Wednesday, October 27, 2004
Like many people, I was saddened by the death yesterday of veteran DJ John Peel. On BBC Radio 1, he was the only DJ to have survived from the station's inception in 1967. Many famous rock bands - from Pink Floyd, T. Rex and Roxy Music through to the Clash, the Undertones, the Fall and Radiohead - owe their first break to Peel.
The British media today have been awash with moving tributes (see, for example, the BBC, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Times and Peel's local paper, the East Anglian Daily Times). Coverage has spread to the rest of the English-speaking world (see, for example, the New York Times and Washington Post). The overarching theme was Peel's eclecticism.
From the outset, John Peel never stuck to a playlist but played whatever music took his fancy - and he hoped it might take your fancy too. Not only that, he did not confine himself to one genre. Rock, folk, reggae, hip-hop, world music or death metal - it could be anything.
As a listener, you can never hope to explore and understand your own musical tastes unless you are open-minded and prepared to take risks. I have no patience with people who believe that music is validated by their own familiarity and who dismiss automatically anything they have not heard before. Unfortunately, such closed-minded listeners are probably in a majority, which is why there is a market for safe, bland and familiar broadcasting.
John Peel proved that pop does not mean populist, but his eclecticism was possible only at the BBC. Commercial radio (with rare exceptions such as London's XFM) can never be as adventurous - indeed, commercial broadcasting giants such as Clear Channel now own thousands of radio stations and are homogenising their musical output. Driving across the USA with the car radio on can be a depressing experience - apart from a few public stations in the big cities, the choice is either country (the corporate Nashville variety) or 'AOR' (basically, endless replays of the Eagles).
Peel can never be replaced - there must now be many indie bands and record labels wondering how they will ever get airplay again. But the BBC continues to provide a home for other eclectic DJs, notably Charlie Gillett, Bob Harris and Andy Kershaw - people who care about the music they play, rather than slick 'personalities' who play whatever some executive in a suit instructs on a playlist.
The value of public broadcasting - and of adventurous broadcasters such as John Peel - lies not in 'giving them what they want'. It is in giving them what they didn't previously know they might like. It is in challenging and stretching audiences rather than confirming their prejudices. Commercial radio, on the other hand, demonstrates that a 'free market' does not always lead to more choice.