I am John Peel
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: