital turning London indie-rock station Xfm into a more mainstream station would have common cause with many dance-music fans.

The Radio Authority says it cannot be a "music police" dictating precisely what every station plays. To this end, it is currently scrapping the promise of performance contracts that stations have to abide by, replacing them with a loosely defined "format" that the station has to stick to. "These are slightly less detailed than the promises," says Martin Campbell, head of programming at the Radio Authority. "Kiss is still being pushed to be a dance station and it still has to play specialist music, which it mainly does in the evening. But the formats give stations a wider boundary in which to work. They don't require them to programme by calculator to make sure they meet their promises."

Unfortunately for those opposed to changes to Kiss or Xfm, calculators seem exactly what are used in programming meetings. Emap's strategy for radio has meant turning its AM stations into the golden oldies franchise Magic in cities across the land. On FM, it wants to play chart music to bring in younger listeners. Unfortunately, golden oldies and chart music are pretty much the same things every other commercial station wants to play.

Emap's rivals, GWR Group, which has bought up 35 FM and AM stations across the country, has turned all its AM stations into a franchise called Classic Gold. Its FM stations have their own identities, but all their programming, a mixture of charts and recent hits, is decided in Swindon at the group's headquarters. Capital, the third commercial group, has its own AM oldies brand, Capital Gold and what it describes as its "Sunny day" chart brand on six FM stations across the country.

This is not how it was supposed to be. Local independent radio is no such thing any more - and London is no better served. Country music stations, women stations, indie rock stations - although scandalously, not the Afro- Caribbean station Choice FM - have been given London-wide broadcasting licences since 1990. Many have been swallowed up by the large commercial groups and re-emerged a step or two closer to the middle of the road.

And you do not need to be a fanatic dance fan to feel the middle of the road is starting to get very crowded indeed.