Friday, 6 June 2014

Radio Nowhere

  I just want to hear some rhythm
  I want a thousand guitars
  I want pounding drums
  I want a million different voices speaking in tongues
‘Radio Nowhere, Bruce Springsteen

People get very nostalgic about radio. It’s a common topic for pop songs; most of them romanticise it, holding it up as something precious and wonderful; something that should be celebrated, cherished. But I’ve never really had that connection. There was no love affair with the wireless for TheRobster.

When I was growing up, I would spend Sunday evenings in my bedroom listening to the chart show on BBC Radio 1. I did this for years. I was informed by radio, as were an awful lot of people, as to what was going on in the world of popular music. And then one day, sometime during the late 80s or early 90s, I realised something: I was being lied to; the radio was shit. I was learning about terrible music day after day from idiotic DJs whose knowledge and love of music was clearly dwarfed by the size of their egos. So I turned it off and didn't turned it back on for the best part of 20 years.

Well, OK, in fairness it would get an airing now and again, but it was rare. I tried to get on with John Peel, but getting through an entire Peel show was hard work. I wasn’t open-minded enough at the time to really appreciate what he was doing. Sure, I would have heard plenty of the Smiths, the Fall, Half Man Half Biscuit and the Wedding Present, but they were all intermingled with the likes of Misty in Roots, Extreme Noise Terror, the Four Brothers and Ivor Cutler. Reggae, grindcore, Zimbabwean jit and whimsical Scottish poetry were not really on my radar, and I didn’t have the patience to sit through any of that in order to hear the next guitar band.

I did, however, get a few gems from radio during the early 90s. For instance, I remember hearing Endless Art by A House played by Janice Long one night as I ran a bath. I still love love love that song.

Over the years, the only time I listened to music radio was in the car. If I was the passenger, it was the driver’s choice. If I was the driver, it was only because the cassette or CD player had packed up. I listened to Radio One and regularly cringed at the naffness of it all – Chris Moyles, Scott Mills, Edith Bowman – all as irritating as each other. Radio Two was no better; they had Steve Wright and Chris Evans, people who had served their time on Radio One, but were now considered too old. I could never stand either of them anyway! Things haven't changed that much since these guys...

  “The world is collapsing around our ears” – ‘Radio Song’, R.E.M.

And then, there is the horrifying world of commercial radio. There are few things in life as fundamentally evil and wrong as commercial radio: horseradish sauce, right-wing politics, ITV[1] and banks are among those I would align with commercial radio in terms of “things I would abolish forever if I ran the world”. The thing with commercial radio is that music is considered to be the least important factor. Every single commercial station I’ve ever had to endure is generic, formulaic and sterile. Every presenter sounds exactly the same (never any regional accents, ever noticed that?) and presents to the exact same standard, like as if they’ve been cloned. Whatever station you choose, you’re actually listening to the same thing. This is probably because the vast majority of commercial stations are owned by a very small group of companies. Unlike the BBC, these companies have one aim and one aim only – to make as much profit as possible. Income comes from advertisers, and as per usual in order to keep the advertisers happy you have to appeal to the broadest spectrum of listener available. Therefore you play the music that appeals to the broadest spectrum of potential listener. As most listeners don’t know their Elvis from their Elbow - or in fact even care – then there’s no room for anything out of the ordinary or even remotely interesting. If it ain’t ultra mainstream, it ain’t gettin’ played.

Add to this the fact that stations pay for the music they play on a per-song per-listener basis and it is little wonder you hear the same records played over and over again, day after day, punctuated only by the repeated airing of excruciatingly cheesy adverts for the local car showroom and ambulance-chasing claims companies.

When I moved from North Devon (where the local commercial station was Lantern FM) to South Wales (Red Dragon FM)[2], I honestly noticed no difference; the same records, the same presenters’ voices, the same format, over and over again. Radio by numbers. I mean, what does any of it have to do with music?

  “It’s just the same old show on my radio.” – ‘On My Radio’, The Selecter

So thank god for the good old Beeb, and especially 6Music. Launched a decade ago, 6Music is a station for music fans. You know, ‘proper’ music fans, like me and you. People who give a shit and actually don’t want to hear the same record several times a day every day. People who want to engage with music rather than just have it on as background noise. People who love music. I'm unashamedly pro-Beeb because, in spite of all their faults (and there have been plenty), I still firmly believe only the BBC care about our arts in this country. Commercial channels don't - end of! The best shows on 6Music are those whose presenters exude the same love, passion and knowledge, who don’t see what they are doing as ‘just a job’ (unlike their commercial radio counterparts). The humble, understated Gideon Coe for instance, who mixes the newest underground music that no one has heard yet with hoary old prog and punk classics; the infectiously exhuberant Craig Charles with his Funk and Soul Show, which I really enjoy despite not being a big fan of those genres (or at least, I didn’t think I was); and of course, the lovely, the wonderful, the divine Cerys Matthews who soundtracks post lie-in Sunday mornings with the finest array of reggae, folk and world music you’ve never heard.

You will probably NEVER hear the music played by these presenters on any commercial radio station EVER! But that’s the appeal, and it’s the only reason I have digital radios in my house. That, and the reception on 5 Live is better, and what’s a weekend without Alan Green’s Premier League commentary, eh?

Soundtrack (courtesy of Radio Robster 66.6 FM[3]):

[1] For my non-UK readers: ITV was the first commercial TV channel in the UK. It specialises in the lowest common denominator of TV. It has usurped Channel 5 in terms of awfulness and never ceases to amaze me as to the new depths it continues to plunge. And now they have three or four ITV channels. How much shit do they think we actually need?
[2] Both Lantern and Red Dragon have been swallowed up by major commercial broadcasters now. Not that it’s made any difference.
[3] That’s FM as in ‘Fucking Mental!’ 


  1. The conversation had before about whether John Peel, if he was still around, would have been shoved over to 6 Music.
    I would think maybe, at the beginning but eventually he'd become the controller at the station.
    But we'll never know.

    I'm so happy that Mary Anne Hobbs is back at the Beeb and there's Marc Riley, also Maconie's Freak Zone and... well basically what you said.

    Also thanks to reminding me about Alan Green.
    Because it is blocked overseas I am unable to listen to 5 Live football commentary and forgot about Greeny's moaning. Bizarrely I actually miss that a bit.

  2. Oh, little did you know how good you had it with radio!!! Us unfortunates here had comments like 'Turn over the other side' thrown at us! That tells you the extent of our radio!! If you wanted something a little alternative you had The Dave Fanning show between 8-10 on Radio 2. Radio 2 being the other side of Radio 1!! Dave Fanning is famous for giving us U2. He's our John Peel!!! Here is a clip of Bono on Dave's show a month before U2s first single in 1979
    His show was very important to me growing up as a teenager. I couldn't afford the albums so I had tapes on record/pause waiting for a great song to record! I still remember listening to Black Dog by Led Zeppelin. My jaw dropped is an understatement!! I went to Germany for a year in the mid-nineties and I recorded several shows of his so I had something to listen to!! While I was there I listened to John Peel on BSBF (British Forces Radio). I agree with you about his show. You sit there listening and waiting to hear the next big thing when a lot of crap is played in between.
    An Indie pirate radio station did appear at some stage called Phantom Radio which was a little gift from God!! Sadly that channel rebranded a couple of months ago now calling itself TXFM. Worst radio station name ever!! Sounds like a country and western channel!! Still a great radio station. That's where I get to hear songs by Wolf Alice!! Radio is still as important today as it was 25 years ago!