Uneasy listening

6 Music wants to attract more women, but laddish braying won't do it

Just when you think it's safe to be a woman and a person at the same time, along comes some divot - a woman, as it happens - to remind you that the opposite still holds. Lesley Douglas, controller of BBC Radio 2 and its digital sister station, 6 Music, had it coming to her when she appeared on Radio 4's Feedback on 15 February to explain why the sexes need to have their "different" approaches to music catered for.

Roger Bolton, a man so avuncular I wish I could carry a tiny version of him on my shoulder to soothe my existential crisis, began with a segment from the 6 Music slot hosted by George Lamb, the subject of a listeners' petition to get him off air.

"That was George Lamb sending out a 'Shabba!', which he does a lot," chortled Bolton. It is Lamb's ceaseless repetition of the exclamation "Shabba!" that seems to send the 6 Music faithful over the edge: a fondly remembered playground shout-out, from the single "Mr Loverman" by the ragga star Shabba Ranks, it exhausted its potential to amuse in 1993.

The controller justified Lamb's recruitment in now-familiar terms of "accessibility" and "interactivity". "George is getting a lot more listener response for his show," she offered brightly. A brief dip into Lamb's show for as long as I could bear retrieved the following examples of "listener response": "We're gonna laminate our livers tonight and throw some frozen midgets around." Right. "Can we have a big Shabba for all the guys at Gnome World." Oh-kay. "Shabba-dabba-ding-dong!" spake the Lamb in reply, making sense to no one but himself, his posse, and all the guys at Gnome World.

Returning to Feedback, Douglas told Bolton that 6 Music's audience "was very male-biased", and that her changes to the schedule were designed to attract female listeners. Being a woman, Douglas knows there's nothing we women like more than listening to men boast about their incipient cirrhosis.

Not only that, but we like to have a cry while doing so. "This is terrible," said Douglas, catching sight of her foot careering towards her mouth but doing nothing to send it back out of harm's way, "but there does seem to be a more emotional reaction [from women] to music. Men tend to be more interested in the intellectual side."

Yes, it is terrible. I was a music journalist for ten years, during which time music writing transformed from a men's closed shop to one in which the sexes are more or less equally represented. That development wasn't the result of affirmative action: it was a belated recognition that women and men are equally capable of responding to music both emotionally and intellectually.

Douglas seemed to be suggesting that Lamb's "intuitive" approach - wilful ignorance of such 6 Music staples as Super Furry Animals - would attract women where the personable, intelligent Gideon Coe (whom Lamb replaced) hadn't.

But this is the thing. In appointing Lamb, Douglas has alienated not only many female listeners, but also an awful lot of men who can't stand his boorish arrogance and transparent lack of interest in the station's remit. Cleaving to her mantra with the tenacity of an MP on Newsnight, she repeated that 6 Music still had "music absolutely at its heart". So that will be why she's replaced so much of it with pure waffle.

Pick of the week

Archive Hour: the Larkin Tapes
1 March, 8pm, Radio 4
Long-lost recordings of the poet.

The Moving Power of Art
2 March, 9.30pm, Radio 3
How politicians use culture as a tool.

Ken Colyer: He Knew
4 March, 10.30pm, Radio 2
Billy Bragg claims this little-known trumpeter invented British pop.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters