‘It was a Lazarus story’: how BBC 6 Music rose from the dead to become the home of new music | Music

In 2002, the BBC launched a scrappy new radio station, aimed at highlighting its massive archive of live music sessions, “on a thing called DAB, which no one had really heard of”, says early morning presenter Chris Hawkins. Twenty years on, 6 Music is the biggest digital station in the UK, with 2.6 million listeners. It survived a serious threat of closure in 2010. Its audience has grown up with it (breakfast show host Lauren Laverne even DJed at the wedding of a couple who met discussing the station). The presence of independent acts that it championed such as Dry Cleaning and Yard Act in the UK album chart – and Little Simz winning a Brit award – reflects its impact.

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But a lot has changed in 20 years. 6 Music positions itself as “beyond the mainstream” – but indie and alternative music have become central to British culture: while 1.5 million people applied to attend Wimbledon this year, 2.5 million tried for Glastonbury tickets. The independent music scene has become markedly more diverse, and music fandom is no longer the sole preserve of the young. Taylor Swift collaborates with the National now. Is 6 Music too cosy to reflect these shifts? And how does it handle change when – as they discovered when DJ Shaun Keaveny left last September – many of its listeners would quite like things to remain exactly the same?

That tension speaks to its place in its loyal listeners’ lives. 6 Music became a lifeline for many during the pandemic, and its role will surely continue, licence fee cuts not withstanding. I spoke to Laverne on the morning Russia invaded Ukraine. “Days like today are a challenge because people wake up feeling anxious, sad, overwhelmed,” she said. “They need us to be a soft place to land.”

In the beginning …

Chris Hawkins, presenter I was part of planning the station. It was about filling a gap somewhere between Radio 1 and Radio 2 – there was a market for music lovers who weren’t being catered for by those stations.

Steve Lamacq.
Steve Lamacq. Photograph: BBC/Leigh Keily

Steve Lamacq, presenter The Radio 1 Evening Session was ending in 2003 and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Then 6 Music got in touch. I was excited that somebody wanted to put us on air because my morale was quite low. Here was somebody saying: “Do you want to do three hours of radio, old records, new records, and basically get on with it?” It was incredibly liberating.

Hawkins At first it didn’t really feel like a proper radio station. We had one on-air studio, one production studio and a kitchenette. In the early days, you could hear the photocopier whirring. I always remember John Peel wandering around the same corridors and that had a certain magic about it.

Lamacq John Sugar, who ran the station, would always say: “Dig deeper.” That was the catchphrase. Don’t just play Love Will Tear Us Apart.

Gilles Peterson, presenter At first I thought 6 was like old-school Radio 1 at night, very indie – with massive admiration for all those broadcasters, I’m just from another space. I thought the audience would think of me as a bit dancey – “Oof, jazz, not sure about that”. But it was a natural platform for me to be able to do what I do best.

Lamacq On Sunday we had a weekly phone call with Richard Hawley called “Hawley’s hangover cures”, then he would choose some completely obscure rockabilly record.

Shaun Keaveny, former presenter There was a period when it was very comedy-focused – Russell Howard, Jon Richardson, Russell Brand and Adam and Joe – and I think they drifted too far towards that for a little while.

Lamacq When Lauren Laverne joined about 18 months before the threat of closure, that’s when we really worked out what we were doing. We were far more accessible. The danger was that in the early days, it was like you weren’t allowed in unless you knew the catalogue numbers of the first 10 releases on Stiff Records.

Hawkins And then, of course, came that sort of D-day.

The threat of closure in 2010

Matt Everitt, presenter It’s not a big station in terms of headcount. Why close us when we do something really distinct?

Lamacq It was lucky we’d worked out what it was before someone tried to close us down, because when people listened in to see what it was, they found it quite enjoyable.

Tom Ravenscroft, presenter Weirdly it was the best it had ever sounded. Maybe there was an element of: let’s not give a fuck. There’s more of a punk attitude than perhaps there is when you get really popular. I felt like, if the ship was sinking, I wanted to be on it. I thought even if I could get a show on there for six months, I’d be happy.

Everitt David Bowie was making statements, but there were also tens of thousands of people telling the powers that be: no, this is a mistake. And it survived.

Keaveny It was a Lazarus story. And it was beautiful and the start of a huge love-in over many years.

Ravenscroft: As things get more popular, they get less risky – “now this thing’s really popular, we don’t want to break that”. So I think naturally, things became a little less punk rock.

Alternative to what?

Everitt At the start, the public perception was: it’s kind of indie. That wasn’t really true at the start, but over time that inclusivity has become more apparent.

Gilles Peterson.
Gilles Peterson. Photograph: BBC

Samantha Moy, 6 Music head I want this station to be as representative of all music lovers as possible. We still play indie and alternative, that is part of our USP, but so is Sherelle and Little Simz.

Lauren Laverne, presenter The breakfast show is traditionally described as the shop window of the station. When I started doing it I was keen that all the genres that have a place on 6 were represented in the show. I wanted to open the doors.

Peterson I approach my show quite differently to all the other shows, in that I don’t have a script. I won’t even pick the first songs until seconds before the show starts sometimes. It’s a very volatile show, a bit like free jazz.

Lamacq: I still get tons of actual post – vinyl and CDs, which I really delight in. If somebody has sent you a 7-inch single, you know how committed they are to their project.

Lauren Brennan, music team editor Deciding what goes on the playlist is an enormous balancing act. We’re looking at the strength of the track, what we think will interest the audience, but also the playlist as a whole to make sure there’s a diversity of voices – that we’re representing as many genres as we can.

Matthew Maxey, radio plugger 6 feels like a genuine meritocracy in that metrics like social media following, music video views have little to no influence on what gets played. An artist with a relatively small profile on a DIY label will be heavily supported and even playlisted if the song’s good enough.

Simon Hallyday, 4AD 6 is a really important factor in how we set up a release in the UK. We speak to them early on and roughly tell them our plan and see if the timing works with their playlist. We will juggle [release] times so it’s convenient for the band and the station. They’re that important.

Brennan A lot of it is gut instinct. When Wet Leg’s Chaise Longue was sent to us, we put that on the playlist straight away – it had barely any time on air to build but everybody in the team knew we had to play this now.

Lamacq: If your record doesn’t go on and somebody else’s record does go on, it all boils down to: my band’s better than your band. It’s not malicious and it’s not overly competitive. But you feel the need to wave the flag. and if they take notice of somebody else’s flag this week, then next week, you’re going to come back with an even bigger flag.

Jeff Bell, Partisan Records The success of Idles and Fontaines DC – and the fact that every other week now there is an artist in that [post-punk] vein appearing at the top end of the [album] charts – just goes to show how the work that someone like Steve has done has permeated wider music culture in the UK.

James Smith, Yard Act 6 has managed to revive interest in new indie guitar music again by rebranding it as post-punk. Although us and our contemporaries may be bound by certain traits – semi-spoken lyrics and angular sounds – for the most part the bands coming through do sound completely different from each other.

Scott Devendorf, the National 6 Music has been incredibly important for us – we grew up together over the past 20 years.

Martin Mills, Beggars Group Does it affect what we sign? Exposure on 6 is a factor in what we can achieve – but the majors shape records to get on the radio. We make the records the artists want to make.

Lamacq On average, just by email, I get 200 singles a week. And there are a lot of very generic records. You could get annoyed by it. But you can’t stop because something amazing will eventually come along. I listened to that Wet Leg single 19 times the day I got it. That’s what a teenager does.

Laverne I think I was the first person to have Lizzo in session in this country, then you see her at Glastonbury or Little Simz at the Brit awards. It’s not like I would overstate it – they’re the artists, it’s all their own work – but to be able to share their music is so exciting.

Peterson I’m discovering music from around the world but fitting that into the context of clubbing and electronic music. That taste has become more normalised now, so in a way my job is done.

Moy John Peel’s spirit goes the whole way through 6. John played the cornerstones of 6 Music – Bowie, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey. But he was progressive, always looking out for the next thing. In his later years, it was White Stripes, DJ Scotch Egg, grime. I think you see that coming through with our presenters, and it felt like it showed how future-facing he was and how that spirit is still alive in pop culture. That’s one of my proudest commissions.

Ravenscroft Everyone always makes this comparison between 6 Music and my dad, which I don’t personally see.

Camilla Pia, assistant commissioner We did a Bowie season five years after his passing. I thought, how can we tell a story about Bowie that hasn’t been told a million times? We had a real range of voices on there, Charli XCX and Christine and the Queens.

Simon Hallyday: 6 Music is so broad now that it’s harder for the artists who made the station to get back in there. That competition is a good thing. It’s part of how sustainable and flexible you can be.

Lamacq When I started going to gigs in London at the end of the 80s, if you saw someone even over the age of 30, it was: “What are you doing here, Grandad?!” It’s not like that now. We’ve gone through a 20-year period where more and more people over 30, 40, 50 haven’t given up on music. That’s been part of our success story – it shows that we understand our audience, we’ve grown up together.

Laverne I’m the daughter of a sociologist, so I find these social shifts fascinating. The generation gap between my dad and his parents was massive. Between me and my dad, it was much smaller. My 14-year-old has just cleared out my record collection of J Dilla, MF Doom and Wu-Tang, so it’s very small between us. Music’s not about age, it’s about attitude.

Keaveny How much more growth is sustainable? Originally it was providing something that the big stations weren’t. How much bigger can you get before you’re just another one of the big ones?

Jeff Smith, head of music When I joined in 2007, we had 500,000 listeners. We’ve got 2.6 million now. A lot of them have grown up with us – I don’t think we’ve lost an awful lot and I don’t think we’ve compromised.

6 Music’s changing faces

Lamacq I’ve been in the same spot since 2005. A member of management once said I was the Ken Bruce of 6 Music: solid, reliable, gets good figures, gets on with it; without Popmaster, but with new bands.

Afrodeutsche. Photograph: BBC/Sarah Louise Bennett

Ravenscroft I was given the opportunity to learn on the job through nepotism, ultimately. I joined [in 2010] and then no one else joined for like, eight years. I was also the youngest DJ. It was kind of ridiculous.

Laverne There was a time when I was the only woman on weekdays. It didn’t feel right. If you’re a public service broadcaster, it’s our job to reflect our audience. I was really pleased to see that change.

Moy I wanted to get more music into the daytime. When I’m looking at any 6 presenter, I want to make sure that they have real authenticity. Shaun might not have been at the super sharp end of it but he put together a brilliant radio show that was absolute companionship. I wanted to try something different with him.

Keaveny It was a small offering. Perhaps a weekend show, a couple of hours a week or something.

Moy Ultimately it was his decision to leave.

Keaveny They tried to persuade me to stay. I considered it for a while but I thought the brave thing to do was to step away.

Keaveny: I would say this on air – I always felt like the dickhead at 6: the clown, the generalist rather than the specialist. I was the friendly guy giving out leaflets at the door. I was trying to entice people in and then they get hit over the head with serious music. I always thought it was possible to have both. It was possible because we did for a long time.

Everitt I worked with Shaun for a long time. I love him dearly and I loved working on that show. The way we covered Bowie’s death [which Keaveny and Everitt announced live on air] has been talked about a fair amount – it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.

Keaveny I had a little chat with Johnny Marr, because I know that he’d been through a lot – you leave a band like the Smiths then join about 75 other bands. He sent me a massive message that said: “Change is good. Don’t worry about it, don’t fear it.” What did I do after my last link? We went to [legendary Camden venue] the Dublin Castle and got unbelievably pissed, which is the only right way for a 6 Music presenter to leave the stage, really.

Moy What was really important to me was having an authentic club culture show. 6 Music has been on air for a very long time and if you’re 45-plus, there’s a big chance you went clubbing. Having a show that can talk about Frankie Knuckles and go right through to Sophie’s legacy, helmed by the Blessed Madonna – that should absolutely be on 6 Music. And it was a question of when with Jamz Supernova.

Afrodeutsche, presenter I was approached with the concept of the show and within a month Sam was welcoming me to the BBC. If I’d taken a breath I probably would have said no, because I didn’t know what I was embarking on. All I knew was I love music, and here’s an opportunity to share all the different types of music that I love: yes.

Peterson There was an imbalance in terms of the background of a lot of the broadcasters and I think that they’ve certainly addressed that.

Laverne It’s important for 6 to develop new talent and I’m such a big fan of the new people coming through. I want people who are going to give me a run for my money. This morning I was driving into work and Deb Grant on early breakfast was playing Virginia Astley, and I was like, wow, OK, here we go!

Lamacq I don’t think I’ll still be there in my 70s. I have to go and see bands live, and I might be a bit knackered by then. Maybe there’ll be a day where I wake up and want to wear slippers and listen to trad jazz and that’ll be the end. But at the moment, particularly having had 18 months where we haven’t been able to do the job properly, trying to make sense of what we’ve got now is a challenge I’m enjoying. While I feel excited like that, I’ll carry on until they tell me to stop.

Ravenscroft Where do 6 DJs go next? The gap between stations is really weird. For some presenters, the longer you’re at 6, the harder it is to go anywhere else.

Afrodeutsche I didn’t realise until I started this show that my music knowledge is pretty deep. I thought I just loved music. It turns out I’m a massive nerd for detail, dates, how sonics change because of technology. I’d never claimed that before 6 made me see it.

How to broadcast in a pandemic

Laverne The pandemic was a big lesson in responding to how our audience was feeling and a huge illustration of things we instinctively knew about the importance of radio for mental health and wellbeing, the community aspect of what we do.

Lamacq My wife’s a psychologist. She said: “Don’t keep referencing it, don’t say things like ‘We’re all in it together’. Be positive and don’t keep coming back to how terrible it is.”

Afrodeutsche Listening to radio was really important for me because I live alone. It was like I had someone with me.

Peterson I think I was the only show on the weekends that was going out live. I felt like I was needed, so I wanted to make sure I was on top form. I got into the habit of getting up and going for a big run, and that gave me the energy to get to the end of the show.

Lamacq This time last year was the worst – cold, dark and wet. Just me and the producer on the other side of the glass. No one else on the floor at all. You had to go in early to do a temperature check but you couldn’t go into your studio until 15 minutes before you were on air, so there were 45 minutes where you were wandering the streets. That wasn’t the greatest, sitting outside Domino’s with a can of Coke and a packet of crisps. I’d occasionally treat myself to a cider.

James Smith What’s happened with Yard Act over the last few years wouldn’t have happened without Steve Lamacq and 6 Music. It was people’s only access to us, because the live show didn’t exist, and we didn’t exist before lockdown.

Laverne I fell into my job through having fun and doing TV jobs for shoe money back in the day. In my early 20s I thought, I want to do something meaningful with my life. And I find that side of what I do incredibly meaningful – this morning I had a lady on her way to a shift at Alder Hey children’s hospital saying thanks for cheering her up. That’s the other thing you’ve got to remember when there’s a big global event happening – people still have the challenges of their everyday lives, which can be really significant. I don’t want to overstate it because it’s also about having fun and just enjoying what you do. But it means a lot that we can make her morning a little bit nicer.

Here’s to the next 20 years

Keaveny The BBC sometimes doesn’t understand how great it is at certain things. If you’re making live radio fit a non-live platform, you’re fucking up the live show. There aren’t enough people vocally championing the virtues of live radio without the bells and whistles.

Lamacq There have been so many threats to linear radio over the last 20 years, like how people have been saying guitar music is dead since the days of the Haçienda. We will see as new generations come through whether they want radio in the same way. As long as radio never forgets how brilliant it is at being immediate and spontaneous, I think it will still exist.

Moy It would be premature for me to speculate on the implications of any licence fee settlement.

Lamacq The BBC, sometimes to its detriment, can move quite slowly. But in this case, I think the period of thought and reflection and consideration is probably the right thing. No one’s pushing alarm buttons.

Moy What does the move to Manchester mean for 6? [By 2027, 60% of 6 Music production will come from Salford, a rise of 20% from current figures.] You want to represent all parts of the nation, because we’re paid for by the licence fee. What I’ve talked about in terms of [music] representation – it’s the same for the UK. It’s gonna be a real opportunity. Will there be big lineup changes? It’ll be a brilliant opportunity to think about what 6 will sound like, what voices it’ll have on it. When you think about what 6 sounds like now, Afrodeutsche’s based in Salford, Marc Riley, Craig Charles – they sound fantastic. So I’m not concerned.

Peterson I really hope that the government get – and I think they do – the cultural imprint that music has. You wonder what Britain is about sometimes. Music is still really relevant and resonant.

Laverne Every morning we wake up and there’s three hours of silence that we get to fill with whatever we like.

Peterson I walk in there with my records on my back and I have this excited joy that I had when I was 16 going to my first pirate radio shows.

Afrodeutsche We’re in Salford. We’re going live in 27 minutes. I’m shaking, taking deep breaths, wide eyes, looking at my producers and going: “It’s OK!” but not really knowing if it is – and then just going for it. Every Friday, as soon as we go live, we take the feed from London and there’s no going back. It’s like doing live gigs. It’s taken four months to not feel sick with nerves before doing the show, but I get it now. It’s just so much joy.

The BBC Radio 6 music festival will take place in Cardiff from 1 to 3 April with highlights broadcast on 6 Music and BBC Sounds. Shaun Keaveny presents the podcast Creative Cul‑de‑Sac and the online radio show Community Garden Radio.