The radio column - Rachel Cooke

Thousands of people fear switching on 6 Music in case they get a blast of Jethro Tull

I used to avoid BBC 6 Music. I had an idea that it was aimed at the kind of man who keeps his copies of Mojo magazine in date order in a set of special folders: in other words, it was for nerds. I was wrong. Although its credentials are quite beardy - it really cares about new music - it is very enjoyable: the bespectacled bastard child of Radios 1 and 2. No desperate chart hits, but no twittering Ken Bruce, either. It's a bit like listening to an iPod on shuffle. You're never quite sure what's around the next news bulletin.

There are lots of bad things about the station. Phil Jupitus is not my idea of a breakfast host, and I've never been a fan of Steve Lamacq (at teatime), whose voice, like his face, makes me think of sharp knives. But the good things include Nemone's Dream Ticket (10pm, weeknights), in which you can hear live recordings from a BBC archive that goes back 40 years; Tom Robinson's Evening Sequence; and 6 Music Chart (Saturdays), which features albums rather than singles, and new music rather than bands of whom you are already heartily sick (its artists are strangers to the Top 40 album chart; if they do appear in it, they instantly disappear from the 6 Music Chart).

This is the best way I know of finding out about new stuff when sticky-floored gigs make you fear for your shoes, and the NME starts reading like gibberish. Actually, it's the only way I know.

6 Music Chart is presented by the nasally challenged Andrew Collins, a man who sounds as if he's broadcasting from inside a shed on an allotment. There is a certain local quality to his chunterings that makes you wonder where his producer has gone. He's brilliant at gentle small talk, a quality that also gets him through a slot called In Your Own Time on his Sunday show. Here, musicians talk about their favourite books, or what film they last saw. I know. Rock stars on books. In anyone else's hands ("You've read James Herbert's The Rats HOW many times?"), it would bore me to sobs.

Radio 6 Music is only available on digital, which may be one reason why its audience remains relatively modest (the station, which was created in 2002, has a "reach" of just 286,000). This is what Ric Blaxill, 6 Music's director of programmes, believes. He is keen to point out that the station is certainly not all punk and prog rock. "We champion new music and celebrate our heritage," he told me. "So you'll have Gang of Four rubbing up against Razorlight. But we also play electro and pioneering funk, and we try not to be too serious about it. Our trailers are very tongue in cheek."

Blaxill is convinced that 6 Music's potential audience is huge; all that needs to happen is for more people to buy digital radios. I hope he is right, though I have a hunch that his main problem is still one of perception. I bet there are thousands of people out there who live in fear of switching on 6 Music and getting a turbulent blast of Jethro Tull.

A good way to fight this might be to get a few more women on the airwaves. 6 Music's line-up of presenters is, with only one or two exceptions, irredeemably male. In my experience, most women feel the same way about the Tull as they do about music magazines filed by date and kept in presentation folders.

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