John Peel OBE, the man responsible for introducing generations of radio listeners to genres as diverse as punk, reggae and electronica, championing iconic bands from Joy Division to the White Stripes, rose to fame in a time when radio playlists were becoming homogenised and controlled by station management.
He gave unknown talent without the marketing budgets of major labels their most important avenue for reaching music fans, and was famous for his dedication to listening to everything he was sent. Like Peel, John Kennedy, presenter of Xfm’s nightime X-Posure slot, enjoys ‘complete free rein’. He says Peel has given radio DJs the inspiration to fight harder to set their own editorial agendas: ‘It’s as if every single show I’ve ever done is like a tribute to Peel. He has shown everybody the way a radio programme should be run.’
Beyond the hype
But can the cult of the radio DJ that Peel has created be corrupted by promoters pandering to lesser DJs’ egos?
‘I admit it’s a thrill to play something for the first time, but we can take the exclusivity thing too far. I find it sad when record companies or publicists try to play people off against each other with exclusives,’ says Kennedy.
He adds that he tries to be as detached as he can from the buzz that publicists generate and advises PROs to avoid overpromoting new bands. ‘It can turn people off. I just need a simple explanation of who the band are and what they are trying to do,’ he says. At the same time he points out that ‘a record that arrives with a lot of hype must get as fair a hearing as one that comes in with a handwritten letter’.
‘You couldn’t “plug” Peel in the normal way,’ says Dylan White, director of promotions at Anglo Plugging, whose clients include Fatboy Slim and Belle & Sebastian. ‘The best people to plug him were the bands themselves. He’d have great relationships with bands and you’d just tell them to write him a letter.’
He says this point is illustrated best by the 1983 delivery of a mushroom biryani by the then unsigned singer Billy Bragg, after Peel mentioned on-air that he was hungry. It led to Bragg’s first airplay and launched his career.
Radio 1 head of specialist music Ian Parkinson says Peel’s legacy is that he has inspired so many young DJs to act independently and stand up for new music. He points out that Radio 1’s post-9pm specialist DJs enjoy complete editorial control. The difference, says Parkinson, is that ‘nobody has [Peel’s] unique breadth of taste, and it would be stupid to look for someone to replace him’. He adds that music pluggers will need to take note of the genres specialist DJs tend to stick to.
‘Who is going to play all that dreadful death metal now?’ jokes Ruth Barlow, national radio promoter at music label Beggars Banquet, which has benefited from Peel’s championing of bands such as The Fall.
She adds that it was impossible to try and tell Peel what to play. ‘You could only make sure he got your records and try to get his producer to wave it under his nose,’ she says.
Barlow nominates Kennedy as having similar editorial practices to Peel, but says even alternative music has become homogenised because DJs feel the pressure to ‘get it right’.
The Outside Organisation head of media promotions Tony Barker says it is becoming harder for DJs to dictate their own playlists but insists editorial is not influenced by commercial arrangements in UK radio. Station managers feel the pressure to deliver audience numbers and DJs also want to be reassured that the music they play will appeal to their audience, so might want to see an article in, say, NME, he claims.
Barker says this is why music promoters must keep radio DJs and producers aware of the momentum a band achieves in other media. However, he adds that ultimately ‘great DJs rely on gut instinct. Peel was oblivious to the hype’.
He says that although Peel did not attract huge ratings, the whole industry, as well as trend-setting consumers, listened to his show. The music industry has lost its greatest tastemaker.
DJs with different tastes
John Kennedy, Xfm
Presents X-Posure from Monday to Thursday and a monthly live showcase of new bands. Has championed the likes of Razorlight, Turin Brakes, The Darkness and Dizzee Rascal.
Tim Westwood, Radio 1
Presents the Rap Show, Friday and Saturday, promotes unsigned talent through open mic competitions and showcases and features guest DJs.
Steve Lamacq, Radio 1
Plays rock and indie music on Mondays in the 9pm to 1am slot and on Sunday afternoons. Playlists include Graham Coxon, Futureheads and Bloc Party.
Bobby Friction and Nihal, Radio 1
The duo play urban music on Wednesdays 9pm to 11pm. Their playlist currently includes Jay Sean, Fusing Naked Beats and Sizzla.