Capital Radio

The pop soundtrack to life in 80s Abu Dhabi

Over its almost 20-year run, Capital Radio brought pop music and a growing sense of internationalism to Abu Dhabi 

When the country was only a few years old, a new sound crackled into life across Abu Dhabi. Broadcast on 93.5FM from studios on the Corniche, Capital Radio was Abu Dhabi’s first attempt a pop music station. The old brand was back in the news this week when it was revealed that a new station called Capital Radio is launching. There is no direct link with the original, but it rekindled a lot of warm memories.  

Capital Radio was established by the Ministry of Information and Culture to cater for the surging expatriate population arriving in Abu Dhabi on the back of the oil-led construction boom.

It replaced Abu Dhabi FM, which authorities felt was not sufficiently different from the existing Voice of Abu Dhabi AM service of news, classical music and features in English, Urdu and French.

A punchy upstart

Peter Hellyer headed up foreign language broadcasting for Abu Dhabi from 1978 to 1982 and recalls the thinking behind the new station.

“The feeling was that Abu Dhabi FM was not that new or exciting and we should do something different with the FM,” he said.

“Capital Radio was more punchy and also brought opportunities for advertising and sponsorship.”

Capital Radio was, at its heart, a community station. Forget automated playlists, DJs played what they wanted, answered the phones and locked up the station at midnight. It ran initially for three hours a day.

Clive McNeil arrived in the city during the late 1970s to DJ at Sherezade, the Hilton’s legendary nightclub. But he quickly ended up on Capital Radio, presenting the top 40 countdown on Fridays.

McNeil chronicled his days here in a series of remarkable photographs. Taken on a Pentax LX 35mm camera,  they show tower cranes in Abu Dhabi’s sprouting skyline, live events undertaken by staff and atmospheric shots of Abu Dhabi’s old souq.

Despite being a community radio show at heart, there was no shortage of familiar faces passing through its studios.

Sacha Disel, the French singer who found fame with a cover of Raindrops keep falling on my head casually dropped by in the early 1980s. British singer Lulu also visited. And Tina Turner, clad in all black, was also interviewed around the same time. She sits nonchalantly on a red chair, surrounded by stacks of vinyl, a huge radio and reels of tape.

Bootleg Top 40

Because he was a club DJ, McNeil was sent fresh vinyl from the UK which he was able to use on air. But sometimes he had to resort to more creative methods.

“If I could find it on cassette down at the souq I’d use it if the quality was good,” he said.

“We bought shedloads of cassettes there. They were all bootlegs because that was the only way to get your music.”

Capital FM made an immediate impact. People listened in cars, at the office and at home. 

Ali Khaled, now editor of football magazine FourFourTwo Arabia, grew up in Abu Dhabi in the 1980s.

This was the era of the Walkman, cassette decks and waiting diligently by the radio to tape your favourite song.

After the top 40 show, he and his teenage friends would decamp to the Hamdan Centre to buy tapes.

Before mega malls, this was the place to shop and the traders there sold bootleg cassettes made by a company called Thomsun Original.

“The Hamdan Centre was our go to place,” he says. “We’d listen to the charts, tape them and also buy the tapes there. The cassettes cost about Dh5 each. Michael Jackson was big.”

For Khaled, life then was a shared experience. “Now everybody does their own thing. But then you would hear the same songs and at school everyone talked about it.”

When did Capital Radio actually start? The idea of formal opening was a little more flexible four decades ago. But Roger Paine, who joined the station in 1983 as a presenter, says Capital Radio definitely opened in 1979.

Paine remembers broadcasting from the original studios on the Corniche that were effectively an underground bunker.

“It was reinforced concrete down there,” says Paine, who was just 24 at the time and went on to become station manager. He is also the man behind the new Capital Radio. “The air-conditioning would break down frequently. No air got in and we would melt,” says Paine.

“There was no running water, we had portaloos outside and it was stocked on a daily basis with water from the Ministry of Information and Culture.”

DJs loved their jobs, became instantly recognisable and the invites to events across town flowed. Fadi Mansour joined in 1992.

“We were all on freelance basis, meaning we would be paid per shift, whether that would be presenting, doing a secretary shift or even news reading,” says Mansour who now works with Heart 107.1 out of Dubai.

“It was a very well organised, chaotic environment that was very popular, with lots of great characters and people who enjoyed presenting on a true community radio station.”

Paine says the time spent in Abu Dhabi changed his life.

“You were a big fish in a very small pond," he said.

It also afforded an opportunity to meet some big stars. An acoustic set in the studios by British band, The Hollies stands out, another was the brief and a perhaps, rather reluctant, appearance by the legendary Shirley Bassey.

“She came in, walked down the stairs into our shack with her five-strong entourage to do a ten-minute interview.”

Community spirit.

Community spirit.

The old Abu Dhabi souq.

The old Abu Dhabi souq.

On air.

On air.

Open-air broadcast.

Open-air broadcast.

Surviving jingles and audioclips

The advertisements and jingles from Capital Radio’s surviving audio clips represent an era long gone yet still oddly familiar. Now Abu Dhabi has just opened a huge Warner Brothers theme park but twenty years ago, all roads led to the now rather quaint Hili Fun City amusement park in Al Ain with “35 per cent more rides and attractions”.

Another asked listeners to visit the laptop shop at the Hilton, a promo for Spinneys was set to Cher’s Shoop Shoop Shoop song:

News bulletins relayed alerts about new ambassadorial appointments to the UAE, trouble in Palestine and clashes in Sarajevo:

A competition for a Paul Young gig:

A jingle and a DJ:

Abu Dhabi Sunshine... I'm back where I belong

Capital Radio even spawned a cult hit - Abu Dhabi Sunshine.

The song was written by Walter Troelsen, a Danish multilingual musician who travelled the world performing at clubs and hotels.

Troelsen played the Tavern Bar in the Sheraton and composed the lyrics which include:

“I see the most exciting places in this crazy world … 
But in my mind I could never forget you, I was dreaming of you day and night - now I’m back because I’m missing you so.
Abu Dhabi sunshine … here I come. I’m back where I belong.”

Troelsen became a monk for a time in Thailand and is now believed to be back in Denmark.

More of his work can be found on his Soundcloud page.

The sound of Abu Dhabi internationalism and Capital's decline

By 1988, the studios had moved to where Abu Dhabi TV is today. And 10 years later, Capital Radio had ceased to exist. Emirates Media, which then owned the station, replaced Capital Radio in 1999 with Radio 1 and Radio 2. But over its almost 20-year run, the station had provided the soundtrack to Abu Dhabi’s city’s expansion and growing internationalism.

“You were alone in the studio but you never feel that way. I always felt a connection to the audience that I couldn’t see,” says “Uncle” Bob Myerscough, who presented shows on Capital Radio during the 1990s.

“Abu Dhabi then was much smaller than now and everybody knew all the DJs. It was a great time which I wouldn’t have missed for the world.”

Capital Radio’s transmission mast and original underground studios are still there on the Corniche, obscured by trees beside Spinney’s and the Adnoc service station.

The Hamdan Centre, too, survives, but you won’t find cassette shops there any more. Nor will a Google search throw up many results about Capital Radio. The details are buried in old audio files, shoeboxes of photos, scans of old newspaper articles and the memories of listeners and DJs who were all part of this freewheeling time.

Credits

Words: John Dennehy
Editing: Rory Reynolds, Nigel Walsh and Stephen Nelmes
Photography: Courtesy Clive McNeil
Audio clips Courtesy Bob Myerscough and Roger Paine
Audio editing: Kevin Jeffers
Video featuring music by Walter Troelsen: Courtesy of Bob Myerscough

Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2018