End Of An Era: The History of Kiss FM [1981 – 2012]

Published On April 30, 2012

Midnight on April 29, 2012, the 30-year-running legendary R&B station, 98.7 Kiss FM came to an end.  In result of a $96million dollar deal that merged Emmis Communications with Disney, Kiss FM suddenly learned of its fate on Thursday, April 26th.  That’s the date Emmis Communications revealed Disney would be turning the station into an ESPN Radio as soon as Sunday.

Credit: New York Times, Victor J. Blue

The group gathered as a collective on Friday after learning the news, and shared stories and memories that dated back to August 1, 1981.  The same day 98.7 Kiss FM began; the birth date they shared with MTV.  But at the time, MTV was more rock than pop, and Kiss proved dedication to hip-hop and r&b.

Below is a synopsis of the history of the legendary Kiss FM station, detailing how they came on the scene as a #1 station, their many changes in audience and music choices through the years, and iconic dj’s and personalities that shaped a nation of music legends and dedicated fans for decades later.

 Kiss-FM played a great deal of R&B and dance music, and became an almost instant hit with listeners, as its ratings skyrocketed from 22nd place to third. Notable Kiss FM Mixmasters at the time were Shep Pettibone and the Latin Rascals, who relied heavily on freestyle music. Longtime urban contemporary leader WBLS was caught off-guard by the sudden rise of the new station, which represented its first direct competition in that format.

From Day 1, 107.5 WBLS and 98.7 WRKS were instant rivals.  As the first competition to the legendary station that had been in tow since 1951, WRKS Kiss FM brought a new variety that challenged the long surviving station. Targeting the same audience, the friendly rival found itself in a battle for number one for every year to follow.

Today, they find themselves thrown into a merger, as a result of YMF Media (the owner of WBLS) buying out the brand of Kiss FM.  It’s uncertain of all who will continue on from each station, although its been projected that Steve Harvey’s syndicated morning show will remain while Tom Joyner and Michael Baisden’s shows may not be returning.

JUNE – AUGUST 1983

Around mid-1983, Kiss-FM approached Afrika Bambaataa about an underground rap music show. He liked the idea and appointed DJ Jazzy Jay, a fellow member ofZulu Nation. He then passed the gig on to his cousin, DJ Red Alert. In Fall 1983, Kiss FM became the first station in the United States to play rap regularly.

Though unseen today, Kiss FM made its claim to fame by becoming the first radio station to embrace rap and hip-hop as an equal to all other genres.  They were the only station to turn to for constant new material, from rap to r&b to soul.  By the mid-1980s, WRKS was playing a variety of artists regularly from Kurtis Blow and LL Cool J to Gladys Knight and Ashford & Simpson.

The following years were crucial to much of the hip-hop scene.  Kool DJ Red Alert as well as others became an important entity in breaking out the careers of many artists, aligning with Boogie Down Productions and breaking records of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest to name a few.  His mixes became instrumental in the lives of many New York legends –if not all– including the often disputed trio and thunderous presence of BiggieJay-Z and Nas.  [Three of which have included his name in their rhymes, including Nas’ latest 2012 single, “The Don.”]

And for the record books, Barry Mayo became the first  Black general manager in the RKO radio chain, working from 1984-1988.

 1989 – 1993

Around this same time, Kool DJ Red Alert entered a rivalry with WBLS’s Mr. Magic, who also became popular for his famous “Rap Attack” show.  But Red Alert remained in the lead, with Kiss-FM holding tight to a #1 spot for 6 consecutive years.

On June 26, 1989, RKO sold Kiss FM to the Summit Communications Group of Atlanta.  That same year, WBLS lured on-air personality Mike Love (formerly of the original Kiss Wake-Up Club) to their morning drive time. Kiss immediately formulated a new morning show featuring Ken Webb and Jeff Foxx along with then-unknown Wendy Williams. The show became a hit.

Wendy Williams’ start at Kiss-FM proved the beginning stages of her lucrative career.  It was here that she began her signature trademark of discussing African-American gossip, and found her voice as a dominant opinion on daytime radio.

 1994

In 1994, WQHT Hot-97 changed their format to strictly hip-hop, and WRKS Kiss FM responded by doing the opposite.  They pulled rap music from their catalogue completely and re-established with the new slogan “Smoothe R&B and Classic Soul.”  After Wendy Williams won the Billboard Award for “Best On-Air Radio Personality,” Emmis Communications purchased Kiss-FM from Summit and moved her to their other station, HOT-97, creating the first duo-FM in radio history.

 1999 – 2012

In 1999, Kiss FM switched from a classic soul-music format to current R&B. That same year Frankie Crocker (formerly of rival station WBLS) was hired as an announcer and a weekend DJ. The station slowly began to reintroduce rap back on its playlists in 2000. When WWPR-FM was launched in March 2002, the station slightly switched back to classic soul. In 2003, Barry Mayo briefly returned as general manager for Kiss FM, Hot 97 and WQCD-FM.

In the early 2000′s, WRKS was the New York home for the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show]] but was soon dropped due to a lack of popularity, although it was brought back in 2011. In 2003, it was the launching pad for the afternoon program hosted by Michael Baisden, which became syndicated to other major radio outlets in January 2005.

In early September 2010, the slogan for the station, “Old School & Today’s R&B,” changes to “’80s, ’90s & Today’s R&B” without ’70s product.

TonyQ, a legendary DJ from the station who began “Week In Review” spoke with concerned friends and long-time dedicated listeners about where the politically-inspired show would end up, and what it would mean for the culture:

“”You talked about snow storms, charter schools… I understand that the entire station can’t go over to WBLS… We need to make sure that WBLS, that “The Open Line,” “Week In Review” comes to the table… We need to show them how sorry we are that you’re leaving, by not turning on WBLS… by not turning on WBLS so they will ask why didn’t our numbers move?… I’m in your corner. We need to do all we can do to make sure that the team continues to be heard” – Norman

Staffers from TonyQ to Bob SladeDJ Red Alert, and General Manager Fatiyn Muhammadand more had their chance to speak and an opportunity to be honored; but the abrupt goodbye has left many without jobs, and even more listeners concerned about the future of urban music radio.  When large mergers such as the Disney/Emmis one comes about, it seems great for business in terms of money, but when it backlashes onto an established community such as this, the question arises in its progressiveness.

While moving up in money and profit, it can disband decades of memories and history.  Kiss-FM deserved more preparation for this abrupt change and an organized event for its farewell.  In the end, TonyQ sent it off with Willie Hutch’s “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out,” and there’s really no better optimistic tune for the successful 30-year-run to end.


And peep DJ Red Alert’s final spin on Kiss FM [here]

[Other Notable Station Personalities: Jonathan Taylor, Roberta Flack, Ashford & Simpson, Isaac Hayes, Ed Lover, DJ Cocoa Chanelle]

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