Black History Month in the UK is barely three days old but already some have been left reeling at the news which will see the country’s first black radio station reach the end of the line. Choice FM will disappear as we know it from Monday after 23 and a half years on the air.
My earliest memory of Choice FM can be traced back to February 1990 when my younger sister and I were staying overnight at our big sister’s. She had the radio tuned into what was a test broadcast on the designated frequency for the fledgling broadcaster which was to launch the following month. There’s a beautiful symmetry to this because it was the same big sister who I hold responsible for introducing me to the station now known as Capital FM around three years earlier.
Capital began acquiring shares in Choice in early 2003 leading to wholesale changes at the station. The most striking of which saw the departure of Geoff Schumann who along with Martin Jay formed a formidable double-act which shattered audience records at the station. The station’s relocation from Southwark to Leicester Square was another erosion of the unique footprint and was a symbolic gesture of a corporate juggernaut taking an alternative direction. Other modifications included the removal of prominent reggae DJ’s from the broadcaster’s schedules between the hours of 7am and 7pm.
The end of the station was savagely as swift as the bloodbath nine years ago. On Wednesday the Voice newspaper reported on speculation that the station was to be rebranded as Capital Xtra. A little over 24 hours later came the confirmation of the news sparking outrage from listeners who had remained loyal to the station despite all of the betrayal and recriminations from the original transfer of ownership in 2004.
Listening to Choice over the last decade has always posed something of a moral dilemma. The station retained a handful of DJ’s who survived the cull of the organisational restructure. Martin Jay’s Caribbean Affair on Sunday nights was still the most listened to soca radio show on British radio. Nonetheless it always resembled the scenario of stumbling across a copy of a rag like the Daily Mail and trying to sneak a peep at the sports section- despite knowing full well that the paper’s overall editorial line aggressively undermined everything you believed in.
That is why the discovery of internet-based stations like Large Radio has been something that I have embraced so emphatically. It is why when my weekly favourite the Calaloo Show recently ran into difficulties, I found myself listening to its archived content via podcasts instead of catching up with the Sunday evening soca show on a station I no longer harboured any affection for. I believe it is online that the future of radio broadcasting for minority music lies.
Of course the nostalgic side of me does reflect on the dreams and aspirations of the founders Patrick Berry and Neil Kenlock. Indeed Berry’s comments about “protecting the uniqueness of our programmes” ahead of the sale in November 2003 suggested that his intentions were honourable. The demise following the sale of the broadcaster to Capital in 2004 should not diminish what the two helped to create in 1990: the UK’s first legal black radio station. Nothing can overshadow the first thirteen years which provided a remarkable chapter for radio entertainment in this country.
I mourned Choice FM’s passing many years ago. For almost a decade the brand was appropriated by parties who had poisoned its powerful legacy and provided us with a creation which was a world away from the community based station. I am delighted that the Choice FM brand is being consigned to the history books. It was obnoxiously insulting that the name used bore so little resemblance to the groundbreaking station established all those years ago.
I concede that the reaction to this week’s news has surprised me, I hadn’t realised such a sizeable proportion had stayed loyal after all this time. Nobody I knew who listened back then tuned in anymore. We always viewed those who did as refusing to accept that it had died and were clinging on to a corpse in a desperate attempt to turn back the clock. An audience which was at best misguided and refused to listen to warnings of the time that eventually this week’s developments would come to pass.
It was an insatiable lust for something that had ceased to exist, worshipping a shell of its once glorious incarnation. Necrophilia? The dictionary suggests that the definition is not so out of context here, though probably it is an exaggeration to suggest that those who continued tuning in could be characterised as such.
However it is undeniable that a decade ago the audience had a decision to make. It is most surprising that so many made such an unpalatable choice.