A Kiss of welcome

After Mike Soutar turned `FHM' magazine into a totem of Nineties lad culture, he could choose his own media job. He picked Kiss, the dance music radio station with big ideas. By Paul McCann
Gordon McNamee, chief executive of Kiss Enterprises, EMAP's dance music empire, welcomes you with an almost cliched music-industry sense of style - an unshaven white Rasta, wearing wraparound sunglasses and complaining of a blinding hangover, he hurries away to seek the toilet in Kiss's chaotic north London headquarters.

In contrast, Mike Soutar, 30, the clear-eyed and clean-cut young Scot whom McNamee has just poached from sister company EMAP Metro's massively successful FHM magazine, looks much more like the kind of managing director you expect in the commercial radio industry.

Soutar's appointment, which came after an encounter with Gordon McNamee on a booze-fuelled freebie trip to South Africa, is a coup for Kiss. After his performance with FHM he could have written his own deal at almost any media operation in the country. Soutar turned FHM from a struggling men's fashion magazine selling around 60,000 copies an issue two years ago, to a totem of Nineties lad culture with current sales of more than 500,000, employing a combination of sex, humour and more sex until, some say, it has out-Loaded Loaded. Why would he walk out on that?

"This was a job I couldn't turn down," he says. "I could maybe have been with FHM for another year, but there was no other magazine I wanted to go on to. The great thing about Kiss is that the people here are fans and experts at dance music; they actually live it. So they are thrilled to be working at what they love, and are completely committed to it. There aren't many places like that to work."

Kiss FM has been growing steadily for 10 years, first as Gordon McNamee's own pirate station, and then as the UK's first licensed dance music station. It has a million listeners a week in London and two thriving franchised stations in Manchester and Yorkshire, and is planning a Kiss station in South Africa. Soutar's first duty is not to screw it up.

No problem there, he thinks. Despite zero experience in radio, he is sure he is perfect for the job. His special skill, he says, is in getting to niche audiences like Kiss's:

"Most commercial radio stations are trying to get the biggest possible audience within a geographic area. The great thing about Kiss is that it is looking for a specific audience. And that's what I know how to do."

Kiss plans to expand its brand. The station already makes a third of its money from non-advertising revenue. It promotes nine Kiss-branded club nights every week in London, including gigs this year at Wembley and the Notting Hill Carnival; it releases compilation CDs under the Kiss name; it sells clothing and other merchandise; and it puts on Kiss dance holidays to Ibiza and the Alps twice a year. Its operations made pounds 1.6m profit last year.

Kiss has been broadcasting dance music programmes fronted by its DJs five nights a week on cable television for the past year and McNamee now has ambitions to see it turn into a fully-fledged, 24-hour dance music TV station. He is negotiating with other broadcasters to make sure he gets a place at the multi-channel table of the future, whether it's digital, cable or satellite.

His ambitions were helped by EMAP's purchase late last year of The Box, a music cable channel that already plays 60 per cent dance music videos. Kiss is also forging links with Mixmag, the dance and clubbing magazine EMAP bought last month.

The opportunity for Kiss as an umbrella brand for different parts of the dance lifestyle market comes from the unique nature of dance music.

"It is not like `white boys with guitars' music," says McNamee. "There, the artist is used to sell albums. Dance music is sold on compilation albums, because it's all about technology and making it in your bedroom." The faceless nature of many dance acts leaves a gap for the likes of Kiss or the Ministry of Sound to be the brand for tours, gigs and merchandise.

The danger for Kiss is that in the process of expanding its name, the radio station itself will lose its focus

"I'm not going into vodka or PEPs," says McNamee, with Richard Branson in mind. "But we've got a great brand here and we want to make the most of it".