You might heard the story – a BBC station that played lots of new bands, a wide range of music, and had a devoted following among its listeners. It wasn’t the most widely-heard station, it wasn’t particularly well-promoted, but it was both loved and respected. It appealed to taste-makers – if you heard a band there, within a few months you’d be hearing that band everywhere else. When the BBC announced plans to scrap it, there was an outcry.
Unfortunately, GLR wasn’t saved – it was replaced in 2000 with what eventually became BBC London, with Jon Gaunt installed as a morning phone-in host as a calculated “fuck you” to the old station’s previous listeners. Yes, that’s the wheezing Sun columnist that now berates the BBC at every opportunity. Robert Elms and Gary Crowley are all that’s left of the station which once lived at 94.9FM.
But GLR’s real spirit carried on into 6 Music when it launched in 2001 – evening DJ Gideon Coe providing the common link between the two stations. And now, of course, the BBC is apparently plotting to close 6 Music in an attempt to save money and appease its critics, along with the Asian Network and swingeing cuts at its online services.
It’s typical lousy accounting – cut the things which cost the least, but do little about the things which cost the most. 6 Music costs the BBC £7m/year to run, while Jonathan Ross remains, until he leaves, on a contract worth £5.6m/year. One has brought great respect and acclaim to the BBC, the other dragged its reputation through the dirt. But how did 6 Music seem so expendable? The answer, I think, partly lies in the incident with Ross and Brand.
A declaration of interest – I used to work as a journalist on the BBC News website, and actually once spent a day job-shadowing at 6 Music while in a moment of career crisis. I got the feeling that the people I met there were doing it for love as well as the cash. Which is why I’m so angry to see them betrayed by spineless management further up the corporation.
When 6 Music launched, there was some criticism that the station sounded a bit cold and cliquey, and did not appeal to women as much as it should. (Because, of course, women don’t like music, do they?) To counter this, then-controller Lesley Douglas – who also ran Radio 2 – decided to sprinkle comedians through the schedule. She justified hiring George Lamb by saying: “If you heard George talking about rave and dance there is a passion. It’s less intellectual an approach to music but it’s still about passion and love of music at its heart.”
Lesley Douglas’s biggest failure, though, was to nurture a culture where the talent’s whims were trusted over the expertise of her staff. If a DJ was away – they’d be allowed to pre-record their shows but pretend that phone-in competitions were still taking place. When this sharp practice was revealed, a producer got the boot, even though it’s inconcievable that more senior staff were unaware this was going on. Indeed, 6 Music director of programming Ric Blaxill was able to resign before being criticised by media regulator Ofcom for the practice.
Douglas’s kow-towing to big names gave the impression that 6 Music was a weak station which needed big names to attract listeners – even though that wasn’t the point of the station when it launched. It was hard to see how exactly it differed from other stations. When she quit following the Brand/Ross fiasco – the ultimate example of overpaid talent not being scrutinised properly – her replacement Bob Shennan got to work rebuilding the station.
His masterstroke was to give George Lamb the boot, exiling him to Saturdays, where I had the misfortune to hear him “interviewing” Geoff Hurst the other morning. He installed Lauren Laverne in the mornings, where her show probably the best anywhere on UK radio – intelligent, funny, and packed with great music you simply won’t hear anywhere else. The station has clearly got its mojo back and is sounding great again.
It’s not perfect – its music news service struggles horribly when there’s little around and it should consider folding it into its main news service, and I’m possibly the only person in the UK who isn’t a fan of Adam and Joe. But the station merely needs fine tuning rather than a revamp, I’d happily man the barricades to save Craig Charles’ Saturday night funk and soul show. Absolute Radio may think 6 Music could prosper in the private sector, but there’s no commercial station that’d even countenance having a schedule as diverse as 6 Music’s.
Are the 6 Music protests just the whining of white grown-up indie kids? Maybe. But people who grew up in the 80s, 90s and 00s grew up with the BBC championing new music while commercial competitors clung to the charts, thanks to the likes of John Peel, the Evening Session, and the corporation’s coverage of Glastonbury (nobody remembers when it was on Channel 4). Today’s listeners expect to hear guitar bands on the BBC in the same way that yesterday’s expected to hear the Shipping Forecast, borne out by the gradual elevation of the peerless Steve Lamacq to a status approaching national treasure. Like football coverage, it’s one of those things that it happens to do well while its commercial free-to-air competitors do poorly. So shouldn’t the BBC be playing with to its strengths, instead of undermining itself?
But today’s BBC is a strange organisation, with so much to be proud of yet still cowering like a beaten dog in the presence of politicians. I suppose the coming months will prove whether today’s 30something outgrown indie kids will prove as potent a force as perenially-outraged Radio 4 listeners. It’s worth remembering what else is under threat – the unique Asian Network and the possibility of massive cuts at the BBC News website.
Of course, there are plenty of things the BBC could cut to save money – the enormous wages of some of its senior management, anything involving washed-up Soccer AM berk Tim Lovejoy, or the marketing wonks who’ve failed to give 6 Music a proper identity (6 Music? 6music? Radio 6? Radio 6 Music? And don’t even get me started on “5 live” instead of “Five Live” or “5 Live”). But the party which is likely to form the next government wants to see some sacrifical lambs to reward Rupert Murdoch for its support, although the current lot are just as bad. Unfortunately, this kind of “debate” is likely to take the place of what’s really needed, which is a full and honest discussion on what the BBC should be doing in the future and how it should be funded.
My own suspicion is that the BBC will face a death by a thousand cuts, reduced to a rump organisation with little relevance to those compelled to pay for it. If only its current management would grow a pair and fight for its future, it might have a fighting chance of still being around to pay a portion of my pension.
At least with an election coming up, licence fee payers have a rare chance to influence the debate. All those busy signing online petitions to save 6 Music and the Asian Network could do the stations a favour by writing to their election candidates and telling they expect their politicians to defend the BBC, not attack it. Your right to hear Ned’s Atomic Dustbin at teatime may not be the most pressing of election issues – but if the BBC’s enemies get away with destroying 6 Music, then what else will be under threat?
UPDATE 1.25PM: One listener wrote to the Tories’ culture spokesman Ed Vaizey – and instantly saw him backtrack on comments he made to The Guardian…