The meaning of ‘broadcaster’

I have commented before on the fact that I tend to prefer to receive my news and entertainment from publicly funded sources such as the BBC or CBC or PBS. I don’t believe that this is due to wanting to follow the official line but rather the fact that when I listen to the radio in particular, but also when I watch television I don’t always want to hear or see the familiar, expected or normal. Fortunately, there are presenters who epitomise these ideals, unfortunately, they appear to be getting rarer.

Two presenters in the UK who truly represented the ideal of a broadcaster were Humphrey Lyttleton and John Peel. I am expressing nothing new to anyone who listened to either of them to say that they were legends of their respective genres, bringing new music to at least 2 generations of people who would hide a radio under the bed sheets late at night and listen in to new and wonderful sounds.

Humph presented ‘The Best of Jazz’ for 40 years; each week his 1 hour show would introduce something new to even the most hardened jazz fan, whilst to me as the jazz neophyte it was all new. But the authority in his voice and the history of his playing meant that I wanted to listen and I wanted to like the music. Now, admittedly I didn’t like it all, but then that is the point of the broadcaster and it brings me neatly onto John Peel.

John Peel presented a show that towered over the independent music scene in the UK for three and a half decades. As he himself once put it “If there is an ‘up-and-coming band’ that I haven’t heard of; they aren’t”. He famously championed the Smiths, the Undertones and the Fall. But he also played a significant part in the development of the following:

  • Pink Floyd
  • David Bowie
  • Joy Division/ New Order
  • Billy Bragg
  • Blur

I could go on, but you get the idea- it is not a bad resume to have. The thing that staggers me is that not only was his influence immense, but the length of time he held it for was truly mind boggling. Especially when you listen to some of the, quite frankly, dross that he played. But the entire ethos of John Peel, and I like to thing of Humphrey Lyttleton too, was that presenters on a broadcaster should “not give people what they want but what they didn’t know they wanted”

And that to me is the beauty of radio and the ultimate downfall of the iPod. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am, unlike Alan Sugar, in no way saying that the iPod is dead or even likely to go away any time soon, in fact I have just seen a lovely little MP3 dream machine that I would love to find under a Christmas tree (preferably paired with a nice set of headphones too). But, here is the thing, unless I have been doing it very very wrong with my iPod you will never suddenly hear a track that you have never heard before, but that blows your mind, causes you sit down and just lose yourself in music for the first time. There are many songs that have the same effect even after repeated listenings (Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt’ makes me cry every time I hear it on a decent stereo system), but I propose that there is still something just incredible about hearing a song for the first time.

Unfortunately, the majority of my praise for Humprey Lyttleton and John Peel is written in the past tense as they have both passed away. And in this era of fragmentation, market segmentation and focussing on the customer we are in danger of losing their like. There are radio stations and presenters who continue the tradition, and just as Humph and Peel were, they are shoe-horned into the late night slots, the out of the way schedule and the hard to listen to radio stations. But for people who like to hear something new, with absolutely no guarantee that they will like it, I suggest 6Music (available on digital radio in the UK and via the interweb throughout the world) and in particular Guy Garvey and Clare McDonnel or Alex Lester on Radio 2 (you might want to be a bit careful with the rest of Radio 2 though- it gets a bit cardigan cuddly middle of the road most of the time).

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