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Does Australia need the return of Wild FM?

12 May 2020 | 3:25 pm | Staff Writer

If commercial radio can’t deliver for young people, can the next Wild FM please stand up?

The late 90s and early 2000s were a catalyst for club music. We had a boring radio market dominated by Austereo who thought Bachelor Girl were cool. Nova didn’t exist. Want to whinge about Australian content on radio now? Try it back then when there was really only one “hit” music station in the market. Australian music was still in a period where it was all about rock. Triple J had its place and was championing Powderfinger and Something For Kate, but there was a whole dance culture that had been building at the same time that was seen as somehow “mainstream” but ignored by the mainstream.

Australia knew how to do dance and pop, but Triple J did not. We were in clubs every weekend dancing to these tunes, but where could we find them on the radio? Well, in a quirk of history, we could find it on Wild FM, Switch FM, Kiss FM, Raw FM, Pulse FM and a range of others that were asked by the government to compete for a frequency.

So for a couple of years, across Australia we had innovative radio. Radio that understood that dance and pop was not a dirty word and clubbing is a way of life. Local club stars like Madison Avenue or Smash n Grab or Sgt Slick had a launching pad. European stars like The Vengaboys, Sash and Whigfield found an audience. DJs like Nick Skitz, Jimmy Z and Alex K became suburban heroes.

Wild FM did the best job of commercialising it. Wild compilations consistently topped the chart and probably held up the revenues of Shock Records when Frenzal Rhomb had an off year. Every day, live and local Australian club songs were getting an airing on stations that were seriously challenging their commercial rivals. Australian artists were being interviewed live and local in their own towns. And more than that, they were charting off the back of it! It was a heady time. Teen TV drama ‘Raw FM’ was even made off the back of the culture these stations contributed to.

Commercial radio stations had to watch while their younger demographics melted away, not just to community radio but to trial community radio. Oh the horror! At the end of the trial, each frequency was to be given to a local station that was going to be given a real licence to be competing forever in their local markets.

The commercial stations rallied. This could NOT be allowed to happen. In Sydney, where the need and competition was potentially the fiercest, the licence was awarded to FBi. Great call to a great local station, but commercial stations gave a sigh of relief that it didn’t go to more commercial-sounding rivals like Wild, playing the dance music that suburban teens were craving. Luckily FBi opened strongly and eventually launched FBi Click (which we were apart of before moving onto to the analogue airwaves!), satisfying a broad range of listeners, but never quite scratched the “Wild FM” itch.

In Melbourne, SYN got the licence which was another great call for a deserving station, although it ensured that the licence once again was a broad-based community applicant rather than one of the dance stations. Kiss FM managed to live on as a narrowcast and continues to serve Melbourne to this day, albeit with a lower powered licence and online. Still, the Wild FM shaped hole remained.

In Brisbane, it was even more heartbreaking for club fans. Allegedly due to lobbying by the commercial networks, over the period of the community test broadcasters, ACMA decided to move the ethnic broadcaster (which was largely spoken word) from AM to FM and provide a new licence to Christian station Family Radio on FM. Despite three dance stations in the mix for a licence (Wild, Pulse and Switch), only Switch was successful, but were given the poison challis of an AM frequency. Dance music on AM? Good luck. It’s a Christian miracle that they struggle on today as Brisbane Youth Radio on AM, but was great news for B105 who got their younger listeners back, albeit temporarily before Nova arrived.

For Adelaide, it was a win for Fresh FM, perhaps the most popular applicant to get a full time licence. They continue today pumping out great tunes for youth and discovering new radio talent like Ben and Liam who went on Triple J and now Nova breakfast. The Gold Coast was also lucky enough to get a licence for dance station Radio Metro.

But outside of Adelaide and the Gold Coast, the commercial stations got largely what they wanted, either in competition being squashed or the kind of competition they were happy to live with. The surge in teenage engagement with dance culture, the competition between stations and the excitement of that period of time melted away. Nova launched not much later, not surprisingly taking the mantle of “sounds different” and playing a range of club tunes in their early days, capturing a lot of the youth market. Essentially Nova’s original playlist was Triple J, Wild FM and the top 30 mashed together, partly filling the hole that dance radio left behind.

Fast forward to today, and what do we have? Now we have three supposedly new music stations (2Day/Fox/Hit, Nova and Kiis), playing the same mundane, mainstream, international hits, aiming at 35-year-old females. “New music” now means the sixth single from last year’s P!nk album. The conditions are exactly the same as those in the mid-90s that birthed the rise of club radio. Triple J does a great job, but it’s not exactly a pop station, and there are plenty of listeners out there that aren’t listening to Triple J, and aren’t being served by commercial radio. Chances are if you're reading this, it might even be you. They love club music. They love electronic. They love hip hop. And they love homegrown Australian artists. So, it begs the question: is it time for a new frequency to be opened up? It’s been 20 years since the Wild / Pulse / Switch / Kiss wars. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about who won because none of them really did. But the battle for dance, pop and "urban" to be heard on the airwaves was one worth having, setting up musical tastes and radio careers for a generation. Now, with a new generation, is it time for another battle?

2020 is a bit different. Wild FM 2020 would not be playing quite so much Ann Lee and Vengaboys. It would still reflect what real suburban kids want to hear. It would have been playing Endor's 'Pump It Up' last year. They’d be smashing Willaris. K and Fisher more than revered Ed Sheeran is on 2Day FM. They’d be playing new club tunes in prime time the week they come out, not five months later when they hit some magical number in someone’s research. There would be a natural home for ONEFOURTkay Maidza and Manu Crook$. Put short, it would serve young “mainstream” kids in a way that commercial radio simply doesn’t anymore. Commercial radio should be embracing the idea. They need young people to re-engage with a platform they are exiting in droves from to defect to streaming platforms. If they’ve deserted young people to chase after “grocery buyers” then move aside. Surely you can’t be scared of an 18-year-old program director broadcasting from a room with egg cartons on the walls in a free warehouse space staffed by other eager teenagers?

What radio can deliver is local voices. Local music. And it can build a community like those that were built around Wild. And Switch, Kiss, Pulse, Raw, Fresh and Radio Metro. If commercial radio can’t deliver for young people, can the next Wild FM please stand up?

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