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BBC 6 Music - The Best Kept Secret in Radio

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A few minutes to midnight on Monday, January 5th 2015, and BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Gideon Coe plays ‘Happy New Year to You’ by Sun Ra and the Qualities as a seasonal end to the first of his regular night-time shows of the year. Neither record nor artist saw airplay that day from any other of Coe's fellow DJs; between 'Happy New Year to You' and day's first track, California folk singer Jesca Hoop’s ‘Out the Back Door,’ BBC Radio 6 Music broadcast over three hundred songs, with only a carefully selected handful repeated. This is the way with the digital-only 6 Music, where no two days are quite alike and alternative rock rubs shoulders with ambient, prog rock, blues, electronica, film soundtracks and the odd – often very odd – novelty song. Based in BBC studios in London and Manchester, 6 Music is a radio station that makes its own rules, to the delight of its listeners.

Singin' the Same Old Song

Contrast 6 Music’s prolific and varied playlist to the 190 or so songs by one of the USA’s leading alternative music stations, Los Angeles-based KROQ, during the same day. The KROQ playlist includes some classic songs by some great bands, but restricts itself to a small number of well-known groups: U2, Nirvana, The Killers, Coldplay, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and so on, most of which played the day before, and will play again the next day. 6 Music’s ‘A’ playlist for the first week of 2015 includes Scottish indie pop band Belle & Sebastian, Portland folk-rockers The Decemberists, London hip-hop act and 2014 Mercury Award winners Young Fathers and the jazz-rock singer Nadine Shah, an artist of Pakistani-Norwegian roots. The vibe of the station is also more intimate and less confrontational than some commercial stations; 6 Music DJs are more like friends playing records from their personal collections they think you’ll find interesting, presenters who in the words of The Independent newspaper, are “smart and quirky, combining musical knowledge and an authentic voice with an impressive bank of trivia.” All this means it’s difficult to grow bored with 6 Music even if you listen all day, as I often do.  

DAB Radio
And I’m not alone. According to figures released in October 2014, around 1.99 million tune in to 6 Music at least once a day, making it the most popular of Britain’s digital-only stations. A small figure compared to BBC Radio 2, the UK's most-listened to AM station with a daily audience of 15 million, but what makes 6 Music’s achievements all the more remarkable is its near-extinction five years ago, when audiences were around a third of the current level.    

6 Music launched on March 11th 2002 as the BBC’s first digital radio station. Although the UK, then as now, possessed the most extensive digital network in the world, very few people owned the required DAB radio sets in 2002 and we were still five years from the first iPhones and iPlayer services. Years later in a newspaper interview, Gideon Coe, one of the station’s longest-serving DJs, said in an interview the BBC issued digital radios to 6 Music staff members so they could listen to their own station, such was the limited availability of sets at the time. Portable DAB sets were unreliable, as I often found with my personal digital radio, the signal scrambling painfully if you so much as walked past a large tree or happened to encounter heavy rain. The only other way to listen to a digital station at the time was via digital television, hardly the most practical way to listen to radio. 6 Music began life by broadcasting to a vacuum. 

The Sound of Silence

Despite an impressive opening roster of DJs, including musicians (Bruce Dickinson, Tom Robinson, Brindsley Ford) and seasoned national DJs (Liz Kershaw, Janice Long, Claire McDonnell), 6 Music struggled to make any impact on the consciousness of national radio listeners, with many unaware of the station’s output or indeed its existence. Shows didn’t feel as if they fitted together or belonged on the same station, in a jarring collection of programs with no collective ‘spirit’, even if individual shows were in themselves entertaining. The original remit of 6 Music to play mostly archive sessions and album tracks sounded laudable on paper, but proved stodgy and unwieldy (sometimes there’s a good reason an album track is just that), with much of the music played during the daytime sounding like records cast aside by the more conventional Radio 2, with a few of R.E.M.’s obscurer singles thrown in to keep the music snobs happy.

Yet 6 Music had so much to gain. BBC Radio 1, for years the only UK station interested in playing contemporary music, had a repetitive playlist based almost entirely around the Top 40 chart. Despite great efforts by past DJs who focused on new music, such as Steve Lamacq, Jo Whiley, and that great champion of the obscure and independent, John Peel, Radio 1’s output often felt little different to its pop-oriented commercial rivals. With Radio 3 purely for classical music, and Radio 2 locked into a 'golden oldie' MOR music policy, the BBC’s AM stations could neither exploit the corporation’s rich archive of rock and pop, nor fully immerse itself in the diverse and ever-expanding underground of independent music. 

Ratings were so small back then a listener could claim shows as ‘their own,’ and get in touch

The War on Drugs
with DJs relatively easily. The host of one of my favorite shows in the early years of 6 Music,  journalist Andrew Collins, frequented the same internet forum as I did, and fellow users often suggested tracks for Collins’ regular features on the show. I like to think my letter to Collins' afternoon show during summer 2002 became the first ‘snail mail’ read out on air on 6 Music, and if it wasn’t, then at least it kept me happy for a while. And this summarized 6 Music’s problem; it could not win friends outside an internet-savvy clique of the 'converted'. Seven years after its launch, 6 Music had listening figures under 600,000 and inadvertently found itself a symbol of a certain alt-rock attitude; committed to the cause, but awkward with it; under-achievers, but proud. 

The Day 6 Music Died?

February 2010 changed all this. A review conducted by BBC executives, passed to the BBC Trust for recommendation, fell into the hands of the press, who reported (some with glee, others with dismay) that 6 Music, along with another of the corporation’s digital stations, the BBC Asian Network, faced being shut down. The closures were to save costs and open up greater opportunity for other more commercial enterprises, though supporters of the doomed stations felt the BBC were making sacrifices in the hope of appeasing its critics in light of forthcoming funding reviews. 6 Music faced criticism from the Trust for low ratings (fair enough), lack of audience diversity (the station’s listeners are often stereotyped as male, aging rock nerds) and for employing presenters who “lacked credibility as music experts” (a bizarre accusation leading many to suspect the Trust of willful ignorance).

For five months, 6 Music (and the Asian Network) continued with an axe over its neck. DJs broadcast specially recorded appeals at the end of their shows asking listeners to contact the BBC Trust if they disagreed with the decision to close the station, though few at 6 Music felt much hope of rescue. However, there’s no fan like a die-hard music fan; both the Trust and the station reckoned without a listenership who looked on 6 Music as more than just something playing in the background, but as an outpost of musical independence, a refuge where the diffident could celebrate the different in a space which epitomized the BBC ideals of learning, community, and promoting artistic and cultural values around the world, “nation shall speak Pixies unto nation,” as it were.

6 Music supporters, very much of the social media generation, knew how to organize themselves. Rallies were held outside BBC Center in London; fans engaged the full force of Twitter and Facebook; online petitions sprung up; former BBC Chairman Greg Dyke reported being harangued in the street by listeners desperate for ‘their’ station to survive, despite Dyke leaving the post several months before the decision.

Media City
News of the closure had another unexpected side-effect, in the form of invaluable publicity. By May 2010, RAJAR, the official ratings body of UK radio, reported 6 Music’s audience as tipping the one million mark for the first time, as thousands tuned in to hear what the fuss was about and, liking what they heard, stayed tuned in. Yet the decision also had its supporters, many from the commercial radio sector, already concerned at the ‘unfair’ nature of the BBC’s market dominance of radio, along with the corporation’s usual detractors in the more right-wing sections of the UK press, who viewed 6 Music as yet another niche indulgence of the BBC’s, funded by licence-fee payers who’d rather the money were spent on original TV shows and 'elitist' radio programs.

The final decision came on July 5th 2010. With admirable control, mid-morning DJ Lauren Laverne read out the announcement that the BBC Trust had considered their executives’ recommendations, but disagreed with the case made against 6 Music and the Asian Network. The Trust recognized in particular the affection held for 6 Music, whose service supplied a need the commercial sector could not fill. 6 Music lived!

Inform - Educate - Entertain

And the station not only lived, but thrived. 2012, the year of the station’s tenth anniversary, saw 6 Music pick up the ‘Station of the Year’ prize at the prestigious Radio Academy Awards (“6 Music displays a confidence across its schedules that not only reflects a real passion for music, but also a firm understanding of the audience,” commented judges), while an anniversary gig took place at London’s Southbank center featuring Laura Marling, De La Soul, Public Image Ltd and Graham Coxon. Newspaper articles, admittedly from newspapers traditionally friendly towards public service broadcasting, praised 6 Music for its “very particular style of intelligent chit-chat and mind-boggling music range,” and the winning combination of “affable presenting” with “esoteric music.” The music editor of culture and style magazine Dazed & Confused, Tim Noakes, noted the increasing listenership (now around the 1.4 million mark) came from “appealing to hipsters and housewives without coming off as disingenuous.”

There followed further success in 2014, the year of 6 Music’s first dedicated festival, a two-day event held in Manchester. The October ratings sweep saw 6 Music overtake BBC Radio 3, the classical AM station available to anyone with an analogue radio. This led a Member of Parliament, Tom Watson, to suggest the two stations swop frequencies, although both are likely to continue in their current form for the foreseeable future; any changes to the more highbrow Radio 3 always leaves the BBC open to claims of ‘cultural vandalism’ from its critics.

The new figures showed 6 Music’s most popular show as Lauren Laverne’s, broadcast from

Lauren Laverne
Monday to Friday, 10.00am to 1.00pm UK time. Laverne is typical of 6 Music’s roster in that she is a former musician herself, with her old band Kenickie enjoying four UK Top 40 singles and two Top 40 albums during the late 1990s. Laverne won praise both within the BBC and without; Helen Boaden, BBC radio director, called Laverne’s show “a case study in engaging and intelligent radio,” while Miranda Sawyer, a journalist at The Observer, a liberal Sunday newspaper, remarked “a radio show hosted by a solo female becoming the most popular on a station dominated by male presenters? Has this ever happened before?” Regular features on Laverne’s show include MPFree, where listeners can download a track from a station favorite for nothing; the often touching Memory Tapes, where a listener discusses a mixtape of special meaning to them; and the Headphones moment, a track picked to relax by for a couple of minutes during a busy day.

So, if you tuned into 6 Music for the first time, what could you expect? It’s tempting to say "the unexpected." Comparemyradio.com, a site analyzing UK radio content, calculates how many of the tracks each station plays is ‘unique’; that is, whether a song has played before on that station within a set time, say, thirty days. Commercial networks, catering to the most conservative and broadest of tastes due to market pressures, fared badly, with figures between 5% and 20% of tracks played only once during those thirty days. 6 Music scored a remarkable 70%; of 6,719 songs, only 2,045 were repeated at all across the previous month.

The Last Bastion of 'Donk'

This doesn’t mean every record played on 6 Music is by some obscure 1960s avant-garde Belgian jazz noodler. Last.fm shows the five most played acts on 6 Music during 2014 were Metronomy, Elbow (whose lead singer, Guy Garvey, presents a weekly show), Beck, St Vincent and most popular of all, David Bowie. All five acts are known to anyone with an interest in contemporary music. And if you are interested in obscure 1960s avant-garde Belgian jazz noodlers, you might want to tune into Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone, a left-field show even by this network's standards.        

Talking of Stuart Maconie, he co-presents one of my favourite shows on 6 Music, Radcliffe & Maconie, five days a week on weekday afternoons. Although there are less comedians

Radcliffe and Maconie
broadcasting on the network than a few years ago (Stephen Merchant, star of HBO’s Hello Ladies, hosted a weekly show between 2007 and 2009), Radcliffe & Maconie is a prime example of the station's geeky, self-deprecating and often absurdist sense of humor. Aside from ongoing obsessions with cowbells and cheese, Maconie and Mark Radcliffe (a former record producer-turned-DJ) are also proud founders of the Rock Trouser Museum (home to a grand total of one pair of trousers courtesy of Shed Seven frontman Rick Witter), own a sidekick dog named Sir Montague Jeavons (who some suspect is a cheap sound effect of a dog barking) and often embark upon bizarre conversations based around records played during the show; one recent edition saw the pair play a Modest Mouse track, leading to a prolonged and hilarious discussion, aided by listener’s suggestions, on which famous mice were the least modest of their kind. This also gave an opportunity for a (perhaps fortunately) rare playing of crooner Ronnie Hilton’s 1965 hit ‘Windmill in Old Amsterdam.’

Perhaps my earlier comparison to KROQ was unfair, with the ethos of the BBC station arguably more in line with US college radio stations, such as WGRE of Greencastle, Indiana, or WICB of Ithaca, New York, non-commercial stations playing modern rock but also open to jazz, hip-hop, blue and reggae (the nearest equivalent to KROQ in the UK is XFM, where several 6 Music DJs got their first break). Working for the licence-funded BBC gives the DJs of 6 Music more freedom in both the tracks they play and the guest bands invited into the studios to play a live session, groups who otherwise might slip under the radar. “It’s so important,” said DJ Cerys Matthews, once singer in the Welsh indie band Catatonia. “We need to be archiving these musicians for the future.” And the future of 6 Music, though never 100% certain, looks more secure now than at any point in its short but difficult history.

If you're tired of the track rotation and rigid chart format of your regular station, why not give the BBC's 6 Music a try? And if you don’t like the first track you hear, then stick around; as as with the British weather, it will soon change to something more to your liking.

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Bibliography

  1. Alex Petridis "The Fall and Rise of BBC 6 Music." The Guardian. 10/03/2012. 5/01/2015 <Web >
  2. Charlotte Philby "What Went So Right for BBC's 6 Music?." The Independent. 3/03/2012. 5/01/2015 <Web >
  3. "BBC 6 Music Draws Record Listeners." BBC News - Entertainment & Arts. 23/10/2014. 5/01/2015 <Web >
  4. Miranda Sawyer "Radio's Five Biggest Game Changers of 2014." The Observer. 07/12/2014. 5/01/2015 <Web >

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