Features 14 November 2019

BBC 6 Music: the UK’s favourite indie radio station

With presenters like Iggy Pop, Tom Robinson and Cillian Murphy, BBC 6 Music is eclectic, not to say gloriously eccentric. Stephen Armstrong turns on and tunes in

Words by Stephen Armstrong

Photography by Shonagh Rae

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In a way, it’s odd that BBC 6 Music should exist,’ says Tom Robinson, former punk star and now presenter on the BBC’s increasingly influential digital-only radio station. ‘First, that a digital-only station with an offbeat music selection should be the tenth most popular station in the country. Second, that it should attract talent like Iggy Pop, Cillian Murphy and Jarvis Cocker as DJs. But third, and most fundamentally, because it’s spent years on the verge of extinction.’

Robinson speaks from extensive experience. The gay rights activist and punk bassist began in London’s late 70s music scene, alternating subversive top 10 hits like ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ with singles like ‘Glad to Be Gay’ (initially, ironically, banned from BBC radio). He was one of the first presenters on 6 Music when it launched back in 2002, in the years before widespread broadband and digital penetration. Today, his show includes a hefty proportion of listeners from across the world. 

6 Music’s glorious eccentricity spans former Big Audio Dynamite’s Don Letts playing dub reggae, ex-Fun Lovin’ Criminals frontman Huey Morgan spinning hip hop, Iggy Pop playing garage bands from the 60s to the present, Hollywood’s Cillian Murphy laying down some blues and folk, ex-Catatonia lead singer Cerys Matthews playing jazz, punk and poetry, and the poet, actor and DJ Craig Charles playing funk and soul – all alongside respected and experienced British DJs from Steve Lamacq to Lauren Laverne. Imagine what the Christmas party must be like.

That’s not to say 6 Music’s Wogan House HQ is like The Beatles’ conjoined homes in the video for their track ‘Help!’, with celebrities swapping vinyl in the basement – Iggy Pop broadcasts his show from Miami, for example – but all the star presenters were fans of the station before they became presenters. ‘Cillian Murphy was a keen listener for years before he was offered his own show,’ explains founding presenter Gideon Coe. ‘You can’t quite help but do a double-take when you hear him.’

This gathering of talent, range of music and listener success seems counterintuitive in a world of YouTube and Spotify: why listen to a bunch of tracks you may not know or like while waiting for the odd one you do, when you can just download a playlist of all your favourites? But BBC 6 Music – like an increasingly large number of imaginative and influential stations around the world – comes with a commodity in short supply online: trust. 

‘The world has so many more offerings that end up as just a lot of noise,’ explains Nemone Metaxas, who started on dance music stations and Radio 1 before joining 6 Music to host Electric Ladyland, ‘a carefully curated two-hour love affair with electronic music. Trust is an important part of curating. If people trust you, they’ll stay with you and maybe learn to love something they’d never considered before.’

Stuart Maconie – author, journalist and weekend show presenter – agrees. ‘Last week a woman emailed me saying, “You just played something completely unlistenable – keep up the good work,”’ he says with a chuckle. ‘It’s pure BBC. The commercial sector is too hamstrung by advertisers to launch a station like 6 Music: the [BBC] licence fee is a blessing and a curse, because bosses [generally] think they have to make decisions that will please everyone.’

Indeed, it was this kind of thinking that nearly killed the station in 2010, when the BBC Trust recommended its closure. So passionate are 6 Music’s listeners, though, that the BBC received 50,000 online responses, 25,000 emails and 250 letters protesting, with David Bowie and Jarvis Cocker actively campaigning alongside the public. 

‘I think that did us a lot of good,’ reflects 6 Music head Paul Rodgers. ‘It forced us to work out what we were actually for. We spent a lot of time soul-searching after we were saved, and we now say we want to be part of the community that celebrates music from the alternative spirit. So we’ll play music from any and every decade, but it won’t be the stuff you’ll hear elsewhere.’ 

Coe does worry that the station could benefit from some younger listeners to ensure its longevity, but he’s optimistic. ‘As long as there’s new exciting music out there, we have a job to do,’ he says. ‘Rock ’n’ roll wasn’t supposed to be around this long. It was supposed to be a fad. I can’t see it ending any time soon. Can you?’

Three presenters

Iggy Pop

Godfather of punk and self-described destroyer of the 1960s, Michigan’s own James Newell Osterberg Jr cut his teeth on Chicago’s blues scene before assembling The Stooges in 1967. The band nearly dissolved in addiction and failure but was saved by David Bowie. In between writing learned books on classical scholars, he has also acted in movies such as Cry-Baby and Tank Girl, and he joined 6 Music in 2015. 

Lauren Laverne

Laverne burst on to the scene as vocalist in 90s pop-punk band Kenickie before moving to television and presenting pretty much everything from cheesy pop to high-arts culture programmes. Her radio career includes the BBC’s Radio 1, commercial indie station XFM, Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs and – from January 2019 – 6 Music’s Breakfast Show. You can take the girl out of the punk band…

Don Letts

South Londoner Letts arrived in music via his clothes shop Acme Attractions, favoured by the Sex Pistols, Debbie Harry and Bob Marley. He started shooting videos and documentaries for The Clash while playing in a reggae band with Jah Wobble before founding Big Audio Dynamite with Clash co-founder/guitarist Mick Jones. He’s since directed movies and TV programmes and has hosted 6 Music’s roots show Culture Clash since 2009. 

Six like 6

WFMU, New Jersey

This almost aggressively non-commercial former college station turned eclectic broadcaster hosts programming from alt-rock through offbeat indie to rock, experimental music, old 78s, jazz, psychedelia, comedy, cooking and pretty much everything else. Funded by listeners.

Cashmere Radio, Berlin

Broadcast live from a cocktail bar in Lichtenberg, east Berlin, Cashmere combines psychedelia, tropical jazz, politically infused dance music, chaotic free-form experimental sound pieces and sometimes, oddly, deliberately programmed periods of silence.

KCRW, Los Angeles

This Santa Monica-based public radio station has no playlist and instructs its DJs to play eclectic progressive music. It is famous for introducing Beck, Adele, Massive Attack, Gotye, Sigur Rós, and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros to the American public. Now it plays everything from lo-fi beach goth to Chicano soul, with shows from Dita Von Teese, the Chemical Brothers and Henry Rollins.

Radio Musical de Cuba, Havana

The state-run Cuban music station features an impeccably curated assortment of Cuban sounds, as well as classical and jazz from the heart of Havana. Spark up a Habanos and soak in one of the world’s most flexible and interesting musical cultures.

Mouv’, Paris

Radio France’s youth/dance music-inspired station centres on rolling French-language rap and urban tunes with a distinctly French flavour. World-class Parisian DJs – like Daft Punk, Nouvelle Vague and Dirty Swift, who opened for Jay-Z and Beyoncé – have regular or occasional shows.

WWOZ 90.7 FM, New Orleans

WWOZ focuses on New Orleans-born music, including jazz, rhythm and blues, Cajun music, zydeco, bluegrass, gospel and Celtic music. Pretty much everything in popular music started somewhere in the French Quarter.

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