If the reports that the BBC will close down 6 Music are true, it is a great shame. Of course, this could be seen coming. The BBC has been utterly weak in almost every respect for the past few years, and it is difficult to escape the notion that it is too big, with too many outlets. Of course, when effectively forced to cut back, it will opt to close down the high quality products, rather than those that are merely popular.
6 Music is the only mainstream radio station where you can regularly hear genuinely experimental and alternative music on a regular basis. It is the only station that confounds expectations and delights in challenging the listener.
The Freak Zone is a jewel in 6 Music’s crown, dedicated to playing esoteric music from today and undiscovered gems from the past. For sure, it is a challenging listen at times — but that is the very point.
Similarly, Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service is truly unique. One of the most eclectic playlists I have ever heard is mixed with ponderings on, for instance, the sad beauty of abandoned Christmas trees.
I have effused before about Adam and Joe, which I think was genuinely the best programme on radio. These are just three of the must-listen radio programmes that 6 Music has brought us.
6 Music should have broadened its horizons
There is simply no commercial alternative. In short, it is precisely the sort of thing that the BBC should be doing.
In fact, I have in the past been critical of 6 Music for not being adventurous enough in the past. The BBC does, after all, already have three other major music radio stations, each of which is dedicated to playing different strands of mainstream music. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. But this should have provided 6 Music with the opportunity to explore the outer reaches of music more freely.
Instead, 6 Music has ended up being slightly unsure of its role. It has come to attain a dual identity. One is that of a genuinely exploratory musical agenda, for discerning listeners who are passionate about the music they already love, and are itching to discover new music.
The other is that of a mere weakened popular music station with a vague indie bent. This aspect made it like a transition station for listeners who have moved on from Radio 1 but can’t yet bring themselves to listen to Radio 2. Hence the travesty of George Lamb. There are plenty of commercial alternatives for these people to turn to. This is an audience that doesn’t need to be catered for by the BBC.
Instead of trying to gain listeners with gimmicky attempts to cater for the masses, 6 Music should have set its sights higher by increasing its quality. It could be transformed into a station that is genuinely dedicated to music that you won’t find on other radio stations.
And there is no need to stop at music. It could encompass culture as a whole. Why shouldn’t such a station also champion alternative comedy, experimental drama and the like? It could be like a well funded version of Resonance FM.
Instead, the BBC appears to have taken the coward’s option. Instead of setting its sights towards enhancing the station so that it becomes a great hub for alternative and experimental culture, it has weakly chosen to throw in the towel. Instead of realising the potential of 6 Music and promoting it properly, the BBC has left it in a corner to gather cobwebs and eventually die.
The BBC’s disregard for experimental culture
This would be palatable if it weren’t for the fact that experimental music has been increasingly marginalised on the BBC’s other radio stations over the past decade as well. As if the passing of John Peel wasn’t enough of a blow to adventurous music on the BBC, the corporation appears to be determined to dismantle every last piece of its experimental music programming.
A decade ago Radio 1’s evening schedule was brimming with experimental music. But the station’s few remaining programmes dedicated to experimental music have all been shunted to shorter, graveyard time slots. To take just one example, Rob da Bank’s programme is on at the truly insulting 5-7am on a Saturday. Meanwhile, Mary Anne Hobbs’s Breezeblock is on at 2-4am on Thursday morning.
New experimental music has all but disappeared from Radio 3 as well. Since Mixing It was removed from the schedules, all that has remained is Late Junction, which has itself been marginalised in recent years.
In short, the BBC is doing less of the sort of programming it should be making, and replacing it with the sort of thing that ought to be left to its commercial rivals.
Absolute to the rescue?
The Times suggested that Absolute Radio may be interested in buying 6 Music should the BBC decide to close it down. It seems to me as though Clive Dickens was merely making a point about the inefficient way the BBC has run 6 Music.
But the idea that Absolute might acquire 6 Music and keep it alive is an interesting prospect. I have find myself being increasingly impressed with Absolute. I am sure that it has taken inspiration from 6 Music as it tries to re-build itself without the Virgin brand behind it.
Like 6 Music, Absolute thinks of itself as a home for good music (although in practice it just trots out middle-of-the-road dad rock). It mixes this with the use of comedians like Dave Gorman, Frank Skinner and Iain Lee as presenters.
This is the exact model that 6 Music has used throughout its existence. The station was launched by Phill Jupitus, who presented the 6 Music breakfast show for several years. Since then, 6 Music has been home to several comedians.
I find it doubtful that a radio station like 6 Music would flourish as a commercial operation. But if anyone can pull it off, it is Absolute. It would be fabulous.
The BBC has failed to convincingly promote digital radio. The lack of publicity is the real reason why 6 Music has so few listeners. Fewer than 10% of Radio 1 listeners are listening on a digital platform. When 6 Music is only available on digital platforms, it is no wonder it appears to perform so poorly. Only one in five people in the UK have even heard of the station. Hence Adam Buxton’s joke that it is “the secret station”.
Yet, over 54% of Absolute Radio’s listeners (approximately 31 minutes in) outside of London now listen on digital. The BBC, with all its supposed marketing might, has failed to generate anything like this sort of result, despite having shedloads of cash dedicated to the exercise.
The BBC is now weak and ineffective. It has failed digital radio, and it is now failing to commit to the very adventurous programming it is supposed to be dedicated to.