Sunday, 28 February 2010

In the late eighties, when I was a teenager in London, pickings were slim for young music lovers like me. Radio 1 was still firmly in the grip of Simon ‘our tune’ Bates and Gary ‘young, free and single’ Davies; we did have John Peel, and treasured him, but sometimes yearned to not have to sit through sessions by, say, Extreme Noise Terror to get to the good stuff. There was no internet, of course, and albums, even on cassette, cost the best part of a tenner. You might find this hard to believe, but we didn’t even have Spotify. We did, though, have no fewer than three (broadsheet!) weekly music papers - known as the ‘inkies’ - and it’s no exaggeration to say I read about music a lot more than I actually heard it. So when a lively little radio station called Q102 popped up out of nowhere it offered a ray of hope to us music starved young pups. It wasn’t particularly legal, and it came and went sporadically in the fly by night style of other pirate stations. But it was a far cry from the sort of pirate radio that blasted out of minicabs crossing the Thames; it was more like the NME in radio form. Indeed, Steve Lamacq from that organ was an early presenter, a vastly enthusiastic, shambolic presence who seemed to love all indie music equally. A few years later Q102, now fully legit and above board, relaunched as XFM. For a while, all seemed well, but this is not a story with a happy ending. Just look it now, and weep with me: owned by something called Global Radio, tied to dreary playlists and staffed by obnoxious presenters, it has become the unloved purveyor of landfill indie.

I relate all this as a salutary tale and a riposte to those who claim that if our beloved 6 Music were to be closed by a timorous BBC, as has been widely reported, it could be easily replaced by the commercial sector. After all, it’s only pop music, right? And a company called Absolute Radio have said that they would buy 6 Music from the BBC and run it better and at half the cost. Now, we don’t know what their idea of running it ‘better’ is, but I somehow doubt it will include the esoteric delights of Jarvis Cocker ruminating at length on Camus, breaking off only occasionally to play something by, say, Suicide. Just a wild guess.

Actually, I can’t imagine much of the output of 6 Music finding a home on other stations. At a push, Adam and Joe might get a slot on Radio 2. Otherwise, I fear if closure is allowed it will truly be the day the music dies. Because sometimes 6 just seems too good to be allowed to carry on. Today, for instance, I switched on 6 and the very first thing I heard was John Cale’s timeless Paris 1919. For those of us who have grown up listening to pop radio, we’re just not used to this kind of quality from our broadcast media. As many have pointed out this week, the 6 schedules are filled with knowledgeable, passionate presenters playing music they really care about. Even the playlist is reasonably unobtrusive. I’m talking about people like Lauren Laverne, Stuart Maconie, Tom Robinson, Jarvis, Marc Riley – and not least Steve Lamacq, having come full circle and finally sounding in his element on 6. It’s easily enough to forgive them for Liz Kershaw. Even the highly unsavoury George Lamb serves a purpose, which is to encourage us to become more fully rounded people by listening to Radio 4 for a bit.

Best of all, though, is the peerless Gideon Coe. I have ‘Gideon Coe’ moments all the time, which is when he plays something that I thought only I liked, or that I loved as a teenager but haven’t heard for 20 years. It might be something by Neutral Milk Hotel, or the Monochrome Set, or Miracle Fortress. I often look up at the radio in surprise. Is he really playing this? And he introduces me to about five things I like that I’ve never heard before - every night. The closest antecedent is probably Mark Radcliffe’s old Radio 1 evening show. Radcliffe, great while he lasted, was derailed by his ambition. It’s something you can’t imagine ever happening to Gideon.

Of course even my precious 6 isn’t perfect. It will occasionally submit me to musical horrors, and sometimes even to the Horrors. Just the other day Collins and Herring, without warning, put me through the ordeal of listening to an entire song by U2. If I tune in during the daytime there’s a good chance I might be subjected something unpleasant by Florence and the Machine. And there are probably too many musical celebrity DJs, Jarvis of course being an honourable exception. Yeah, that means you, Huey Morgan. But we put up with these things from those we love.

So what on earth are they thinking? The proposal to close 6 is included in a leaked report ironically titled Putting Quality First, authored by a Tory goon called John Tate. The accusation is that stations with low audience and low public recognition make for poor value for licence payers’ money. Only 20% of people surveyed had heard of 6 Music, they say. The average listener age is 35, they say, as if there’s something wrong with that. My response would be: so what? Putting it bluntly, if someone hasn’t heard of it, they’re probably not going to like it anyway. I don’t think the average man on the street would jump at the chance to hear Brazilian psychedelia on the Freak Zone on a Sunday afternoon, if only he knew it was there. Anyway, audience figures of 700,000 don’t seem so low to me, for an under-promoted digital only station. I also find one in five a surprisingly high figure and the annual budget of £7m a drop in the ocean, come to that, but maybe that’s just me.

As many have reminded us this week, the BBC’s founder Lord Reith stated that its purpose was to ‘inform, educate and entertain, to enrich people's lives’. We can only assume that this is what Mark Thompson had in mind when he commissioned Snog Marry Avoid for BBC 3; or when he courted the Pope to appear on Radio 4’s odious Thought for the Day; or when he thought it might be a good idea to close down a rare shining jewel of broadcasting excellence whose loss would leave a massive music-shaped hole in people’s lives. But we should not be surprised if Mark Thompson does not always display sensitivity and good judgment. After all, this is a man who was once forced to formally apologise to a colleague after biting him on the arm during an office dispute (his victim unsportingly ‘took it the wrong way’ and complained). I think we can conclude Mr Thompson is probably not a big Belle and Sebastian fan.

I’m an optimist, and my feeling is that 6 Music will survive, at least for now. What the station has on its side is a base of highly articulate and passionate fans, and my guess is the scale of the backlash will take the BBC by surprise. Protest groups and campaigns have sprung up. People like me have been inspired to complain to the BBC for the first time ever. This is what 6 Music does: it inspires devotion. There have also already been a deluge of articles in its defence, eloquently presenting the case for survival. One notable exception was the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis, who unhelpfully pointed out that the output often sounds like a ‘student indie disco circa 1989’. Thanks Alexis. And your articles often read like they belong in a student newspaper. In 1987, at a polytechnic. But I digress.

6 Music is for people who still love music, but have reached a point in their life where they don’t necessarily have time to seek it out like they used to. And what a luxury it is, to be able to turn on Gideon and hear Can and the Ronettes and Animal Collective and the Staple Singers and the Zombies and Yo La Tengo and...yeah, you get the idea. 6 Music is our constant companion and the soundtrack to our lives. Unfortunately the BBC doesn’t seem to cherish it like we do – and the only place it can exist is within the BBC. After all, just look what happened to XFM when the money men got their claws into it.