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Mover and shaker

Forget Russell Brand – the real rebel on Radio 2 is the man who championed skiffle.

The atmosphere at the 2007 Radio 2 Christmas party was resolutely pre-crunch. Booze and food were available in lake- and mountain-sized portions, and an air of barely suppressed triumphalism hung over the West End hotel that you and I, through our licence fees, had hired for the day.

At the heart of the gathering, the then controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, was beaming. She had reason to: the figures were up again, Radio 2 was the "most listened-to channel in the UK", Douglas was one of the most important figures in the British media and the station's DJs Terry Wogan, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand - the "talent", as radio people call them - were national stars.

But we were drinking in the last-chance saloon. Douglas's empire - as full of schemers and plotters as 10th-century Byzantium, though without the ritual blindings - was about to be pulled apart by its internal contradictions.

Even for those of us halfway into our second bottle of the very decent Muscadet, the signs were there in the behaviour of the talent. Wogan, benignly self-confident and smartly turned out, stiffened visibly when Brand made his wild-haired, squeaky-voiced entrance. The flashing look that passed between them made fleetingly apparent the arguments that now bisect the station - is Radio 2 easy listening or cutting edge? For the pipe and slipper audience, or for the punk generation now in its forties?

But I wasn't interested in the two circling beasts of light entertainment. I had come in the hope of meeting my hero. "Where," I asked a BBC assistant, "is Brian Matthew?"

“Brian Matthew?" she replied, with barely concealed contempt. "Yes." I replied. "He's the best thing on your station."

And it wasn't just the drink talking - I meant it. The presenter of Sounds of the Sixties on Saturday mornings, who turns 81 this month, is an unlikely revolutionary. Regarded as cuddly at best, and ignored by a station hierarchy more interested (or mortified) by Ross's latest obscene outburst, Matthew is the living embodiment of an alternative, and altogether more noble, strand in BBC popular radio.

Matthew was there when Radio 2 was launched out of the smouldering ashes of the Light Programme in 1967. With its smart logo and clear AM wavelength, Radio 2, like Radio 1, was a marriage of Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" and the pop-culture boom. Yet neither station was half as interesting as the one they replaced, and which Matthew had made indispensable to the nation's teenagers as the presenter of Saturday Club, the BBC Light Programme show that ran from 1957-67, and which gave rock'n'roll and trad jazz their first mass exposure in this country. But, more importantly, Matthew's Saturday Club broke skiffle.

In retrospect, the skiffle movement, with its tea-chest basses, washboard percussion, checked shirts and chirping rehashes of 1930s juke-joint and folk songs, can seem laughable - a parochially British interpretation of an American idiom that had no impact beyond these shores. But the truth is stranger. This month is the 53rd anniversary of Lonnie Donegan, the prime mover behind skiffle, making it into the Billboard top 50 in the US with "Rock Island Line", a pivotal moment in British pop culture.

But as well as opening the way for the British beat group invasion of the early 1960s, skiffle - with its emphasis on the music of the poor and downtrodden - created the template for the politically engaged pop performer. Long before the hazy indulgences of the hippie generation or the posturing of punk, skiffle provided a breeding ground for revolt. The militant Labour MP Terry "A Workers' MP on a Worker's Wage" Fields played in a Liverpool skiffle group (as did John Lennon), and the Glaswegian Chas McDevitt, whose band were the only British skiffle act, other than Donegan, to have a hit in the States (with "Freight Train"), employed the wonderfully named republican socialist Nancy Whiskey as lead vocalist, yet still contrived to play to 45 million viewers on The Ed Sullivan Show at the height of McCarthyism.

Although Donegan went pop (and eventually accepted an MBE) skiffle contrived, for three years at least, to be hugely popular yet at the same
time secretly revolutionary. And Brian Matthew made it possible. Exposure of such music on a state broadcaster during the cold war, under an archaic Old Etonian government (a bit like the one we are about to get, as it happens) was bound to attract negative comment, and on at least
one occasion the Conservative Party accused Matthew and Saturday Club of being a "communist propaganda outlet". Not an accusation that Ross will ever attract: his edginess stretches no further than talking about farting.

Today, Ross hangs on to his job and his millions, although Brand, Douglas and now Wogan have all gone, and the debate about the purpose and future of Radio 2 continues. However, it is a debate whose parameters - more Elbow or less Elton John? - illustrate just how shallow the nation's most popular channel has become.

Not all of it, however. If you're doing nothing this Saturday morning, tune in to Radio 2 between 8am and 10am. His station may not think much of him, but Matthew is that rare thing in the age of bum jokes and Blur reunions - a truly radical DJ.

Michael Hodges writes the Class Monitor column for the New Statesman. He was named columnist of the year at the 2008 Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his contributions to Time Out.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?