Kiss-FM, R.I.P.


On Thursday Kiss-FM announced that after 30 years, it would stop broadcasting on 98.7 FM and join forces with WBLS, its longtime rival in the “adult urban contemporary” radio format in New York City. The stations will merge under the motto “One Family, One Station, Our Voice,” with several Kiss-FM personalities migrating to WBLS’s roster of hosts.

Although all the talk of “merging” and “coming together” sounds nice, here’s what’s really happening: Kiss-FM is dead. Parent company Emmis Communications, who also owns Hot 97 and 18 other stations around the country, sold leased Kiss-FM’s frequency to ESPN in a deal worth $96 million. Emmis executives say that the ratings show there simply isn’t room in the market anymore for two “adult urban” stations. As of Monday, there will be only one spot on the dial for fans of old-school soul and R&B slow jams: 107.5 WBLS.

In recent years, Kiss-FM was the kind of station that played O’Jays “For The Love of Money,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, and a new Beyoncé track, back to back. It was a mix of soul, funk, R&B and disco catered primarily to older Black listeners, and a welcome respite from canned pop playlists during a long commute. But Kiss-FM’s importance in radio history goes beyond today’s throwback programming. Once upon a time, it was the very first station in the US to give fringe genre known as hip-hop a chance on primetime radio, helping to change the flavor of American pop culture forever.

DJ Red Alert spins on Kiss-FM (1985-86?)

Kiss-FM was born in 1981; the rock station WXLO, located at 98.7 FM, decided to reinvent itself as a Black Top 40 station under the call letters WRKS, which it branded with big red pair of lips. The station’s ratings slumped for the first few years until a young African-American program director named Barry Mayo began to go off-script by experimenting with playing hip-hop, at that time still an underground sound not thought to have much commercial potential. He gave a weekend mix show slot to DJ Red Alert, a member of Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation crew.

For hip-hop heads who came of age in the 1980s, Red Alert’s show was one of the only venues for discovering new tracks. “In those days, there was no hip-hop on the radio in the morning or afternoon,” says Bobbito García, a hip-hop DJ who hosted a popular show on 89.9 FM in the ’90s. “As a young adult, I would sit there every weekend when Red’s show was on with a tape and a cassette recorder with my finger on the record button. That show, for me, was the blueprint for what a hip-hop radio show could be.”

While Red Alert’s show remained important to hip-hop’s hardcore fans, Kiss-FM’s real innovation was to mix rap records into their playlists during peak “drive-time” hours. “It’s one thing to play it at night; it’s another thing to play it during the day,” says author Dan Charnas. “Barry Mayo changed everything when he put Run-DMC’s ‘Sucker MC’ on rotation.”

In his book on hip-hop business history, The Big Payback, Charnas tells the story of a radio war between Barry Mayo and Frankie Crocker, the celebrity DJ and program director at WBLS famed for occasionally riding into Studio 54 on a white stallion during the disco heyday. WBLS was the country’s first Black-owned radio station (its call letters originally stood for “Black Liberation Station”) and it dominated New York’s radio market in the 1970s, largely though Crocker’s outsize personality and devoted fanbase. Mayo, new to his radio job and hoping to build some good will, tried to introduce himself to Crocker one day while backstage at the Beacon Theater. Crocker completely snubbed him, leading Mayo to develop a deep personal grudge against the star DJ. That night, Mayo vowed to himself to unseat Crocker as the king of Black radio. In the years that followed, the stations’ DJs would hurl insults at each other on-air, while the two program directors jockeyed to stay one step ahead of each other by spinning the latest records.

Chuck Chillout mixes Run-DMC on Kiss-FM, 1985

In the end, Run-DMC became Mayo’s secret weapon. Mayo didn’t like hip-hop, but was willing to give anything a try in order to beat Frankie Crocker. The first time he played Run-DMC’s 1983 record “It’s Like That”, the phone lines lit up instantly with listeners requesting it again. After that, rap records became a mainstay for the station. It wasn’t a coincidence that in the summer of 1984, Kiss-FM became the highest rated station in New York. Mayo had won, and in the process, he proved that hip-hop could work on the radio. “Basically, this personal rivalry ended up leading to an explosion of innovation. The war between Kiss and WBLS created the golden age of hip-hop, effectively,” says Charnas.

Kiss-FM continued to sprinkle hip-hop onto the airwaves until 1994, when Hot 97 switched from playing pop to an all-rap format, prompting its owner, Emmis Communications, to buy up Kiss and change the programming to classic soul and R&B in order to squash the competition. In the years that followed, R&B celebrities from Roberta Flack to Isaac Hayes had stints hosting shows at the station. After the format switch, Red Alert left for Hot 97, although in 2007 he returned to Kiss for a more old-school-oriented hip-hop show.

Considering their decades-long history of mutual hatred, there’s a sick irony that WBLS will be absorbing Kiss-FM next week. “It’s the Yankees and the Mets merging. It’s cats and dogs living together. It’s like Arafat shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin,” says Charnas.

According to Kiss-FM’s General Manager Alex Cameron, however, the merger wasn’t quite as stressful as Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. “I thought it would be very uncomfortable, to be honest, with more ego involved,” says Cameron. “But it was a very classy and respectful collaboration. Sort of a surreal experience, actually.”

WBLS, for its part, seems surprisingly down about the whole thing considering it just vanquished its archnemesis. “I think it’s sad,” says WBLS spokesperson Deon Livingston. “A station that serviced our community for 30 years is gone, their voice is gone.”

Whether or not that sentiment is genuine, many New Yorkers raised on a Kiss-FM diet are mourning right now.

“I’m crazy downtrodden,” says Queens rapper Homeboy Sandman. “I’ve stopped listening to the radio for a while, but when I’m in somebody’s car, or I have to listen to the radio, Kiss-FM is the last bastion that plays good tunes and not terrible, terrible music.”

“It’s truly heartbreaking to see such an important station in the annals of New York Radio be dissolved into another station,” says DJ Rich Medina. “As a DJ, my time as a child listening to Red Alert, Chuck Chillout, Jay Mixin’ Dixon, and all the other incredible radio jocks that have passed through the Kiss-FM stable were incredibly formative for me and my musical perspective, and I’m selfishly thankful that I lived through that experience.”

WBLS and Kiss-FM will be simulcasting until the changeover on Monday. Current Kiss-FM DJs Shaila, Jeff Foxx, and Lenny Green will move to WBLS. WBLS officials say they hope to get more of Kiss-FM’s programming on their airwaves in the future, and no decisions have been made about DJ Red Alert’s show yet.

This article has been corrected.