Tuesday, 7 July 2020

On the Wire - A national treasure - KEEP IT ON THE BBC!


This is a post about a radio programme. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture then I'm not entirely sure what blogging about a radio programme is. 

Anyway. It's not just about that. If you want the digested version so you can get on with binge watching and instagramming and being a success then... a radio programme I like very much is being booted off the BBC. I'd like you to sign and share a petition. The end. 




Except it's not the end. It's also a blog about the BBC and their role in contemporary society. It's a blog about your license fee and what you want doing with it and kind of about why, even if you don't listen to the show, you should think about why stuff like this should be what we fund... 

Let's be honest, the BBC has had a tough time, it's not exactly fair to blame them for cuts that come from above, but I think it needs to think carefully about what it does with the funds it has. Let's begin... 

On the Wire is a very niche programme in the grand scheme of things. Tucked away on BBC Radio Lancashire and tucked further away still at a post midnight timeslot, it's not exactly David Attenborough on the list of 'obvious national treasures' - but it should be considered in the same light. Let me explain why. 

Music is a vast world. It reflects all sorts of ideas and cultures. It reflects different types of people and different states of mind. There is always more music to explore, always something more to be heard. Music is transformative and spiritual (in a completely universal way.) Music educates us, about ourselves and about others. It's meditative and provocative, soothing and unsettling. Music distracts, engages and transports. It takes us to places and yet leaves us exactly where we were. It's a total mystery. 

The BBC was formed with the intent of (in the slightly paraphrased words of Lord Reith) 'Educating and entertaining' 



I can't think of another programme that fulfils this brief so admirably in terms of music than 'On the Wire.' Those of a certain vintage might recognise my description of the show as 'Kershaw meets Peel meets Mixing it' yet that doesn't really do it justice. It's just 'On the Wire' - it's unique. You rarely hear the same track twice, you don't quite know what's coming next. It could be trumpets from Mali, a clattery punk band Fenny heard on CD he borrowed from Darwen Library, some ambient heart pounding sounds or the most soul rending blues you've ever heard. Or something completely different. Who knows? That's the point. 

In a world where 'diversity' is held up as an end in itself, 'On the Wire' has quietly played a mix of music that defies the character of the source. Radio Lancashire (bless it) is a station where Jim Bowen held court for some time and programming seems largely based around updating people's nans on where the latest church fete is. Cheery traffic reports and ever so slightly zany DJs playing hits from the 70s interspersed with colour pieces from a local garden centre.

That's probably unfair, but there's a ring of truth to that characterisation. It doesn't seem to be the likely home of a monthly 'black dance' special or periodic, legendary dub mixes that stand alongside anything Jamaica could produce for righteous brilliance. Female South American Cellists? Fine, it's got you covered. Gypsy folk brass band music. Yeah. Detroit techno. No problem. Spoken word in a made up language over the backdrop of broken beats by a homeless gender neutral person - probably at some point... and so on and so on. I couldn't possibly do it justice. It's all just music. Just people. 

That's what makes it wonderful. It isn't a planned exercise in 'diversity' or a forced 'recognition' of broader cultures. It's just a few blokes who really like lots of different music, playing lots of different music. Because they like it. It never patronises or prioritises. It's just people with their minds open to sound, channeling it into a radio show. 

It educates. It entertains. It does it without fuss or self regard. 



It doesn't 'respond to a market dynamic with a carefully structured series of segments aimed at speaking cross demographic, talking to it's core audience in buzzwords, whilst carefully avoiding alienating those on the cusp whilst maximising cross platform pollination opportunities' 

In the interests of truth and beauty, I'll point out I made up that piece of BBC middle management speak. It's a fictive device that serves my polemical purpose. Despite it being a mere whimsy, it has, like all satire, a ring of truth when compared to that which it mocks. We live in a media landscape where genuine love and passion and where education and entertainment take a distinct back seat to facial recognition and multiplatform brand identity. 

I don't mean to do down the BBC too much. There is some great TV and Radio produced, but there's a lot of programmes along the line of 'One of Mel and Sue go brass rubbing' or 'Someone who was in an indie band once plays things the computer tells them to and then one of Mel and Sue come on and chat to them about going brass rubbing'  

There's a lot of content produced that feels as if it's produced because someone is really hopeful that someone somewhere might watch it and that's all that matters. 

Lord Reith didn't say the BBC's core values were "To maximise the audience satisfaction by creating inoffensive radio and TV that fills time in a vaguely distracting way" 

There's a powerful argument that says 'But we don't need this sort of thing anymore' - I can stick on the internet and hear WFMU or play the wonderful Kamikaze on Mixcloud. I can go to spotify and play a playlist. Why do we need the BBC anyway? 


It's a powerful argument - the thing is, it applies to all the BBC content. Why bother with Attenborough, when you have the Discovery Channel? Why bother with 'Strictly' when you could just flog it to ITV? Why have Match of The Day when you can just watch the highlights online? Why bother with any of it at all? Why not just scrap the whole thing then we'll all be £100 and something quid better off and aside from the adverts, it'll be just the same. I even enjoyed the test matches on talksport. It's tempting to say 'A new world is here. Get with it.' 

There's really only one case against that. It's a vitally important case and one the BBC themselves need to realise if they want to survive as an institution. Sometimes, it's the freedom the BBC offers that generates the greatest content. What makes Attenborough special, is he makes the programme he needs to make. He tells the story that needs to be told. Not the one the advertisers want. Not the one the viewers want. He educates and he entertains. In that order. That is what gives him authority. That is what makes him the absolute gold standard. 

Test Match Special is a national treasure because the BBC doggedly provided commentary on cricket matches, even when it made little sense to do so. It defined how to cover a game and spawned a notion that sport could be chatted about on the radio in an affable way that seems to define the entire medium wave radio output (and a considerable chunk of podcast content) today.  


The BBC gave platforms to such mad ideas as Chris Morris and of course, for generations, John Peel played the weird, wonderful and at times frankly unlistenable. He defined taste and trend despite sounding like someone's avuncular uncle. 

None of these things work in the context of commercial TV or radio. They worked because they were built on love and passion. They worked because someone had an idea and didn't really know how it would turn out. Imagine pitching John Peel to a commercial station... 

"He's a middle aged man, who will grumble a lot, play things at the wrong speed and often play music that most people listening won't like. We want to make him the flagship DJ of the new music service. Oh, and he wants to make the show from his house..."

What the BBC needs to stand for is the truly brave. The programmes that need to be made because someone wants and needs to make them. The content that stands out because it simply couldn't exist on other stations. Only then will it have a real purpose in existing in a world of media saturation.

We live in a world where content competes for your attention to the point where we have to listen to the sound of the sea on our phones to switch off. The BBC has to stand out. Not blend in. Not make content so ever increasingly mediocre that it eventually becomes just a never ending spiel of beige voiced over by one of 'Mel and Sue.' Not simply offer radio and TV that is just an endless recurring advert for what's on the other BBC channels, leaving you hopping around desperately hoping that if you just follow the recommendations, eventually you'll hit someone saying *something* 


That way the BBC will drown. Be washed away by the vibrant things happening elsewhere. What will be lost is the platform for the Attenboroughs and the Jonathan Meades, the Adam Curtis, the Sister Wendy reviewing paintings, the Mary Anne Hobbs and all the rest of the stuff that IS worth the license fee. 

Which brings me back to 'On the Wire' - this is a show that on my last listen played a track I liked. I looked it up on Spotify and found the artist had 14 followers. I was the 15th. That's basically an artist who is being followed by his/her mum and dad and a few mates. I heard it. The algorithm would never have brought me that track. The 'person who used to be in an indie band in the 90s' would never have brought me that track. One of 'Mel and Sue' wouldn't have brought me that track. 

The show serves a purpose to the listener (me) as I love it. It also serves as one of the few remaining places where on the BBC you can switch on the radio and expect to hear something completely and utterly new. Something that you literally couldn't hear anywhere else. Something that hasn't been played anywhere else. What that means to artists can't be quantified. It means, even if you don't ever get played, you've got that faint hope that you might be. It means the dream is alive. It motivates not just sales and revenue but the very act of creativity itself. That matters. 


Platforms themselves need platforms. Those that love music are essential to the musician and Steve, Jim and Fenny are the embodiment of 'music lovers' - The BBC needs people like this to serve the culture it purports to support. Without shows like this, the rhetoric that spews daily from the music stations and whenever Glastonbury is on TV is empty. You don't support music by playing the records people already own. You support it by playing the ones they don't

You don't make great art by simply doing what you think the audience wants. You make it by having something to express, something to say, something to communicate. In it's own modest and self effacing way, 'On the Wire' has provided a platform for some of the greatest art of my life. I literally own hundreds of records and downloads that I wouldn't otherwise own. Whether the show is in and of itself 'art' isn't the point but it feels like it. It's beautiful and simple and true. It just does what it sets out to do. Play music. It educates, it entertains. It enriches and informs.  

There's plenty of things I've liked that have been cancelled or that have run their course. Everything changes and entropy is the course of life. Happily 'On the Wire' will continue come what may. I'll still be able to listen to it and so will you. 

This means more than just 'keeping a radio show on the radio' - it means standing up for, something honest, simple, pure and unequivocally good. I'm a professional cynic and yet I can't find a single reason to be cynical about 'On the Wire' - it's a piece of solid gold, an oasis of new, strange and unusual wonders, a trove of hitherto undiscovered treasures from the past, a kaleidoscopic window on so many worlds. It's two hours of headspace and it goes from strength to strength. Gently evolving, always moving but yet always in the same place. It's just some people playing records, but so much more at the same time. It weaves a world of magic, takes you somewhere and shows you things you didn't already know. 

If that's not what the BBC license fee is for, then I don't know what is. 

What you can do: 

Sign the petition: 

Share the petition: 

Read this and email the people it names (Click this link to create an email to both)

Listen to the latest 'On the Wire' 



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