FEATURE: 6 Overground: Why BBC Radio 6 Music Remains Britain’s Most Essential Station



6 Overground:


ALL PHOTOS (unless stated otherwise): Getty Images/Press 

Why BBC Radio 6 Music Remains Britain’s Most Essential Station


THE working regime, for me, usually starts as Chris Hawkins is…


IN THIS PHOTO: Chris Hawkins

entertaining his listeners on BBC Radio 6 Music. I do not tune in that early but, as I fight my way through fatigue and the temptation to emigrate to a hot climate – sack the job off and establish a music label in the U.S./Australia – I am brought back to Earth and realise I have to continue and life that nine-to-five life (ironic; given the fact I work a lot longer than that!). By the time I roll into the office, and unleash the caffeine enema, I am ready to settle down to the last half-hour with Hawkins. It is the voice of Shaun Keaveny that provides tonic, impetus and drive to keep going. I wrote, earlier in this year, about BBC Radio 6 Music and its merits; how it is an essential destination for anyone who loves their music. I will draw in an article – a very illuminating one Esquire published back in 2015 – that followed a typical day on the station; spoke with personnel and provided snippets of conversation and music that showed why the station survived the chop and has continued to grow. The latest Rajar figures – nothing to do with the leaders of India and their followers; to nick a joke from Frank Skinner – show there is a shift in the radio market. Chris Evans, the ginger one with a love of cars, has seen his listenership dip a bit: Nick Grimshaw’s morning show on Radio 1 is losing listeners at the rate of knots – there are changes that mean people are starting to head the way of BBC Radio 6 Music.


One can say that is a sign of age – younger listeners growing up and wanting something more mature – but I think it is to do with quality and the desire for something deeper and more appealing. I will come back to Keaveny very soon (as I run-down my favourite D.J.s and why the station is blossoming) but here is an article, from May, that showed where the listeners are flocking the way of ‘6’:

BBC Radio 6 Music has achieved its highest ever audience figures as digital listening continues to grow across the UK, new data has revealed.

According to the latest Rajar figures (Q1 2017 2nd Jan-2nd April 2017), the station draws a record 2.35m listeners every week (from 2.33m last quarter and 2.24m last year). The Shaun Keaveny Breakfast Show, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, has a weekly reach of 1.12m, making it the most listened to programme on the network. Steve Lamacq’s weekday afternoon show remains over the 1m mark, with 1.115m listeners. Other shows enjoying record figures include Mary Anne Hobbs, Cerys Matthews, Huey Morgan, Chris Hawkins, Iggy Pop, Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service, Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour and 6 Music Classic Concerts.

The share of all radio listening (BBC and commercial radio) via a digital platform now stands at a new record share of 47.2% (44.1% last year), with 32m people tuning into radio via a digital platform (DAB, Online and DTV) every week. DAB remains the lead digital platform by some margin, and now delivers over 1/3 of all radio hours in the UK.

 Bob Shennan, Director of BBC Radio and Music, says: “Despite huge changes in the sector, it’s heartening to see a massive 89% of the UK population committing to listen to radio each week across a variety of devices. It has been a strong year for digital innovation right across BBC Radio with all our services seeing digital growth of one sort or another, especially BBC Radio 6 Music which goes from strength to strength, building a loyal audience that recognises a station run by music-lovers for music-lovers.”

Those all merry tidings for a station is going from strength-to-strength. I mentioned I’d return to Keaveny - and so I must! My usual radio-listening day starts properly around 7 A.M. and ends later in the afternoon, Monday through to Friday. I have heard other breakfast shows on radio and they all have drawbacks and perils: either too many adverts or inane chatter; terrible music or, if you’re really lucky, a combination of all three. With Keaveny; there is none of the pitfall and scars you get with rivals. He is a denigrating presence who is always tough on himself and his professionalism. The truth is it takes a lot of effort to get up, be consistently funny and produce a fantastic show every weekday – I will resist making a joke at this point. Not only is the charming/belligerent northerner perfect to get the spirits up and eyes bright during the working week; the music played on the show is consistently brilliant! I feel that is another reason many are flocking from stations like BBC Radio 1 and their colleagues: the range of music is often unreliable and the presenters not always as likeable as you’d like...

I find the younger vibe of Radio 1 puts too much emphasis on mainstream music and the kind of artists who go for streaming figures as opposed to genuine merit and respect. You do get some affable D.J.s and good music but its demographic is rigid when it comes to age and tastes. The same can be said of Radio 2 and its make-up. The music balances chart acts but it also features a greater number of older songs and artists – not as close to the top of the quality-spectrum as you’d hope for. I prefer Radio 2 over its younger peer but they are the only real BBC options out there – Radio 3, 4 and 5 have a very narrow sound/scope and are quite niche. The joy of 6 is the fact it takes all the best aspects of 1 and 2 – the energy and cool music combined with mature presenters who have been in the music industry a long time – and bundles it all into a kitten-cute package that appeals to those music-lovers who know their stuff. If you’d expect other radio stations’ listeners to be the sort who are nursing hangovers and wiping vomit from the corner of their mouth (not necessarily their own!): the discerning listening of BBC Radio 6 Music will be digging through crates of vinyl and queuing in line to see the latest Dutch Uncles gig. Keaveny is a former musician – and current lead of the epic Bince Meef (currently on-hiatus and planning an international tour, I understand) and has that affectionate bond with his music news presenter, Matt Everitt.


IN THIS PHOTO: Shaun Keaveny (photo courtesy of Esquire)

The reason I defected to BBC Radio 6 Music years ago was the tones and style of Shaun Keaveny. Every aspect of my writing and blog is compelled by the talent at 6 Music in some way. Keaveny has provoked me to think bigger and diversify my pages; bring in new features and become more ambitious. Even though Keaveny cuts a self-deprecating and imprisoned figure – a supplicant who prays to the gods of music to strike him down; wondering why he has not been fired – you can tell how comforted and defined he is by his role. I have covered this before but there are so many reasons Keaveny is one of the major stars of the station – someone who is responsible for bringing in new listeners and keeping the existing ones where they are. Make sure you tune in every weekday morning between 7 and 10 to hear the old master at work. Whether is his array of stunning impersonations – from Samantha out of Sex and the City; Paul McCartney or Donald Trump – you wonder how the man does it! It is just as well he is employed at the BBC as, without that outlet, he’d probably be confined to a nursing home. The comedic and vocals skills of Keaveny and his affectionate connection to Everitt (and producer Phil) means it is essential listener every morning., Matt Everitt’s music news is authoritative, funny and informative – the former Menswear legend/drummer is someone I listen out for so I can listen to/steal all his music news. He is an essential part of the breakfast team and keeps Keaveny in order when required!

When the show ends; it is to Lauren Laverne’s show we go. Like many of BBC Radio 6 Music’s personnel; she is a former musician – the lead of the incredible 1990s band, Kenickie – and seems to have limitless enthusiasm and passion for music. Her incredible knowledge and professionalism (as slick and charming as an oiled sea lion) stun me. I am always surprised she has energy left: there are so many side-projects and tentacles to her professional life. As founder of The Pool – a website featuring female writers; it tackles issues in society and features culture, fashion and music – she also presents on BBC Radio 4 and gives talks; is a D.J. who works at various festivals and events – a female Stephen Fry (if such a figure can be imagined!) who has her fingers in all sort of pies! Whereas Keaveny has his own style and dynamic: there is a distinct personality and flavour to Laverne’s show. Once again, as I covered this earlier in the year, I do not want to tread on the festival-mushed grass of repetition. I feel one of the reasons BBC Radio 6 Music is converting many to their pulpit of biblical music and congregation of proper music-lovers is talent like Laverne. She has a terrific rapport with the listeners and a warm and paternal warmth. Not only is she one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable D.J.s on the station but is incredibly quick-witted and funny. If Shaun Keaveny has the demeanour of a man who has committed a credit card fraud and, as opposed to a jail term, has been given the option of having his testicle hairs waxed off by Piers Morgan – Lauren Laverne is a cheerier disposition who nicely contrasts and evolves.


IN THIS PHOTO: Lauren Laverne/PHOTO CREDIT: @laurenlaverne

Keaveny is a fantastic D.J. and an addictive draw for the listeners: Laverne is another wonderful human D.J. whose endless curiosity for music means she provides us with the best new underground artists and those long-forgotten songs that we should never have abandoned. One of the big reasons there are new listeners to the station is because of that music. Certain presenters have their own preferences and sounds. With Laverne; one gets a lot of great Electronic music and Indie sounds; it plays on the lighter side (of sound) but is the most eclectic show, in my view. I will allude to the empathic and revealing feature Esquire ran two years ago – when I talk about Steve Lamacq, Radcliffe and Maconie and others – but, for me, Lauren Laverne (like Keaveny) is the reason I remain with BBC Radio 6 Music. The reason I wanted to revise and update my previous love-note was the fact 2017 has been an incredible year for the station. I have assimilated so many aspects of the station into my work and drive; Lauren Laverne, and the way she manages to dig those lesser-heard artists and shines them for the listening public, has made me conduct a similar archaeological approach to music – I thank her for introducing me to some great artists who are part of my regular rotation; I have met so many terrific musicians because of her guidance. One might criticise a station like 6 Music for being a bit of a pub for former musicians and those luring for previous decades: Laverne is someone always looking forward and of the mindset: the best of music is yet to come.

I would refute this viewpoint but know, as she does, we are going to see some tremendous music in the future. The D.J.s of the station do not live in the past and clinging to a time that no longer exists: they are always looking for great new music and embracing what is fresh and current. The age argument is not fair as Lauren Laverne is only thirty-ni…thirty-somethin…thirty-eigh…she is pretty young and hip, still, okay! The fact she has been in a popular and acclaimed band means she has that inside knowledge and appreciation for music’s inner-workings and complexities. She was among the most vociferous voices that campaigned when BBC Radio 6 Music was threatened with closure. It is clear she has that endless love for what she does! Once Laverne clocks off at 1; we then head over to Salford for Radcliffe and Maconie – meanwhile, somewhere in London, Steve Lamacq is preparing his show and, one suspects, nursing a pint at a local boozer! Another reason BBC Radio 6 Music lures me is down to its northern contingency. Shaun Keaveny, Lauren Laverne and RadMac (Mark and Stuart) are from that neck of the woods – not many mainstream stations can boast that many northern stars. In a music industry that is seeing its voice twanged and instilled with a thick London accent: it is nice knowing there is some genuine and pure voice who are not willing to go all R.P. for P.R. These genuine and real personalities burst from the speakers and get into the heart.


IN THIS PHOTO: Radcliffe and Maconie with Eno Williams of Ibibio Sound Machine/PHOTO CREDIT: @BBCRadMac

Radcliffe and Maconie are among the most experienced D.J.s on the airwaves. Both have been in the industry for decades – Stuart Maconie used to work for the likes of Melody Maker and NME – and they have presented together on other stations. Their brother-like partnership means the listener starts their afternoons with huge laughs and entertainment. I have not mentioned the features on each show – I have covered that before and will come to that in the conclusion – but, with Radcliffe and Maconie; you get some wonderful guests and brilliant music. Like Keaveny and Laverne; there is a distinct ethos and aesthetic to their show. Stuart Maconie hosts his Freak Zone show whereas Radcliffe presents a Folk show on BBC Radio 2. Both are huge fans of new music but are keen to provide the listeners with the finest and most intriguing new acts from around the world. Both are incredibly sharp and funny and, with every link and moment, you are guaranteed to transcend into a better mood. One can take that age-old/old-age argument some have proffered and argue that is the very reason BBC Radio 6 Music is gaining huge ground: people prefer experienced and knowledgeable voices; they are less reliant on the inane and youthful chatter you get on ‘some’ stations. With Radcliffe and Maconie; you are not listening to two old men talking about their dangling prostates; cranking up the latest Buddy Holly hit and wondering why the young people are swearing so much these days – that seems to be the impression some critics have!


IN THIS PHOTO: A recent guest on RadMac's show, Weaves/PHOTO CREDIT: @BBCRadMac

What you do get is two chaps who have huge experience and bring that expertise to that show. Their show has a very youthful side to it: you do not only get songs from the 1960s and 1970s; there is a great blend of the brand-new and established. Mark Radcliffe spoke with Esquire in 2015 - and gave his views as to why BBC 6 Music is growing; why their show provides satisfaction and fulfilment; why you cannot label and rigidly defined stations/listeners:

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?

I will allude to that article more a bit later (legally, of course!) but I always ensure I tune into Radcliffe and Maconie every weekday afternoon. Steve Lamacq, who follows them, provides a distinctly London accent and different dimension. His show features reviews of the latest singles and in-studio performances from the hottest acts around. ‘Lammo’ doggedly and diligently plans his shows and is a veritable truffle-hound; keen to sniff the latest vibes and sounds for his adoring listeners.


IN THIS PHOTO: Steve Lamacq (photo courtesy of Esquire)

I feel so many people are tuning into BBC Radio 6 Music because the live venues scene is dwindling and under threat. Lammo is among the most vocal when it comes to preserving our best venues and ensuring they are subsidised. If one cannot get out to a gig – we have less disposable income, so often rely on the Internet and T.V. for our entertainment – he provides a worthy alternative. Not only does he guide you to the best gigs and events to see: he brings musicians into his lair and hosts those exhilarating and unforgettable performances. Lammo, in the aforementioned interview, has his opinions on the demographic – and whether the station appeals to those who yearn for older music:

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.”

I will flirt and skip my way through the remaining presenters – my hand might fall off if I do that! – but there is an amazing array of spectacular D.J.s under the BBC Radio 6 Music banner. Dividing its broadcasts between London (Wogan House) and MediaCity UK (Salford).


IN THIS PHOTO: Mary Anne Hobbs/PHOTO CREDITLaura Lewis

I will take one last piece from the Esquire article – lest I use more of their words than mine – but Mark Radcliffe provided illuminating insight as to why Salford is a great base; why BBC Radio 6 Music provides freedom other stations do not:

 “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.”

If the Esquire feature paints the London studios in draconian, dystopian terms – nearly comparing it to a wooden shed of a classroom at a comprehensive school somewhere in Falkirk – it is clear there is no reason for the Salford talent (Craig Charles, Chris Hawkins and Mary Anne Hobbs among them) to relocate to London.


IN THIS PHOTO: Mark Radcliffe with Thundercat

There is a great community and spirit up near Manchester. The studios seem extraodinary and perfect; a different sensation to walking into the studios in London, it seems. That geographical distance might show divisions but, conversely, it is the strength of the station. BBC Radio 6 Music promotes diversity and variation: having a centralised, homogenised outpost would not be a wise decision. I will end things in a second but, until then, a dying word (promise) from the article; how the station as viewed in 2015 – and why it is attracting people in by the bus-load:

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.

I will end this but, the reason I wanted to return to the shores of BBC Radio 6 Music, is to congratulate, what I think, is its finest and most productive year. They had a bumper selection of guests a couple of months back – Robert Plant and Morrissey among them – and were up in Glasgow for their annual festival. Tomorrow, Shaun Keaveny provides the rundown of the station’s favourite albums of the year; Lauren Laverne has provides some wonderful live guests and performances. Every D.J., in their own way, has added to the magic and palace that is teasing listeners from other stations – curious listeners kicking off their shoes and staying put with the wonders of BBC Radio 6 Music. It is staggering considering, merely a few years back, the station was rebuilding after near-closure and extinction. For a digital-only station; it is amazing seeing so many people flock to the station; spreading the love and proffering its benefits. For all the latest hustling, events and news; the cool interviews and decorations of BBC Radio 6 Music; you can have a look at their website and get involved. I will leave this now and congratulate the station on a record year: they have built their base and continued to grow; that seems likely to continue into 2018! As the final days of the year come into view; we are all looking ahead at what lies ahead and whether the best of new music will reach our ears. With the stellar and extraordinary BBC Radio 6 Music; you can bet your bottom-dollar you are…


IN very safe hands.