It is Norwegian Constitution Day. Today, 100,000 children will parade through the streets of Oslo, waving flags and wearing home-made costumes. Across the world, immigrant communities will celebrate by singing songs, cooking lutefisk and drinking. And in a boxy studio on the fourth floor of a building in Central London, one BBC DJ is encouraging the rest of us to join in, too.
“Good morning, or should I say gratulerar med dagen and hurra!,” says Cerys Matthews, the Welsh presenter, singer and sometime pop star. “Everybody around the world of Norwegian descent will be partying hard. Waking up early, eating their goats’ cheese, playing their music and eating smoked salmon. So we should join them, too. More about the Constitution Day after this: the International Military Band playing Norway’s national anthem…”
The show kicked off moments earlier with “Pop Looks Bach”, better known as the Ski Sunday theme. Later on there will be tracks from big-band jazz pioneer Fletcher Henderson, Sixties Moog synthesizer artist Sid Bass and Elvis Presley. And there will be live music in the studio from Flavia Coelho, a Brazilian singer now based in Paris whose breezy summer songbook combines elements of samba, bossa-nova and traditional South American melodies.
“Taxi drivers are a great source for me,” Matthews tells Esquire of her quest to unearth music from as off the beaten track as possible. “Congolese drivers: always ask them. When we were up at the 6 Music Festival in Newcastle, I came back down with a guy who gave me three CDs full of hours and hours of Punjabi folk.”
Broadcast not in some specialist graveyard slot but for three hours every Sunday morning, up against Weekend Wogan on Radio 2, Matt Edmondson on Radio 1 and someone called Andrea on Kiss, Matthews’ three-hour show on BBC 6 Music wears its “knitted quilt” of eclecticism with pride.
It’s not just the music: today’s Norwegian theme is typical of Cerys on 6. Previous shows have featured a Professor of Gothic Studies, a celebration of orchards hooked to National Apple Day and a special on Moby-Dick. Sometimes there are recipes and poems. And she loves trivia. (If her quest to stimulate the listener with yet another fancy-that fact can sometimes feel like she’s reading pages off Wikipedia, that’s because she is.)
“Apparently three years ago, Norway went through a nationwide butter shortage,” says producer Jamie Stephens, googling away in the corner of the studio while a record plays. “And they were selling packets of butter for fifty quid online…”
“Lurpak,” someone wonders. “Is that Danish?”
Matthews scans a page of tweets from listeners recommending Norwegian bands.
“Kings Of Convenience!” she approves of the folk-pop duo, whose British crossover peaked in 2004 at the heady heights of Number 49 on the album charts. “Way too obvious though, huh?”
“Still resisting A-ha?” teases producer Adam Dineen.
Instead, she closes the show with a track from the sixth album by Jaga Jazzist. “They’re an eight-piece experimental jazz band from Oslo…” she tells the listeners.
Next week, there will be the octogenarian poet and translator Michael Horowitz on as a special guest “talking about poetry reincarnation”.
Cerys Matthews isn’t trying to have a hit show. But somehow she’s managed it. In 2013, she won the prestigious Sony Radio Academy Award for broadcasting, alongside John Humphrys of Radio 4’s Today show, no less. And with 500,000 listeners she can now claim to have the most popular weekend show on digital radio. Of her programme’s appeal she likes to paraphrase her fellow countryman Dylan Thomas. “Out of chaos comes bliss,” she says. “That’s how I feel, anyway.”
Right now, the rest of 6 Music might be feeling the same way.
In May, it became the first digital-only station to pass the 2m listenership mark, with figures from auditing body Rajar up seven percent: impressive enough for industry magazine Music Week to declare it “the only bright spot across BBC radio’s music stations”. Radio 1 went the other way, down almost 10 per cent – most significantly jettisoning 1m listeners from Nick Grimshaw’s flagship breakfast show. Urban station 1Xtra was down almost 25 per cent.
It’s a victory made all the more sweet by the fact that 6 Music almost wasn’t here at all.
In 2010, the BBC famously announced plans to shut it, citing cost-cutting and, more bizarrely now, its lack of distinction from commercial radio. Musicians including David Bowie, Lily Allen and Damon Albarn joined the indignant backlash. Perhaps a little hysterically, the BBC was accused of “cultural vandalism”. Cerys Matthews suggested they should sell off EastEnders instead.
In the end, the audience petitioned successfully to save it: fittingly for a digital station the campaign was mobilised by social media, #save6music. It has since tripled in size, and now has more listeners than Radio 3. Labour MP Tom Watson recently said it should be given Radio 3’s FM licence, for that reason.
The station has built its appeal on a zeitgeist-chiming blend of cutting-edge new music and archive rock, and a mix of familiar BBC names like Lauren Laverne and Mark Radcliffe alongside music stars-turned-presenters Jarvis Cocker, Huey Morgan and Iggy Pop. Elsewhere, there are former NME journalists, veteran specialist DJs like Don Letts and Gilles Peterson and a show presented by John Peel’s son, Tom Ravenscroft. A sense of musical authority pervades.
Or, at least, musical experience: even breakfast presenter Shaun Keaveny once fronted a prog rock group, while his newsreader sidekick is Matt Everitt, the former drummer in Britpop band Menswear.
The DJs largely choose the records they play (there is also a station playlist, though the DJs have input into this, too) and for better or worse it’s the only station where you’ll hear Aretha Franklin followed by The Wedding Present at 7:30 in the morning.
“Pretty much every other radio station in the country has some sort of demographic, it has an age range to hit,” says Steve Lamacq, who hosts the weekday teatime show. “If you’re a commercial radio station, you want advertisers to know exactly who you’re targeting. We don’t have that. It’s, like, ‘What sort of music do you like? And do you want to be in our gang?’”
“It was a station with no remit so it’s what the presenters and the listeners have made it,” says Guy Garvey, the Elbow singer and host of Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour, the Sunday show he makes from his attic in north Manchester. “That’s why it’s so special.”
Certainly the threat of closure turned out to be great publicity for a network then averaging 400,000 listeners, and arguably the best thing that’s happened to it – forever altering its DNA, and ultimately coming to define it.
“It made explicit that relationship that all broadcasters have with their audience, which is: you wouldn’t be there without them,” Lauren Laverne says.
“It made that very tangible and it gave us a remit to properly go for it. It created a change in the culture, really. It made people braver and prouder.”
“What happened where the audience came to the rescue of the station is reflected every day on the network,” says Chris Hawkins, host of the weekday early breakfast show.
“I don’t know any other station that’s so interactive, and where you find entire communities of audiences who congregate on Twitter.”
The people who love 6 Music really love it. Two of Hawkins’ listeners are getting married this summer, after striking up a Twitter friendship over the records he was playing. He’ll be DJing at their wedding party.
“I’ve never worked at a station where we’ve been that close to an audience,” Lamacq, a veteran of XFM, Radio 1, 2 and 5 Live, says. “It feels like we’re a football club that’s being run by a fans’ trust.”
Weekday breakfasts on 6 Music belong to Shaun Keaveny. It’s perhaps the one show on the schedule that defines itself by what it isn’t: namely, a traditional upbeat breakfast programme.
“I remember somebody saying to me about 10 years ago, ‘Don’t ever do a breakfast show, mate’,” Keaveny explains, slumped in his chair while The Cure’s “Close to Me” plays out to the nation. “Because it becomes your life, the show. Because of the early starts you don’t really get to have [any social life]. Unless you’re Grimmy [Radio 1’s Nick Grimshaw], I suppose. Someone like that who’s still got some youth on their side, they do go out and get to have lots of different life experiences. It’s, like [Grimshaw’s voice], ‘Oh, I was in Marrakech at the weekend, it was absolutely amazing – this happened, and then I got kissed by a camel, it was really weird’. That doesn’t really happen to me. I’ve got two kids.”
An air of middle-aged resignation has become Keaveny’s calling card. Another morning, he opens the show with a loud sigh, and offers this: “It’s Monday and I couldn’t be happier about it… Just imagine you’re listening to [Radio 2 breakfast host] Chris Evans for a bit, just to pick yourselves up. ‘It’s Monday! Come on everybody! C-c-come on everybody! La-de-da-dah! La-de-da-dah! It’s great! I love life!’”
“For the first couple of years I was trying to do a conventional breakfast show,” he explains. “And me and the producer would say, ‘We need to have a feature every 30 minutes’. ’Cos that’s what you do on breakfast shows: you have features and you have people calling in and you have wacky things happening. Then we slowly realised that they were the least funny bits. So we stripped out all the furniture. Which is great 90 per cent of the time, ’cos if you’re on form you can talk any old shit and the listeners will go there with you. And 10 per cent of the time it’s a bit difficult. The mic goes up and there’s a creak in the corner of the room and all eyes are on you and nothing’s coming out. There’s just a howling wind.”
Which is exactly the kind of non-showbiz honesty his listeners tune in for, of course.
“It’s a nice reciprocal relationship,” Keaveny says. “’Cos they’re having similar struggles and challenges themselves. So, it’s a support group more than anything, the breakfast show, for tired, disgruntled people of a certain age. And parents. And 15-year-olds who are sick of their parents moaning.”
He considers this.
“But, you know, they’re kind of prisoners, my listeners. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome: they’ve got nowhere else to go. Because if you like decent music at this time in the morning, unless you put your own records on, or Spotify, there aren’t places that are going to play Al Barry & The Cimarons or “White Room” by Cream, or The Velvet Underground. You know? You’re not going to get it, are you?”
After the show, Paul Weller turns up to pre-record an interview with Keaveny. Before they start, Keaveny asks about a gig he’s just done for Radio 2, at the BBC Radio Theatre.
“It was good,” Weller says. “But someone said to me – this doesn’t sound right – there were 56,000 ticket applications.”
He’s reliably informed it’s probably correct. (Pixies got more.)
“56,000?” he blinks. “Why don’t they go and buy me fucking album? I didn’t think I had 56,000 fans…”
“Here we go,” says Keaveny, kicking off the recording. “I’ve got a little introduction, as usual…”
“Iggy Pop,” interrupts Weller. “He does a show now, doesn’t he?”
“Oh yeah,” says Keaveny.
“Does he come in here?”
“Iggyyy Pahhp,” says Keaveny, in an approximation of the Detroit rocker’s drawl. “Down the line from Miami. He did come in here once, though…”
Keaveny tells a story about overhearing Pop enthusing to his producer about the breakfast show and mentioning its host by name. “Yes! Namecheck! Legend!” Keaveny says. “It was very exciting.”
But Weller’s not really listening.
“You ever seen his missus?” he asks.
“No… what… what’s the story there?”
“No,” grins Weller. “She’s just… nice.”
Keaveny asks Weller if he’s read Wonderland Avenue, the autobiography by The Doors’ manager, Danny Sugerman. He relates Sugerman’s first encounter with Iggy Pop: driving around a corner in Beverly Hills to find him smashing up a Cadillac with a golf club.
“Fucking great,” says Keaveny. “You know, you can pretty much guarantee Marcus Mumford’s never done that.”
“They’ve gone rock though, haven’t they?” says Weller, of Mumford & Sons’ new, less folk-oriented direction.
“They’ve ‘gone rock’,” laughs Keaveny.
“Got leather jackets on, the hair up…” says Weller. “‘Fuck the cider and banjos, let’s have it!’
Keaveny finally reads out his Weller introduction (“Restless journeyman… 12 solo albums… non-laurel-resting”, and so on.)
The interview is an amusing study in contrasts. Though both parties clearly know and like each other, Keaveny’s attempts at silliness are perfectly matched by the famously no-nonsense Weller’s equally taciturn answers, with neither side acknowledging this is what’s happening.
At one point, Keaveny asks Weller about the credits for a song on his new album. “It says there’s an egg whisk on there. Is that true or are you just winding me up?”
They finish the interview by talking about kids. (Keaveny has two, Weller has seven.) Keaveny plays Weller the Peppa Pig theme. Weller says that his kids are more into superheroes, Batman and things like that.
“You’ve moved on from that,” nods Keaveny. “But now, in a sense you never really move on from it, do you? Even when the kids aren’t there, there’s something comforting about Peppa Pig. Do you know what I mean?”
“I do,” says Weller.
Interview done, Keaveny has to dash home. “I’m having blinds fitted at half-eleven,” he explains.
When it arrived in 2002, 6 Music was the first national radio station to be launched by the BBC in 22 years.
Before launch, it was known as Network Y and then The Ark – the idea being it would capitalise on the BBC’s music archive by playing session and album tracks.
“We thought there was a gap for a radio service somewhere between where Radio 1 and Radio 2 was,” explains Jeff Smith, Head of Music at Radio 2 and 6 Music, a role that sees him have final say on which tracks are played across both stations.
“We looked at all sorts of content and one of them was an album rock station. One of the key points of that was to really dig into the BBC archive. So we had two people spending nine hours a day going through the sessions we’d done at the BBC for the last 25–30 years. Despite all our thinking about creating an album rock station with The Eagles tracks and Simon & Garfunkel, they found the archive was all Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Fall, because all the sessions were done by [John] Peel or [Radio 1’s Nineties indie show, hosted by Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley] The Evening Session. And in the time between then and now, because the archive was very alternative in nature, very British, we started to build around that.”
Still, it wasn’t the strongest manifesto for a brand new radio station. Was it meant for people who’d outgrown Radio 1? Or for people who wanted a deeper music experience than they got on Radio 2? Or neither?
Tucked away on digital – at a time when far fewer people owned digital radios, or even understood what they did – 6 Music proved a hard sell.
The initial DJ line-up included Phill Jupitus on breakfast, comedian Sean Hughes, Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, Suggs from Madness, Bob Harris and Liz Kershaw, plus names who are still with the station today including Chris Hawkins and Craig Charles.
Then-controller Lesley Douglas spent the next few years chopping and changing daytime DJs and bringing in TV presenter George Lamb, then best-known for the reality show Celebrity Scissorhands, in an attempt to attract female listeners. Accused of sexism, Douglas conspired to make things worse for herself by claiming women would enjoy Lamb’s show because of his “less intellectual approach”.
Eventually, 6 Music settled on a brand manifesto: celebrating music’s alternative spirit.
Today it’s superimposed over posters of classic album covers by Nirvana and Blur in the office of Paul Rodgers, 6 Music’s Head Of Programmes and the man responsible for commissioning its shows. Plenty of us fall for music in a big way as teenagers, only to find that life – partners, work, kids – start to devour the time we have to devote to it. We grow out of buying NME and going to gigs. We find other hobbies and distractions. We come to be defined by other things. 6 Music suggests that the same spirit can still be embraced, whatever our circumstances.
“I think there’s a curiosity about music outside the mainstream,” says Rodgers. “That if you start liking that sort of thing, then potentially, it might stay with you.”
Mark Radcliffe is more emphatic.
“Rock’n’roll was the first music for teenagers,” he says. “And we’re still in an age when people who were teenagers then are still around. So the idea was, when it was invented, pop music was for young people and then they would grow out of it and when you were in your mid-thirties you would start listening to Mantovani and [long-running Radio 2 light-entertainment show] Sing Something Simple. But I don’t really understand this. If, your whole life, you’ve been driven by this adventurous spirit to find new things that you like, why would you at any point stop? If you’re really into food, why would you stop eating new things? If you’re really interested in travel, why would you stop unless you physically couldn’t go on? And, of course, music is brilliant. So why would you lose that?”
Another way of looking at it is that 6 Music has chimed with the times.
Nowadays, of course, it is perfectly acceptable to go to gigs and festivals when you’re no longer living in a hall of residence. Youth culture is everyone’s culture. Plus, more people listen to more music in more ways than at any point since rock and pop were invented. First iTunes and then Spotify have made music more democratic, less tribal. 6 Music also lives where today’s audience is: digitally, on laptops and on mobile phones. Their latest audience figures show that 27 per cent of listening was done online or via smartphone and tablet apps, more than any other station and more than four times the industry average of 6.4 per cent.
You might actually argue (people have) that in the age of Spotify and the internet, 6 Music isn’t specialist enough: as Keaveny says, if we want to listen to Al Barry & The Cimarons or “White Room” by Cream or The Velvet Underground, it’s easy to do that.
But you could apply that argument to any music-based internet station. The counter-argument is that as technology expands, curation becomes more valuable not less.
“You need 6 Music, man,” Paul Weller tells Esquire. “It’s the only place to hear something different and alternative. There’s so much stuff on the internet that you’ve got to be directed to something, haven’t you? Unless you’ve got shitloads of time to plough through it all.”
One stroke of genius has been the hiring of rock stars with impeccable credentials as DJs, something that’s become one of 6 Music’s USPs. Jarvis Cocker, Guy Garvey, and perhaps most impressively, Iggy Pop.
Phil Selway, the drummer from Radiohead, has recently been sitting in for Garvey, playing a surprisingly straightforward selection of indie classics: The Smashing Pumpkins and PJ Harvey. It’s something Paul Rodgers is keen to capitalise on. It’s an open secret that he’s asked David Bowie.
“I think if we hadn’t asked David Bowie, you’d wonder why not,” he says.
Are negotiations ongoing?
“I think there is a perpetual desire to have some of those people who really mean something,” he sidesteps. “Naturally, we’d like Björk to do something. And then you kind of set yourself something that is potentially impossible, of asking Tom Waits. Because that’s just an amazing thought. My guess is that he could be a decent raconteur, as well as playing some really good music. But you know, people like coming on here. Because we don’t really mess about.”
Today, The Vaccines are in session on Lauren Laverne’s show. They have a new album out next week, one that sees them attempt to do what indie bands who achieve a certain longevity often try to do: broaden their sound. Out goes the unvarnished garage rock of albums one and two, in comes a more expansive, psychedelic sound overseen by The Flaming Lips and MGMT producer, Dave Fridmann.
However, the problems with a more expansive, psychedelic sound being performed by the same four people used to making unvarnished garage rock soon become apparent. They’re struggling to work out how to do it.
While Lavern plays Iggy Pop’s “Raw Power” out on the airwaves, The Vaccines attempt to run through two new songs in the live studio next door.
“How are the harmonies? Are they a bit out of tune? Maybe mix them down,” suggests guitarist Freddie Cowan.
“I’m getting a shitload of buzz,” grumbles the drummer, Peter Robertson.
“Are we confident that even if stuff isn’t working, we can now play?” says singer Justin Hayward-Young, finally.
Laverne comes out and says hello. On air, The Vaccines successfully perform the two songs and are interviewed about the new record. Lavern asks about its title, English Graffiti.
“I just had this phrase book with tons of phrases and lyrics, for a two to three-year period,” says Hayward-Young. “‘English graffiti’ was something I wrote down when were in Peru and, you know, English is the language of audiences across the world – or in most cases, anyway. And, to me, this sort of summed up the homogenisation of western culture, the spread of western pop culture around the world. And that aside, you know, living with technology I think embodies how connected we are on one hand but I think our generation feel more disconnected than any generation before us. It’s that saying ‘Alone with friends’, ’cos everyone is banging their phones. I just think it’s funny that we can be so connected but it’s so difficult to find friendship and meaning and love, and I actually feel increasingly isolated. Even when I can text anyone or email anyone.”
Laverne cuts to the news. Off air, she makes an understandable confession.
“I thought it was a reference to American Graffiti,” she tells them.
Two hours before he’s due on air, Steve Lamacq is preparing for his afternoon show in the pub. Pint of Strongbow in hand and sheets of A4 spread over the table, he’s trying to work out where to schedule his feature “The Heavy Metal World Cup”, in-between popping outside for a “tab”. You’ll often find him in here.
“I only got a mobile phone because they got sick of answering the phone for me in here,” he explains. “‘Steve? Are you in?’”
One criticism of 6 Music is that while it makes a big noise about promoting new and interesting music, its DJ roster resembles a Britpop pension plan.
It’s a notion Lamacq doesn’t exactly dispel. “When I was on The Evening Session, we were the first people in the UK to play [Huey Morgan’s band] Fun Lovin’ Criminals. We did a gig with [Lauren Laverne’s] Kenickie. We took [Cerys Matthews’] Catatonia on tour after we played ‘Road Rage’ a lot. And I think I made [early single by Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp] ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’ Single Of The Week in the NME. So, it’s like having the old gang back together. What I’m hoping is, having done them a favour, it won’t be any of those four who take my job.”
There’s little doubt 6 Music has an appeal to anyone who did the majority of their going out in the Nineties: you don’t have to listen for too long before The Strokes or The Chemical Brothers pop up.
“Certainly, we have a lot of people in their forties who are reconstructed rave-goers,” Lamacq says. “People who spent a lot of their teens and early twenties standing in fields around the M25. But then their music tastes have changed and they’re into folk or rock music or whatever. It doesn’t stop them liking what they liked as a kid. They’ve grown up with three or four different types of music.”
Lamacq was an early supporter of Ride, the “shoegazing” band who came to prominence in the early Nineties. They’ve recently reformed and he immediately booked them in for a session.
“I emailed [singer] Mark Gardener direct,” he says. But he baulks at the idea that the only people who might be interested are middle-aged. There’s a new generation of 6 Music listeners falling over themselves to experience them, he says.
“You go on message boards on Drowned In Sound and The Line Of Best Fit, and these are websites that are mainly for a younger audience, and they cannot wait to see these bands,” he says. “Because they have been name-checked by bands they like, and they were the gods of a certain type of music. The same when [American rock trio] Sleater-Kinney got back together. Sleater-Kinney were never that big in the UK. It was only me and Peel that played them.”
Any discussion of alternative music at the BBC is impossible without John Peel’s name coming up sooner or later. Some see 6 Music as part of his legacy. Indeed, Lamacq’s playlist policy directly adheres to one of Peel’s principles. “You play a song you know people will like, a song you hope people will like and a song that nobody might like, and then you start again,” Lamacq grins. “And you hope people will stay with you.”
“John Peel’s a godfather for this audience, really,” says Mary Anne Hobbs, host of two Weekend Breakfast shows and a weekly 6 Music Recommends show. “That sense of alternative spirit is riven all the way through 6 Music. You listen to his programmes and you wouldn’t necessarily expect to love every single tune, that wasn’t the point. The point was all of that music has great value.”
On the other hand, Peel’s hardline indie image seems to be exactly the thing 6 Music is keen to avoid.
“At the start, maybe there was concern that it was going to be too snobbish, too trainspottery, too much for the cool kids,” Lamacq says. “That if you didn’t know the name of The Smiths’ bootleg album you weren’t cool enough to be in our gang. Well, that’s not true now.”
“That’s exactly what we wanted to guard against,” says Mark Radcliffe, of his weekday Radcliffe and Maconie Show. “We always talked about [Nick Hornby’s] High Fidelity, and the record shop, where you’re afraid to ask for a record because your lack of knowledge is used as a stick to beat you with. And we absolutely wanted to make this welcoming.”
“We hate that concept of guilty pleasures,” adds Maconie. “That long shadow of somebody, usually a man, telling me whether I can like a record or not, whether it’s credible. I think that’s gone now. Completely. The mainstream moves all the time,” he suggests. “And I think 6 Music is more mainstream than people think.”
Certainly it would be hard to imagine Peel having much truck with the ironic banter that’s stock-in-trade for some of 6 Music’s DJs: Shaun Keaveny’s countdown of the Top 10 Calorific Carbohydrate Comestibles, for example. Or asking listeners to get in touch if they’ve ever upset an actual apple cart. Or Radcliffe and Maconie’s shout-outs to comedy characters Corn Cob Keith, The Natterjacks and Johnny Town-Mouse Of The Town.
But then that’s the point: 6 Music isn’t meant to be an indie ghetto. It’s a far broader church. And anyway: you can always enjoy the music and ignore the banter.
“I’d certainly have a lot of sympathy with that,” Radcliffe says.
In contrast to 6 Music’s London HQ – where almost everything is broadcast from a single shabby studio – a significant chunk of the station’s output comes from MediaCityUK.
The 200-acre development on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal in Salford opened in 2010 as part of the BBC’s decentralisation from London. It is now home to various BBC enterprises including Match of the Day, Dragon’s Den and Mastermind, as well as 6 Music shows including Radcliffe and Maconie, Mary Anne Hobbs and The Craig Charles Funk And Soul Show. Everything here feels very shiny and new. Though as Chris Hawkins points out, it does look a bit like Stansted Airport.
“Of course it feels different up here,” he says. “Because it’s not London.”
“When we were working in the north for Radio 1 and Radio 2, we very much felt like an outpost, which we quite enjoyed, really,” says Radcliffe. “But there was always this sense that the big cheeses in London were letting you ‘have a go’, whereas now I think there’s a sense of ownership on the part of 6 Music. We’re the first station that’s been on that twin basis, and we do feel empowered by that.”
What can they do on 6 Music that they couldn’t do on Radio 2?
“Play good records,” says Radcliffe. “The thing is that the common consent among all of us that work on it is that 6 Music gives something that we knew people wanted all along, really. People are always open to a much wider selection of music than people working on radio stations give them credit for. Everyone you know who likes music plays a whole range of things.”
It seems as good an argument as any for keeping the BBC. As Cerys Matthews says: “See, there’s no home for a show like mine outside the BBC. Commercial pressure and advertisers giving pressures… you wouldn’t have a show like mine. America doesn’t have the BBC, and it is a messed-up society. They have no culture in their lives.”
“What saved the station was the argument that the spirit of curation that exists on 6 Music doesn’t exist at other radio stations that are competing for figures, and nothing else,” says Guy Garvey, who keeps a photo of the presenting team alongside photos of his family and band at home.
“I know that from very close and personal experience. Me, Jarvis, [presenter Marc] Riley and [presenter] Gideon [Coe], we had a conversation with the BBC Trust, and together with the amazing listener response to the proposed closure, the meeting we had in that room was instrumental in getting the place saved. They listened to what we had to say. Because 6 Music is something that could only happen on a public-funded format. So, it’s something that only the BBC can offer in this country.”
Conversely, Mark Radcliffe thinks a station like 6 Music could be funded commercially, if only someone was brave enough to give it a go.
“Commercial radio has been a really big disaster for British radio,” he says. “In the Seventies, it did try to do all kinds of interesting things: documentaries and local stories and all kinds of stuff. Then it just became a watchword for the kind of music that would offend no one and please as many advertisers as possible. I think it’s a great shame commercial radio didn’t challenge the BBC. Because there’s a school of thought that says the people who listen to 6 Music may be exactly the people that advertisers would want to target.”
Today on Radcliffe And Maconie they’re talking about hobbies. “I always found it vaguely disappointing, Subbuteo,” says Radcliffe. “It looks good…”
“All my team purchases were based on the kit, rather than any quality of the team,” agrees Maconie. “So I had Alloa Athletic, who played in gold and black hoops. And the Peru team, who, if you recall, had a white shirt with a red slash across it. I didn’t have Real Madrid because they played in all white. That was boring.”
They play Morrissey’s “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”. Maconie, the more hyperactive of the hyperactive pair, half-dances around the studio, stopping at a piano set up in the corner to bash out an approximation of the chorus.
Producer Lizzie Hoskin mans a computer and fields listener suggestions for the next song in The Chain, a long-running item where tracks are linked by some connection to each other.
Someone has suggested following Bush’s “Swallow” with Kate Bush’s 1982 track “The Dreaming”.
“‘The Dreaming?’” says Radcliffe. “Has it got Rolf Harris on it?”
Hoskin checks. “Yeah, it will have…” she says. (Harris contributed didgeridoo.) “We’re not having that.”
While another record plays, talk turns to domestic matters. Hoskin has been trying to get the musty smell out of her washing machine. Back on air, Maconie shares this news with the nation.
“Update on the smell in Liz’s kitchen,” he says. “A 90-degree wash has cured the problem. All the wallpaper has peeled off Liza’s house, and all the furniture’s melted...”
“I get a bit frightened with washes that hot,” admits Radcliffe.
“Do you not like to go above the sort of 50 or 60 mark?” asks Maconie.
“I rarely get up to that, if I’m honest,” he says. “I’m a kind of 30-degree refresh-wash man.”
“This is good, innit?” says Maconie. “If this was another kind of BBC show – ‘Oh, we go past 60, past 70…’ – you’d think we were talking about cars.”
Where can 6 Music go next?
Talk is of aiming for the next obvious landmark: 2.5m listeners per week. That doesn’t seem particularly outrageous, as uptake of digital radios increases and people’s listening habits increasingly migrate online. Compared to its cousins, Radios 1 and 2 with 9.7m and 15.1m weekly listeners respectively, it remains a niche concern. You wonder if, like some of the indie bands it supports, 6 Music is even meant to get any bigger.
“I think there’s still plenty of room for it to get bigger without selling out to the mainstream,” Steve Lamacq says. “But 6 Music is not the sort of station you can push without dramatically altering its identity. I think that’s what people have come to realise now. That it will grow at its own rate.”
“I’m not so interested in quantity,” Lauren Laverne says. “It’s great that 6 has become more popular and I’d like that to continue. But it’s about maintaining quality and focus. I just want to keep playing really brilliant music to people.”
“There are still loads of people who’ve never heard of it,” says Chris Hawkins. “And when you tell people there’s this place that plays Led Zeppelin and the Stones right up to brand new music they go, ‘Really? What, that’s on now? And I can get that?’”