You’d be forgiven for thinking that there had been a revival of classic kitchen-sink drama ‘Look Back in Anger’ when you see John Osborne’s name appearing in ‘What’s On’ guides at theatre near you. However, the talk I went to last night at a snow covered Lowry in Salford couldn’t have been more different. His namesake has an awesome vinyl record collection and speaks passionately about a subject close to my heart – radio! All presented enthusiastically in an enjoyable one-hour monologue called “John Peel’s Shed.”
The book Radio Head is what the show is based on. This was the first book that I read about radio back when I was starting out. In the summer of 2009, I had already been bitten by the radio bug and had just been promoted to Head of Marketing at my student radio station Fuse FM. With such a rich landscape and history to this medium I was eager to learn all about it. I headed off to Borders book store (remember those?) in Stockport’s appropriately named ‘Peel Centre’ to find out more. Among an array of television literature in the media section there was just one radio book available for me to devour: Radio Head. I must have been fate. I bought it, trying to convince myself that they were going to help with my dissertation research at university, which it did actually, so that was an added bonus!
The tagline is “Up and down the dial of British Radio”. It’s such a brilliant concept for a book; each day John listened to a radio station for the entire day and notes down his findings. As radio is such a fast moving medium this is now slightly dated but the stories are timeless. All types of stations are given the radio head treatment, from Virgin Radio (now Absolute) and Classic FM to the acclaimed community arts station Resonance FM. The foundations of radio are built on stories and each chapter is a fascinating culmination of the stories that happen on-air at each station the day that John was listening. As well as including special chapters devoted especially to topics like the ‘Test Match Special’ and an interview with Tommy Boyd speaking frankly about ‘Human Zoo’. As John recalled: all the best presenters speak to ‘you’ (singular) through the radio but Tommy actually was speaking to me!
John’s monologue delivered in ‘John Peel’s Shed’ contains nuances of his book as well as expanding on certain points too. He speaks about how he always wanted to be part of the community of listeners that tuned in to John Peel’s shows but initially found it all “too loud”. He preserved and it was only when he has an “epiphany” and connected with the lyrics in The Smiths’ song How Soon is Now? that he became hooked. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t have won the competition to win a box of records from John Peel’s shed, that form the soundtrack and backdrop to this trip down memory lane. A special mention must go out to Oi-Zone – a punk rock cover band inspired by Boyzone!
If you haven’t heard of Resonance FM then you must tune for the experience. It is an arts based project broadcasting to the South Bank and Bankside of London on 104.4 FM and online at www.resonancefm.com This station shows the depth of what community radio can do. While researching for his book John speaks of how on the day he listened to Resonance they broadcasted a show called ‘Me and My Floor’ which did exactly what it says on the tin, each week featuring a different floor. Yes, the whole show consisted of the sounds made up from a microphone placed on the floor in the presenter’s house! Remember, this is an award winning arts station and they are incredibly good at what they do. I’ve said it before and I don’t mind saying it again, this shows the real depth of what community radio really can explore. I know some community and student stations can be a little rough around the edges but because they are not restricted by having to deliver RAJAR listener figures, TSA reach and the like then this allows for innovation and creativity, if done well. This is why community radio is so important as part of the radio landscape.
Speaking about BBC Radio 1, John recalled the dismissive comments he made about the station at the time his book was published. (See Here) I personally think that something so subjective as taste can never be criticised; if it is different to our own then this doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The Radio 1 faithful also had much to say about this. Having been ‘forced’ to listen to the station everyday while working in a warehouse John now understands their way of thinking… as well as being there during the rise of Justin Beiber.
Delivered with passion and gusto, what makes John’s stories so fascinating is how life, radio and music are all seamlessly entwined. This is not just engrossing for anoraks like me but it can be appreciated by anyone who has ever listened to the radio. Whether you realise it or not, radio is part of all our lives. It’s with you when you wake up in the morning, it’s there as you drive home from work, part of your routine as you tune in to a specific show each night. Do you notice when your favourite presenter is off? When you miss a show must you catch up on the podcast? If any of that sounds familiar then you are a radio head too.
John Osborne’s own blog about the show is available HERE
If you want to go up and down the dial of British radio yourself then check-out John’s brilliantly witty and informative book Radio Head.
In the shadow of John Peel’s picture up on the big screen Radcliffe and Maconie took to the stage to introduce the night’s proceedings. I had managed to get right on the front row and right in front of the rostrum where rock legend Pete Townshend would be standing. Notorious for smashing up hotel rooms on tour with his band The Who… (maybe I shouldn’t have sat on the front row??)
Older and wiser now, this lecture didn’t break the news because of that though. The controversy arose because of this question that he asked, during the course of the lecture:
Is there really any good reason why, just because iTunes exists in the wild west internet land of Facebook and Twitter, it can’t provide some aspect of these services to the artists whose work it bleeds like a digital vampire Northern Rock for its enormous commission?
As you would expect, the media sensationalised this. Townshend’s delivery of the lecture was quite stilted and this often diluted his points when reading from notes, his wit came through during ad-libs. He used his “inner artist” as a way to soften the blow of any criticism. Although, points that I agreed with included how venomous the internet can be; people hide behind their keyboards thinking that this is a shield for them to spout all kinds of vindictive nonsense – just because they can. However, to say that platforms like iTunes should provide some sort of ‘community service’ for new artists is rubbish. You can’t condemn a business for wanting to make money.
Townshend compared the digital internet age to that of radio, commenting that radio is not as driven by money than the internet. Of course it is; you only have to be around on RAJAR day to see how much ratings matter. Big ratings means that people are listening and if people are listening then advertise want their products on your station. That may not apply in the same way to BBC stations but they still, quite rightly, compete fiercely for listeners. They want to make sure that your licence fee money is not wasted.
To have a curator like John Peel guiding listeners through the hits (and misses) of new musical releases was fantastic… but it was also of its time. Peel’s legacy at the helm of the radio industry was in an era when much less choice existed. It was mentioned in the lecture that Peel would often play songs that the listener hated, if that happened nowadays then they can, almost too easily, switch over to another station to find something they do like.
Is ‘Peelism’ dead? I would have thought so. Then like a flash of lightening, I realised that no, in fact it is very much still here. I was sitting down planning the prep sheet for my weekly chillout music specialist show on North Manchester FM when it occurred to me – I am John Peel. Ok, maybe that’s too much of an overstatement but hear me out; you’ll get my gist: Radio presenters in the ‘real world’ (i.e. those who get paid) do not have much, if any, say about the music that they play on their shows. This is within good reason because stations need to play music that they know listeners will like so that they keep tuned in to that station, like we discussed above. This is when art blends quite neatly over into science because most stations like to conduct audience research to make sure that they get the selection of music that they play right.
On community radio it’s different; I don’t get paid but present and produce shows because I enjoy it – it’s the best hobby in the world. I compile my playlists as best I can to the criteria of what the audience want to hear within the chillout genre, just like a commercial station would do, but I also have the freedom to put in as many tracks that I like too. I do this as a way of introducing my listeners to new songs that they might not have been familiar with. This is the ethos behind most specialist music shows that you hear on community radio and it was also what John Peel liked to do with his shows too.
It was an overstatement, I’m not John Peel and I definitely do not have the amount of listeners that he did. However, I’ve been presenting my show for four years now and during that time I’ve developed a nice little following of regular listeners who request songs and interact with me when I’m on-air and off-air via social media. From feedback that I get it is obvious that they love the fact that they can listen to the show, discover new music that they hadn’t been aware of and, who knows, they might even download a copy of the tracks they like later.
The legacy of John Peel lives on. You just have to search a little harder to find shows that are like what he used to do – and community radio is a rich source of shows like that. Ironically it’s come full circle because I do all the research for my radio shows on the internet using platforms such as iTunes to help me access the music that I need.
Who cares if iTunes is what Pete Townshend calls a “digital vampire”… I hate Twilight anyway!
Here’s a clip from Pete Townshend’s John Peel lecture:
Radio has been a hobby of mine for almost four years now, I suppose I’m what you could call an ‘anorak’; I love all aspects of the medium. Whether that is producing, presenting or my specialism in marketing, you name it and I’ve done it at some point… Yes, that even includes dressing up as a panda in an electrical store – don’t ask!
You can imagine my excitement then when I got asked to be part of a team working on Radio Festival Radio, producing podcasts that would cover every aspect for the pinnacle event for the industry held over three days at The Lowry in Salford Quays, which is appropriately just across the water from MediaCityUK.
While most people were getting their stash of sweets and fancy dress outfit ready for Halloween on the 31st of October, I was off to the first day of the festival attending Foot in the Door. This offers budding professionals the chance to ask questions and network with people who are already well established in the industry. This was an invaluable session with plenty of information and inspiration to boot.
Later that evening I had signed up to the inaugural John Peel Lecture hosted by Radcliffe and Maconie and given by rock legend Pete Townsend of The Who. Pete was talking about the impact that the internet is having radio as a way for listeners to source new music (or “Peelism”, as he called it). I was the only reporter from Festival Radio covering this session, so had a lot responsibility. Little did I know the lecture would break the news and become the most read story of the day on the BBC website! Why? Well, one of the quotes from Pete’s speech called iTunes “The digital version of Northern Rock” – controversial to say the least! Pete used the safety net of what he called his “inner artist” to deliver any criticism of Apple’s products, a bit of a cop out if you ask me. Although, the irony of all this is that questions from listeners were being taken via an iPod!
[This lecture was broadcast live from the Quays Theatre for 6Music. If you want to listen to it then it’s available on BBC iPlayer for a week and I’m sure snippets will be around on YouTube long after that.]
Day two is always a busy one at the festival and I was covering the People Power session, focusing on managerial methods that can be utilised within stations. Interestingly, insights here were given from those in fields outside of the radio industry. The panel included Barry Hearn and Tessa Sanderson from the world of sport as well as Dragon Duncan Bannatyne to give a business perspective. An interesting session where I thought the best moment was Duncan admitting that he isn’t a “people person” (despite the session being called ‘People Power!’) I asked him about this when I interviewed him after for the Festival Radio podcast… then I was ‘out’ and off to edit it all!
There were a lot of sore heads the day after, a good sign that the PPL Hall of Fame Dinner held at Gorton Monastery went down well then! Congratulations to Andy Peebles, Peter Allen, Jane Garvey and Sir Jimmy Young CBE, who all were inducted this year, as well as Ronnie Wood who was given the lifetime achievement award. I started Wednesday up in the Compass Room covering Terry Underhill’s session on playlists. The panel included controllers from BBC network and commercial radio who discussed the importance of audience research when deciding what music is the best fit for each station. A gut instinct is also required though too of course; something that BBC Radio 2 and 6Music music must rely on a lot, as it was revealed that they compile very little research in this area.
After a short break, the next session I covered was exploring a fairly recent development in radio which is something getting increasingly prevalent in our whizz-kid society – social media. This session was hosted by Scott Mills and featured Ken Benson from P1 research who had flown over from California to give his insights. Brett Spencer, interactive editor for BBC Radio 2 and 6Music, gave praise to BBC Three Counties’ John Vaughn Show for getting the, now infamous, ‘Angry Melvin’ rant about the Royal Wedding onto AudioBoo while that show was still on-air. Marketing expect Rachel Clarke then told delegates what not to do when utilising social media. The key lesson here being: “Don’t be stupid”.
Back to the production room to edit the content, then within a flash the final podcast was uploaded and my Radio Festival experience for 2011 was over. It has been a pleasure to work with so many talented people who I’m sure all have bright futures ahead of them – just remember that you heard them on Festival Radio first! Special thanks must go to Kate Cocker and Heather Davies for their advice and encouragement over these past few days.
If you want to listen to Festival Radio’s coverage of the Radio Festival then the podcasts are available to be downloaded here: http://www.radioacademy.org/podcasts/ For more details on next year’s festival stay tuned – as we say!