Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Music
11 March 2022

Rage against the algorithm: 20 years of BBC Radio 6 Music

How a station devoted to the obscure and alternative survived a near-death experience and conquered British digital radio.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“People have been talking about the demise of radio forever,” Stuart Maconie told me in February. Even the 1984 Queen song “Radio Ga Ga”, the broadcaster said, is all about television overtaking radio as the most popular form of home entertainment. Today it is music streaming that is radio’s biggest threat, but the format is far from dead. 

Maconie was one of the original presenters on BBC Radio 6 Music when it launched in 2002. The station, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on 11 March, is today the UK’s most popular digital radio offering, attracting 2.6 million listeners in the last quarter of 2021, according to Radio Joint Audience Research (Rajar). And Maconie is still a regular, presenting the weekend breakfast show with his longtime co-host Mark Radcliffe – or “whatever that guy’s name is,” he joked – and The Freak Zone on Sunday nights, where he broadcasts everything from avant-garde vocal music to saxophone-led post-punk.

6 Music was originally due to be a “sister station” to Radio 2, where Maconie was a presenter. The controller at the time suggested this new station would be “up your street, young man,” Maconie recalled, “because you’re into all that unusual music, aren’t you?” It quickly became apparent, though, that 6 Music “sat somewhere entirely differently” from Radio 2. “It was very much its own thing.” It was the first national music radio station to be launched by the BBC in 32 years.

BBC press release from 2002 describes 6 Music as being “for listeners who are passionate about rock and pop music”. It promised that “the network’s music output will not be dictated by the charts or influenced by fashion trends”, prioritising “more obscure and less commercial tracks that rarely receive airtime”.

Jeff Smith, who is now head of music across 6 Music and Radio 2, was the controller at Capital FM at the time. “My observation of it from outside was that it was a very brave and distinctive move by the BBC in an area that commercial radio wasn’t even looking at, apart from what they’d been trying to do with Xfm over the years,” he said. The station’s first show, broadcast at 7am on 11 March 2002, was presented by the comedian Phill Jupitus and opened with the 2001 single “Burn Baby Burn” by the Northern Irish rock band Ash.

Smith described the station as occupying a place “where the alternative informs the mainstream, where artists like the Cure have always existed”. Lauren Brennan, the editor of the station’s music team, said 6 Music “approaches the music from a real point of interest and curiosity. It’s not just playing a record and then moving on to the next thing. It’s exploring what that record does, and placing records alongside each other, joining the dots.”

6 Music is now widely agreed to be a crucial component of the UK music scene – and yet in 2010, the station was very nearly axed. The proposal was part of the then BBC director general Mark Thompson’s wide-ranging strategy review. 6 Music was “expensive … given its relatively small audience,” he said, recommending that the corporation lose the station and instead focus its efforts on its core audiences at Radio 1 and 2.

6 Music listeners, alongside artists including David Bowie and Mark Ronson, protested the proposal and a Save 6 Music Facebook group gathered 180,000 members. An early demonstration of the power of social media, the campaign was a success. Four months after the strategy review, the BBC Trust announced its opposition to the proposal, and 6 Music was saved. BBC Asian Network, whose closure was announced as part of the same plans, was also saved the following year, though its budget was halved.

For Lauren Laverne, who joined 6 Music in 2008 and now presents the weekday breakfast show, the threat instilled an even stronger desire to serve her listeners well. “What clearer illustration can you have of your debt to your audience than them literally saving you from being taken off air?” she asked.

The experience also left Maconie in admiration of the 6 Music audience, a “well-informed, enthusiastic, brilliant bunch of people”. The BBC executives “picked the wrong people to upset”, he said, though, given recent headlines about the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, freezing the licence fee, he acknowledged that “it’s part of the BBC’s natural state of existence to always be under threat”. 

“Someone inside the BBC has always got some smart idea about what the BBC should be, as well as successive governments. Though of course the BBC has outlasted a lot of governments.” 

“Sometimes people conflate the BBC with news,” Maconie said. “News is one small but important part of what it does. It has a real responsibility to reflect arts and culture as well. If you want to point to what the BBC does best and most uniquely, right at the heart of that is 6 Music. I know that sounds like I’m grovelling, but I do think that. I think it’s about as BBC a thing as you can imagine.”

Holly Ross, the lead vocalist and guitarist in the punk-rock duo the Lovely Eggs, remembers Marc Riley first playing their song “I Like Birds but I Like Other Animals Too” on 6 Music in 2008. Since then, “I don’t think there’s one DJ on 6 Music who hasn’t played us,” she said. Having a song played on the station feels “personal and genuine – those DJs have integrity. These are people who are really listening to the music. It’s not just the stuff that’s been sent to them. In the spirit of John Peel, if a DJ likes a track, they’ll play the track.”

A spokesperson for the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) said that without 6 Music “and its remit of championing alternative music across multiple genres, there are many artists whose music would never be heard on UK radio”. Last year 85 per cent of the artists on 6 Music’s playlist were signed to independent labels, and new tracks made up more than 30 per cent of the station’s daytime output, the spokesperson said. 

6 Music gave the Lovely Eggs a platform to establish a nationwide fanbase without having to move from Lancaster to London. Now they sell out gigs across the UK. “We could probably have done it without the radio play, but it makes it faster,” Ross said. “You’re getting out to so many more people than you would if you were just trying to chip away, gig by gig.”

The saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, known for his work in groups including the Comet is Coming and Sons of Kemet, credits 6 Music with not just aiding his personal career, but ushering a whole genre into the mainstream. “Fifteen years ago I never would have expected that an instrumental tune that could be called jazz would be played on any kind of mainstream station,” he told me. Now it’s a regular occurrence. “6 Music was at the forefront of pushing what listeners can expect in terms of instrumental music.”

Hutchings recognises that other independent music stations, including Worldwide FM (founded by Gilles Peterson, who also hosts a 6 Music show) and Resonance FM, have championed the London jazz scene too. Ross thinks fondly of Huw Stephens at BBC Radio 1, who gave the Lovely Eggs their first radio session, and John Kennedy at Radio X (formerly Xfm). “There have been individual DJs at other stations,” she said, “but never before has a full station got behind us like 6 Music has.”

“Given the breadth of 6 Music’s output,” the BPI spokesperson said, “some of the tracks it broadcasts can also be heard on other radio stations. However no one else comes close to covering the sheer volume and variety of what it plays.”

Despite its insistence on variety, the station has been criticised for playing it safe, particularly when it comes to its presenters: for a long time the line-up was overwhelmingly white and male. Laura Snapes argued in the Guardian in 2018 that “like Radio 2, 6 Music is a cultural endpoint with no clear next step for the majority of its older presenters. It trades in comfort and familiarity, new versions of old sounds, rather than pursuing a genuine cultural ‘alternative spirit’.”

Since then the arrival of hosts such as Jamz Supernova, who also broadcasts on Radio 1 Xtra, and the American DJ, producer and label founder the Blessed Madonna – as well as the controversial departure of Shaun Keaveney – suggests the station is aware of the need to modernise. Still, 6 Music does not cater to a particularly young audience. Rajar does not monitor the ages of listeners, but a BBC spokesperson told me that “6 Music is focussed on maintaining reach within the 45-plus age group, while also introducing the station to more listeners in the 25-44 age bracket”.

As daily routines changed during the pandemic, listening figures for speech radio increased significantly. Many music stations experienced a decline in overall listeners, although in the period of January-March 2020, which included the early days of the pandemic in the UK, Laverne’s breakfast show won a record audience of 1.3 million listeners. Meanwhile in 2020 music streaming increased by 20 per cent on the previous year, and grew by another 5.7 per cent in 2021. Streaming now accounts for 83 per cent of all music consumption in the UK.

The way people listen to music has changed significantly since 6 Music was launched in 2002. But a streaming platform will never be more enticing than a good radio show, Maconie said. “An algorithm can’t set something in any personal, cultural or historic context, and – without sounding dry – it can’t make jokes, and have a reassuring, authentic word.” He quoted from Kate Bush’s “And Dream of Sleep”: “Wish I had my radio/I’d tune into some friendly voices/Talking ’bout stupid things.”

The dominance of streaming has challenged Laverne to deepen her music knowledge so that she is able make striking connections. “I know that ‘Crazy in Love’ by Beyoncé is built around a sample of ‘Are You My Woman’ by the Chi-Lites,” she said, “and I can put those two tracks together and they sound fantastic.” An algorithm can’t do that – at least not yet. 

And one distinct characteristic marks radio out from music streaming: it is, in the large part, live.

“Why broadcast live? I’ve thought a lot about it,” Laverne said. “Radio is always about one person speaking to one listener. That’s the magic of it; that’s why it’s so intimate and affecting. There’s something very powerful about knowing that, as I’m sitting here talking to you, I’m actually saying these things, and you’re reacting. That’s a deeply human thing. We can’t do that with streaming. We can’t even do that with records.”

And for Laverne as a broadcaster, it’s exciting too. “It’s all about the jeopardy. Every live broadcast is a sort of simulated crisis, and you’re trying to get it to go on in the right way, because it’s always so close to falling apart.”

On 11 March 6 Music will celebrate its 20th anniversary both on air and on BBC Sounds, with special guests on the station throughout the day. Twenty playlists curated for the occasion by artists including Anna Calvi and Metronomy are available on BBC Sounds.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action