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Heart Kent closure makes kmfm only Kent-based commercial music station

By Chris Britcher

When James Heming and Becky Ives bid a tearful farewell to listeners on Heart Kent's breakfast show at the end of last month, it marked the close of yet another chapter in the county's local radio story.

For many, in the eighties and nineties Invicta FM - as it was known in the days before it was consumed by Heart and rebranded - was essential listening. Sat in the county it served, its name was everywhere and with its diet of pop old and new, it provided the soundtrack to many's daily life.

But the radio world has changed dramatically over recent years with deregulation of the industry bringing with it a host of changes.

Heart Kent's former studios at the John Wilson Business Park in Whitstable - they stopped broadcasting there on May 31
Heart Kent's former studios at the John Wilson Business Park in Whitstable - they stopped broadcasting there on May 31

From its launch in 1984, Invicta emerged in an era of million-selling hit singles, genuine excitement around the charts and no internet.

Outgrowing its studios in Canterbury and Maidstone, it set up its final home, in 1991, on an industrial estate in Whitstable.

Then began a period of ownership changes and shifting sands which would ultimately dictate its fate.

By the mid-1990s the Radio Authority (subsequently to become part of Ofcom, the broadcast regulator) had awarded a host of rival commercial station licences in the county.

Garry and Laura kmfm Breakfast - stock pic (11472897)
Garry and Laura kmfm Breakfast - stock pic (11472897)

As a result, Invicta found competition from the likes of TLR in Thanet, Medway FM, Neptune Radio in Folkestone and Dover, CTFM in Canterbury and KFM in Tonbridge and Sevenoaks - all of which took a nibble from the advertising revenue on which it relied, as well as its listener numbers.

In order to consolidate these threats nationally, some of the big radio station owners started to merge – including, in 2005, Invicta's then owner Capital and the GWR Group, which owned a host of stations including Classic FM, to create GCap Media.

In order to streamline content more cost-effectively, a large chunk of the programming became 'networked' - in other words the same shows broadcast across a huge swathe of the country with only a sprinkling of local, day-time content.

Just three years later, it too was consumed by a takeover by Global Radio which already owned the likes of Heart and Galaxy.

James Heming and Becky Ives bid farewell to Heart last week (10020576)
James Heming and Becky Ives bid farewell to Heart last week (10020576)

The move would see the Heart brand rolled out across a host of stations. Invicta would be one - spelling the end of its very Kentish name.

As Ofcom further relaxed regulations relating to local content, the radio station once so part of the county's fabric started to fade for the Kent listener as less and less programming emerged from its Whitstable base.

On May 31, 2019, after some 35 years of broadcasting from the county, Heart Kent's studios shut and local content merged across a broad south area. No longer a local radio station - now just an outpost of a large media conglomerate with no physical presence in the county.

At the time of its closure the only local content during the week was breakfast, where James Heming had steered the ship for almost 20 years, and the drivetime slot.

Garry and Laura kmfm Breakfast - stock pic (11472871)
Garry and Laura kmfm Breakfast - stock pic (11472871)

As for those small local stations that popped up in the 1990s - they would later be acquired by the KM Media Group and become what is now known as kmfm.

After years of gradual growth where it ate further and further into Heart Kent's audience, kmfm now stands alone as the only Kent-based commercial music station broadcasting across the county.

According to the latest industry RAJAR figures, 10,000 more people are tuning into kmfm each week, with some 210,000 weekly listeners - far in excess of BBC Radio Kent and fast approaching Heart Kent before it ditched local shows.

kmfm Breakfast with Garry and Laura lead the way with over 130,000 listeners tuning in to the duo, also a record.

Head of multimedia news at the KM Media Group, Nicola Everett, looks back at her time at Invicta FM.

Growing up in Kent and listening to Invicta FM went hand-in-hand.

The Morning Zoo was the constant companion on the journey to secondary school in the 90s.

Although, I must admit this was in a friend's car as my mum preferred Invicta Supergold.

It was something I hadn't heard before. An entire team on the radio all chipping in.

Nicola Everett, formerly with Invicta FM, now kmfm
Nicola Everett, formerly with Invicta FM, now kmfm

I wasn't a radio geek but was captivated by the show and the presenters in the county were of mini-celebrity status.

Radio was that ever-present during GCSE and A level revision and then through the university essay writing days.

My route into the industry was through work experience at Medway FM and being offered the chance to read a bulletin on my final day. I caught the bug and pestered to help out until they eventually employed me.

Two years later I was asked to go for an interview at Invicta FM.

I joined the five-strong news team at the studios in Whitstable in 2001. Initially reading the bulletins on sister station Capital Gold, I progressed onto Invicta day-times, then drivetime and eventually the breakfast show with James Heming.

"It was something I hadn't heard before. An entire team on the radio all chipping in..." Nicola Everett

At the time, the station was broadcasting live 24 hours a day and I learnt so much, not just about news but the whole radio industry.

It was a fantastic time with wonderful opportunities and arguably one of the busiest new patches in the country outside of London.

And yes, I even got to go up in the travel plane – it was real, and took off from a field on Sheppey.

I was only very briefly part of the Heart brand and despite moving on in my career it is still sad to see a former workplace close.

I have very happy memories from my many years at Invicta FM and it is the people that made it such a wonderful time.

'I love doing kmfm'

There are few people still working to have played a pivotal role in pop music radio's birth and evolution to this day.

Tony Blackburn, now 76, is one.

Starting his broadcasting career 55 years ago, he was one of the pioneering DJs on pirate pop ship Radio Caroline, which tapped into teenagers' desire for pop music radio, before joining the BBC Radio 1 line-up for its launch in 1967 - presenting its first ever show.

Today he continues his remarkable career on kmfm, broadcasting every Sunday from 4pm to 7pm.

Tony Blackburn (11910851)
Tony Blackburn (11910851)

He has watched the devouring of local radio by the big media groups with concern.

"The biggest mistake commercial radio has made in this country has just happened now," he says. "Allowing local radio stations to be bought up by the big networks like Global and Bauer [Absolute Radio, Magic, Kiss] and not have it truly local.

"With local radio you can talk about events happening in the local area, you understand the audience more; particularly those who do the breakfast and drivetime shows. And with all the outside broadcasts, which kmfm does, the people love seeing the people they're listening to.

“Sometimes on radio stations during the day, the DJ hardly says anything. The thing is, we have Spotify, we have YouTube and all these things, and we have to really make the programmes as entertaining as they possibly can be to attract new listeners. They shouldn’t just be a jukebox.”

"The biggest mistake commercial radio has made in this country has just happened now..." Tony Blackburn

And the winner of two lifetime achievement awards from the Radio Academy, and a former regular presenter of Top of the Pops, he has no intention of hanging up his headphones, just yet

"At kmfm I choose the music I play on my own programme and I'm allowed to talk between the records," he says.

"I love doing kmfm. It's what local commercial radio should be."

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