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Eclectic avenues

The appeal of BBC 6 Music.

''Hello, hello, hello. Come in and shut the door after you; it's a little bit illegal what we're doing. Put your coat over there . . . it's good to see you! Glad you could make it. Do you want a drink? Lager? You're joking, aren't you?"

So began a recent Sunday Service from Jarvis Cocker on BBC 6 Music. The riff, spoken in his low, rumbly voice, meandered between songs, eventually extending into an invitation to 6 Music's virtual tenth birthday party, "because what would a radio station be with no listeners? Kind of a bit rubbish."

Cocker's show is always a bit like this, his wayward thoughts interleaved with songs you've never heard before by bands you didn't know existed, or songs you know well, covered by bands you've never heard before, or songs you hate, turned into songs you love when covered by a band you thought no one else had ever heard of. It's like an archaeological dig, unearthing treasures at every turn.

6 Music is sometimes criticised for being this kind of station - one for the music fan of a certain age and disposition, the High Fidelity-type compulsive cataloguer and mix-tape-maker, the obsessive. Its diehard fans would like the station to delve even deeper into the weird (not content with Stuart Maconie's shows Freak Zone and Freakier Zone) and be a true "specialist" station for an audience of three. But the joy of 6 Music is that, as a casual listener, you might turn it on and find the music eclectic, verging on bonkers, but you will almost always find something intriguing and new - to you.

The formula clearly works, in any case. Ten years on from Phill Jupitus playing the very first record (Ash's "Burn Baby Burn"), 6 Music now has about 1.3 million regular listeners.

The success is all the sweeter given the recent uncertainty surrounding its future. In 2010, the station was threatened with closure in a BBC efficiency review, but impassioned protests - and a BBC Trust reprieve - allowed it to live on. Clearly the near-death experience has sharpened its instincts - the line-up of bands for the ten-year concerts and live sessions shows how 6 Music has become a spiritual home for a certain kind of serious musician: Paul Weller, Laura Marling, Spiritualized, Graham Coxon.

The joy of six

But in many ways the success is down to the people who play the records. The station seems to specialise in amiable, well-informed chatter and genial, gentle DJs, many of whom, like Cocker, are musicians, too: Lauren Laverne, Cerys Matthews, Huey Morgan, Guy Garvey. They talk about music with the warmth and passion of people who play it.

And that, after all, is why 6 Music is a treat, if occasionally a bewildering one. You know the DJs are playing songs they love and want you to hear, rather than songs a very large record label marketing department doesn't particularly love but wants you to buy. And for that, we should be grateful.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism