BBC Radio 6 Music – Credit where it’s due

Dr Neil March argues that while BBC 6 Music may need a shake-up of its gender and ethnic profiles it is unfair to brand it as no more than a traditional Indie music station.

While researching articles about current trends in music broadcasting, I came across an article published by The Guardian in August 2018. It was written by Laura Snapes and it focused on the implications of BBC 6 Music’s planned reshuffle for 2019 for the station’s standing as custodian of an ageing Indie music culture.

It was a well-written article and contained a good many truths. So it is certainly not my intention to criticise Laura Snapes’s work nor especially to take issue with the points she raises about the ‘comfortable pair of slippers’ character of a reshuffle in which a group of well-established presenters swap shifts without anyone joining or departing. Indeed she acknowledges that, with its listening figures passing 2.5 million this year, there is a strong argument to say ‘It it ain’t broke, why fix it’?

However there was one area in which I felt the article was slightly unfair. Namely the suggestion that the alternative offered by 6 Music ultimately, as Laura Snapes puts it, ‘… trades in comfort and familiarity, new versions of old sounds’ for which she cites the example of former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and his ‘festival selfies’. In one sense she is right. A good deal of the new guitar-driven Indie or Alt Rock bands and artists sound a lot like the Post-Punk bands I was listening to in the nineteen eighties albeit with the subsequent benefits of digital recording and mastering and better instrumental technology.

All the same it is not the case that 6 Music is purely an Indie or Alternative Music station. Firstly it has specialist shows such as Nemone (Electronic & Dance), Craig Charles (Soul & Funk), Cerys Matthews (Blues, Folk, World, Americana, Spoken Word & a host of other genres), Gilles Petersen (Soul, Hip Hop, Afrobeat, Electronica, Jazz etc.), Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone (Leftfield, Contemporary Classical, Psychedelic, Prog & Experimental) and Iggy Pop (Eclectic Alternative & Obscure) plus Tom Ravenscroft’s Friday Night slot in which there is a marked focus on the harder-edged emerging sounds from Alternative, Urban and Electronic music.

It should also be acknowledged that elements of most, if not all, of these find their way into the playlists of the station’s non-specialist shows too. A case in point might be that I first heard Cameroonian musician Blick Bassy live in session on Lauren Laverne’s weekday morning show. What other station would offer such an experience in the context of a daytime broadcast?

6 Music also has Tom Robinson who, at 68, may fit the article’s profile as another example of an ageing white male presenter (albeit one of the UK’s highest profile LGBT campaigners since the late seventies). Yet in reality, his tireless commitment to supporting an incredibly wide spectrum of new music sees him presenting the BBC 6 Music Introducing Mixtape alongside his Saturday Night show both of which offer fantastic platforms to new and emerging artists.

Moreover he has taken that commitment a stage further by setting up and personally funding the Fresh on the Net platform. Having had the privilege of being a member of the Fresh on the Net team of moderator-authors since the beginning of 2018, I have been consistently impressed by Tom’s vigilance in listening to every new track submission (which, with both the Introducing/FOTN in-box and additional regional ones, means close to 250 a week). I have also been impressed by how genuinely eclectic his choices are. Where else in the world, let alone the UK, would you hear Contemporary Classical, Jazz Futurist, Ambient Electronic, Alternative Rock, Folk, Country, World, R’n’B, Grime, Hip Hop, Reggae, Pop (and more) nestling side by side on the same radio show?  

By setting up Fresh on the Net, choosing [via our team of moderators] twenty-five new tracks each week to go to a public vote on the Listening Post, he has not only ensured new and emerging artists have an additional platform but he has cleverly handed the final say in which tracks make the ten hallowed Fresh Faves each weekend to the fans. And not the fans of the individual artists. On the contrary, if artists are caught encouraging fans and friends to turn up mob-handed to skew the public vote in their favour, they are disqualified (and we can always tell when that is happening and will trace the offending social media posts!). The whole point of the Listening Post is for artists to test their music out on a discerning audience of people who can be bothered to put time aside every weekend to listen to another twenty-five new tracks. Discerning they are too as the range of genres they vote for proves.

I agree with Laura Snapes that 6 Music is still behind the times on involving presenters from ethnic minority backgrounds in their mainstream schedule. Of course that is going to be difficult when a reshuffle does not result in a single new appointment nor the departure of an existing one. And established weekend show hosts like Craig Charles and Don Letts would still represent an old guard where she would prefer to see some younger presenters to bring the average age down from 52 and rising. In that respect promoting Lauren Laverne and Mary Anne Hobbs is only of limited value. It may be good news for women and equality but one is in her forties, the other her fifties. Curiously 6 Music’s newest presenter is Amy Lamé who, granted, is a woman but one who is 47 and white, thus simply exacerbating the problem in terms of the station’s age and ethnic profile. No criticism of Amy intended (and indeed her show is a great listen) but it is difficult not to see the appointment as a wasted opportunity to bring in, say, a younger non-white female presenter.

Of course BBC Asian Network and 5 Live presenter Nihal Arthanayak frequently sits in for Mary Anne Hobbs on the weekend breakfast show when she is away but even he is 47 so once again the age (as well as gender) profile issue rears its head.

Radio programmers within the BBC would probably point out that 6 Music’s role has to be seen within the wider context of having Radio One for the most commercially popular elements of the contemporary mainstream and 1Xtra as a breeding ground for new Dance, Urban and Electronic music artists. There is no other BBC station that provides a platform for the considerable audience for Indie and related music. And with the age profile of live music audiences also increasing, we need to recognise that the notion of Popular Music as being a predominantly young people’s culture is also becoming outdated. I only need to take a look at my own home. While my eighteen year old son and his friends love their digital gaming technology, social media and mobile phones, new music is far down their priorities lists. The only new music enthusiast in our household is me! I notice it too when I go to gigs now. Even when the bands or artists on stage are young, the audience is increasingly filled with middle aged people. In that respect, 6 Music may be more accurately reflecting the modern audience than we realise.

So what is the conclusion of all this? In essence Laura Snapes is right in a great deal of what her article points out. It is proving difficult for new blood to make it onto the 6 Music schedule when reshuffle means literally what it says. Women should still be better represented and black and Asian presenters are woefully under represented.

Where I am not convinced is her suggestion that the music policy itself is indicative of an age-related conservatism. I will admit to becoming frustrated at times by the unwillingness of show producers to bring more cutting edge music into mainstream schedules. But with Tom Robinson inviting such a volume of submissions by new and emerging artists every week; with individuals like Cerys Matthews, Stuart Maconie and Gilles Petersen foraging constantly for undiscovered and unsung talent; Nemone, who saw her show moved from its old Sunday morning slot to the midnight shift a few years back, sifting out the most innovative electronic and dance music acts, 6 Music is arguably doing more than any other BBC channel to ensure new music is given a platform whatever its genre and background.

I would also proffer the view that it has been 6 Music more so than 1Xtra that has been responsible for breaking important British Urban artists like Loyle Carner, Kojey Radical, Flohio and Kate Tempest as well as doing far more than Radio 2 to support cutting edge UK Jazz artists like Shabaka Huchings (including his Sons of Kemet and The Comet is Coming), Moses Boyd and Sheila Maurice-Grey. Looking beyond the UK too, it is 6 Music that has led the way in introducing UK audiences to the amazing music of black American musicians like Kamasi Washington and Thundercat.

Things can always be done better and BBC 6 Music will not benefit from complacency. Nor will it do its own credibility any favours by failing to take the opportunities to make appointments that reflect its stated commitment to equality and diversity. It could probably be more adventurous with its music policy too. But it would be quite unfair to brand it a station for new Indie music based on an old music template. Clearly it is far more and better than that.