Radio, a live transmission…
Tom Wheeler reckons there’s a good reason why, as a collective, radio listeners are peculiarly resistant to the prospect of change
I’m writing while listening to Gideon Coe on the radio, as is my deeply ingrained habit. This is frequently a wistful experience – as fellow devotees will know, it’s something of a recurring motif, especially on Wednesdays – but all the more so tonight, as the programme is about to come to an end after fifteen years.
To the uninitiated, this may not seem the most dramatic development, especially as Gideon’s show on 6 Music is largely being replaced with…a different Gideon Coe show, this time in conjunction with the equally magnificent Marc Riley. Tom Ravenscroft and Deb Grant, both terrific broadcasters with encyclopaedic music knowledge, step up to fill Marc’s old spot in the schedules. Much to look forward to and little to lament, surely?
Well, not quite. As the old saying goes, hell hath no fury like a radio listener presented with the prospect of relatively minor change. When Lauren Laverne stepped in for the unwell Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs, the outpouring of venom in printed and social media was as astonishing as it was brutal – not least from people who had been just as scathing when Young took over the programme in the first place. The latest 6 Music changes have been less spitefully received; but there have still been vociferous protests and an online petition.
It would be possible, perhaps even tempting, to draw the conclusion that we radio listeners are, for want of a more erudite term, a bunch of nutters. But there’s a good reason – in fact, a range of good reasons – why as a collective we seem to be peculiarly resistant to the prospect of change. And consumers of music radio, and of music in general, have particular reason to be wary. Because in the background, a change is happening that is far bigger than the replacement of one presenter with another.
When Marc Riley and Gideon Coe became the soundtrack to my weekday evenings – which I can trace back precisely to early September 2010, but we’ll come back to that – I still bought most of my music on CD. My iPod had just about replaced the Discman as my device of choice – more portable, and less likely to skip when the bus goes over a speed bump – but essentially, if I wanted to listen to something, I would go and buy it. Napster had been and gone, but it had left its mark, not least on aspiring musicians. Spotify was leading the newly legal streaming revolution, and the days of making any kind of living from selling recorded music were, for all but the biggest acts, coming to a crunching halt.
At the time, I went to a lot of gigs but didn’t listen to music radio at all. My latest musical discovery would normally be the band I’d seen supporting my previous musical discovery. Then, one hazily hungover afternoon on Eigg, I watched Sweet Baboo singing bizarre but joyous songs about brain-splicing and bumblebees. A few days later, someone mentioned he was playing a session for Marc Riley. I tuned in, loved it, heard Gideon straight after, and rarely tuned out.
Since the changing of the 6 Music guard was announced, listeners have been quick to thank both presenters for introducing them to so much great music. I can certainly endorse that sentiment; but equally welcome has been the satisfaction – validation, even – of hearing these masters of their craft getting just as enthusiastic as me about a Scottish band I’m more used to encountering in a room above a pub.
On hearing eagleowl or Randolph’s Leap playing splendid Riley sessions, to be captured forever in the BBC archive, I feel a little bit of the pride they must feel themselves. When Gideon plays an obscure Trashcan Sinatras album track from 1993, and as I sing along to every word, it occurs to me that my spotty teenage self might not have had such ropey taste after all.
And beyond the music, there’s the ritual. We’re occupying an increasingly fragmented digital world, where most of our entertainment arrives on demand, albeit via a hefty algorithmic nudge. The presence of a knowledgeable, warm, familiar guide, at the same time each night and in broadly the same structure, has been a hugely reassuring one over the past decade and more.
The recurring features – the mid-point music, the Ivor the Engine theme, the annual Pre-Christmas, All-Christmas Christmas Programme – are all the more welcome in uncertain times. No wonder we wireless enthusiasts are such creatures of habit. No wonder change, when it comes, takes a bit of adjustment.
So thank you, Marc and Gideon, for the uncountable hours of entertainment and education so far, and for what’s still to come. Thanks to Nicola Meighan, to ‘Uncle’ Vic Galloway, to all those on the radio who combine the joy of discovery with the comfort of the familiar, and who are so vital to a vibrant but underappreciated grassroots music scene in Scotland and beyond.
And here’s hoping – fervently hoping – that in another ten years, live music radio still has its place among the playlists, podcasts and streams. ■
Digital Radio Transmissions 12 var 10, a digital artwork by Russell Kightley