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Goodbye Choice FM, goodbye reggae?

END OF AN ERA: Reggae DJs Daddy Ernie (left) and Natty B were axed in the rebranding of Choice FM to Capital XTRA

FOR ALL the optimists who had hoped that Choice FM’s name change wouldn’t affect its music remit, you must be disappointed now.

With the recent rebrand, which saw the station go from Choice FM to Capital XTRA, reggae DJs Daddy Ernie and Natty B; soca DJ Martin Jay; and gospel DJ Dave P were lost in the cull – and so the station became reggae-less, soca-less and Godless in one fell swoop.

For the realists amongst us – like Voice columnist Dotun Adebayo, who also shared his thoughts on Choice’s demise – the move is probably no surprise. After all, it was evident to most of us that with Capital Radio Group’s acquisition of the station in 2004, there would probably be changes to the station’s remit.

And once the U-word popped up in the station’s new slogan – ‘your number one urban station’ – it was clear this was the beginning of the end of the station’s one-time dedicated delivery of black music genres like hip-hop, R&B and reggae.
But of those three genres, the one to take the greatest knock was reggae. A black music style, which has long been considered ‘seasonal’ by radio prgoramme controllers (i.e. it might get a few extra spins in the summer when carnival rolls around), reggae has never sustained continued prominence in the UK’s mainstream music scene.

Desmond Dekker set the trend for reggae reaching the top of the UK charts with his 1969 hit Israelites; Gregory Isaacs’ Night Nurse enjoyed UK chart success in the ‘80s; Shaggy had his burst of mainstream stardom in the 90s; Sean Paul followed suit in the noughties; and God bless Bob Marley, who will no doubt get airplay until the end of days.

But in terms of continued radio support for reggae, that was always left to pirate radio stations, whose DJs were free to champion black music, without having to work to the constraints of what was deemed popular by the mainstream.

And then came Choice FM. Set up in 1990 by Patrick Berry and Neil Kenlock, the UK’s first legal black music station set out to provide a ‘choice’ for black music lovers who weren’t being catered for by any other legal radio station. And reggae featured heavily in the station’s remit.

“The only time reggae really enjoyed prime time prominence on legal radio, was when it was played on Choice when Choice was owned by black people,” Daddy Ernie confirmed. “From the time Choice got sold, reggae began taking a knock.”

Well, if the 2004 sale of Choice gave reggae “a knock”, the recent rebranding to Capital XTRA has as good as pronounced the genre dead and buried in terms of the station’s future plans.

Asked for a statement about the future of reggae music on the station a spokesperson for Global Radio – Europe’s biggest radio group, who took over the station in 2008 – told The Voice:

Capital XTRA will play the urban dance music that our listeners love. We update and refine our music all the time, so while we may not be playing much reggae at the moment, that is likely to change in the future as tastes evolve and change."

In short, you probably won’t hear any Tarrus Riley or I-Octane tunes on the station in the foreseeable future.
DJ Natty B says he was surprised by the station’s recent shake-up.

“I was a bit taken aback with the recent decision by Global Radio to remove all of the reggae and soca DJs,” he says.

“Indeed, it is an extremely difficult time for reggae and has set the movement back a little.

“However, I am comforted by the fact that the likes of Robbo Ranx and Seani B continue to play reggae/ dancehall to the masses on BBC 1Xtra.

Also, the variety of popular community, pirate and internet stations must be acknowledged; reggae music has always been very well represented via these platforms.”

Expressing similarly positive sentiments is Martin Jay. Choice FM’s former soca DJ felt the writing was on the wall for reggae and soca the minute Choice was sold.

“Although I survived that cull almost 10 years ago, I felt then that reggae and soca had become extremely vulnerable,” says Jay, who presented Choice’s show The Caribbean Affair for 23 years. “So to have still been playing soca music 10 years later, was like, wow.

He adds: “It is a shame that with the rebrand, soca, reggae and gospel were not seen as part of that growth and that moving forward. But that just means we now have a responsibility to make a statement. And individually, I think the likes of myself, Daddy Ernie and Natty B are capable of doing that.”

But why this blatant lack of interest for reggae music? Surely, a genre that sells out concerts, packs out festivals worldwide, and maintains a loyal and dedicated following was worthy of even one show on the newly rebranded Capital XTRA?


HAPPY DAYS: The Choice FM team celebrating their 16th birthday

“The people in charge do not understand reggae and the fact that reggae can’t be controlled,” reasons Daddy Ernie. “You’ve got Sean Paul and Gyptian, who, for a long time, were considered the be all and end all of reggae music. Those two artists are affiliated to major labels, so there’s a certain amount of control there.

“But all these other reggae artists who aren’t signed to major labels, are much harder to control. And very often it’s the case that when you can’t control something, you just get rid.”

Jay agrees: “When it comes to reggae and soca, the mainstream don’t know how to promote our music and that’s the reason we got kicked to the curb.”

But surely if something is popular enough, it can’t be sidelined. Could it be the case that reggae radio shows just don’t pull in the numbers? Daddy Ernie says that’s not the case.

“Given the right platform, reggae will flourish. I mean look at Robbo Ranx; he has one of the biggest listened-to shows on 1Xtra. You go to reggae concerts, they’re full of people – people of all races. So you can’t say that people don’t want to hear reggae.

“When my show had a prime time slot, it was never out of the top three highest listened-to shows,” he insists. “Even in later years, when our shows were put on in the dead of night, me and Natty still had decent figures. Granted, we didn’t have Afrobeats figures, but that’s because our shows weren’t pushed like the Afrobeats show.”

Ernie’s sentiments about Afrobeats have been mirrored by many, for whom it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the African music genre remains part of Capital XTRA’s remit, courtesy of DJ Abrantee’s Afrobeats show. Martin Jay feels the genre’s current success is all about “timing.”


SOCA KING: Martin Jay played on Choice FM for 23 years

“[Afrobeats still being on the station] has got nothing to do with the bosses being in love with Afrobeats. That’s just all about timing. Afrobeats – what it is today – is a very modern music. A lot of people comment on the fact that Choice plays a particular type of music from African artists, but to call it Afrobeats is not necessarily correct. But commercially, what is being deemed as Afrobeats is working at the moment.”

Sharing similar sentiments, Daddy Ernie feels that Afrobeats’ current success is thanks to the exposure it has enjoyed.
“If you turn on your radio and hear Afrobeats playing – being fed to you all the time – it nuh mus’ become popular? That’s the case with most music. Look at Sean Paul’s Gimme The Light; that tune was out for three years before it became popular. And how did it become popular? Because mainstream DJs started playing it. If a tune is played on mainstream TV and radio stations, and given mainstream exposure, it will become popular. It’s as simple as that.”

So, commercially, what is the future for reggae and soca in the UK, if it doesn’t get exposure on a legal FM station?

“I upload podcasts via my website socavision.com, and they’re well listened to, so the audience is there,” says Jay. “So the wheel’s not gonna stop turning for me. The Caribbean Affair only dies when I die.”

Natty B is similarly optimistic about reggae’s future: “I am hopeful that the future of reggae music in the UK will thrive.

“As long as the people are for it, why wouldn't it?”

Daddy Ernie agrees: “If you drive a genre underground, it just makes people more curious about it. Yes, reggae has taken a hit. But the amount of hits its taken over the years, it’s a wonder it even exists at all.

“Yes, it should be on legal radio. But just because it's not on Choice anymore, dances will still happen, reggae concerts will still happen, and community radio stations will continue to play it.”

He concludes: “People will try and kill reggae, but as long as I'm alive, that won't happen. If I have to go on two radio stations every night, I'll do that. Because I'm not giving anyone the satisfaction of killing my music.”

Tell us what you think. Email davina.hamilton@gvmedia.co.uk

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