When I happened upon the news that Choice FM had been rebranded as Capital XTRA, my thoughts on the matter were initially geared towards disgust. Choice FM was more than just a name; it was a brand that resonated with many Black British people. Gaining its license in 1990, Choice became Britain’s first commercial 24-hour black music radio station. For many in London’s Afro-Caribbean community, it was to be a refuge among the plethora of commercial radio stations that simply didn’t cater to their musical tastes. Choice was successful in gaining an additional license to operate in Birmingham and on 1st January 1995, they began broadcasting in the city that was home to Britain’s second largest black community. Their radio format was a winning one and in 2000, they were granted an additional licence to operate a transmitter in North London. However their continued success would prove to be one of the reasons behind the takeover and eventual deterioration of the station.
One-time minority shareholders The Capital Radio Group (now known as Global Radio) sought to take full control of Choice FM and finally did so in 2003. With the takeover came a series of decisions made by Capital’s management that would see Choice robbed of its distinct identity. Although the steps taken did allow Choice to appeal to those outside of its target demographic, these very same decisions also caused irreparable damage to its individuality and made the station that was once so important to many Black British people a shadow of its former self. Initial changes such as the sacking of high profile DJs and shunting reggae from the daytime playlists to the early morning “graveyard shift” were simply the tip of the iceberg. The decision to move Choice’s base of operations from their offices in Southwark to the Capital Radio central offices in Leicester Square was the biggest sign of their intent. Gradually over the next 10 years their daytime playlists became increasingly filled with chart friendly “commercial” R&B, while the hip hop, soca and gospel centric playlists of yesteryear slowly eroded away. Nevertheless, Choice still kept some idea of balance by having specialist hip hop shows at night and keeping reggae, soca and afrobeats on the airwaves during weekends.
Capital Xtra has now changed all of this, with a radio format that their resident marketing genius has dubbed “Urban Dance”. The new format has been created to be a blatant facsimile of the one that you’ll find on Kiss FM and combines EDM with “commercial” contemporary R&B and rap. The only specialist black music DJ that was retained from Choice FM is Abrantee who presents an afrobeats show on Saturday nights. Somewhat inevitably, Choice’s more recent listeners will flock in their droves to BBC Radio’s “home of urban music” BBC Radio 1Xtra. Now for me, there is nothing wrong with this as 1Xtra has a relatively diverse format and carries specialist black music shows in its late night and early morning time slots and the station sonically resembles the post-takeover Choice FM. The main problem with 1Xtra is that it doesn’t seem to pride itself on being a prominent purveyor of black music on the airwaves anymore; removing its “Love Black Music, Love 1Xtra” tagline was a strategic rebranding move that took place back in 2010. But where does this leave the lovers of black music that used to tune into the Choice FM of days gone by? Well, it actually leaves them in a relatively good place with a great selection of lesser known radio stations broadcasting quality black music over London’s airwaves.
One station that will surely benefit from the demise of Choice FM is Colourful Radio. Colourful is the last of its kind and is currently the only commercial black music station in London. Established by Kofi Kusitor MBE in 2004, Colourful was one of the first stations in the UK to have an internet audio stream and gained a licence to broadcast on DAB in 2008. Its format is highly reminiscent of the old Choice FM, mixing current affairs and news with soulful music. Genre-wise, its playlists cover many bases but with a specific focus on soul, reggae and jazz-funk.
Pirate radio has always had a significant place in the Black British community. Prior to Choice gaining its licence to operate as a legal wholly commercial entity, it like most other black owned radio stations at the time operated as a pirate station. While pirate stations may operate under much greater financial constraints and the quality of the presenters/DJs can sometimes be questionable, they offer plenty of diversity in their shows. Vibes FM (undoubtedly the station of choice for lovers of all things reggae), Galaxy FM and Conscious Radio are examples of some of the better pirate stations that exist and can certainly fill the void that Choice has left. Community stations such as Reprezent and Rinse FM also provide good music and a good standard of DJs.
The loss of Choice FM is a huge loss to the black British community and lovers of black music in general. It also raises further questions with some seeing it as an attempt to remove black culture and voices from commercial radio and to a greater extent mainstream British media. However, there are also positives to be found in its ill-conceived rebranding, allowing much smaller pirate and community radio stations that were suffocating under its stagnant shadow to now get the attention that they truly deserve.
Check out this full list of London’s Pirate Radio Stations to get your started.