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 have merged 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, which also owns Hot 97 and 18 other stations around the country, 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.
In recent years, Kiss-FM was the kind of station that played O’Jays’s “For the Love of Money,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and a new Beyoncé track, back to back. Its mix of soul, funk, r&b, and disco catered primarily to older black listeners. But Kiss-FM’s importance in radio history goes beyond today’s throwback programming: Decades ago, it was the first station in the U.S. to give the fringe genre known as hip-hop a chance in prime time.
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 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 the hip-hop DJ Bobbito García. “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.”
Although Red Alert’s show remained important to hip-hop’s hardcore fans, Kiss-FM’s real innovation was to mix rap records into its 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. “[Former general manager] Barry Mayo changed everything when he put Run-D.M.C.’s ‘Sucker MCs’ on rotation.”
In the end, Run-D.M.C. became Mayo’s secret weapon. Mayo didn’t like hip-hop, but he was willing to give anything a try in order to beat Frankie Crocker, the celebrity DJ and program director at WBLS. The first time he played Run-D.M.C.’s 1983 record “It’s Like That,” the phone lines lit up. After that, rap records became a mainstay for the station, and 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,” Charnas says.
Kiss-FM continued to sprinkle hip-hop onto the airwaves until 1994, when Hot 97 switched to an all-rap format. Owner Emmis Communications bought up Kiss and changed the programming to classic soul and r&b in order to squash the competition. After the format switch, Red Alert left for Hot 97, though in 2007, he returned to Kiss for a more old-school-oriented hip-hop show.
“I think it’s sad,” says WBLS spokesperson Deon Livingston of Kiss-FM’s demise. “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.”