The Big Interview: BBC Radio 6 Music's Paul Rodgers

The Big Interview: BBC Radio 6 Music's Paul Rodgers

Paul Rodgers has gone to the dentist.

That was the message from BBC HQ shortly before our afternoon encounter with the head of BBC Radio 6 Music was due to take place. But, thankfully, after an emergency visit, Rodgers is fighting fit and ready for our questions.

In fact, sat comfortably at his desk flanked by the seven consecutive Music Week awards the station - which boasts 2.24 million weekly listeners - has won during his tenure, he’s basking in the glow of securing Morrissey’s first BBC session since 2011.

Along with Robert Plant, Loyle Carner, Alt-J and Mogwai, Moz has just been revealed as one of five acts set to play 6 Music Live at Maida Vale next month.

“That’s a fantastic line-up and it’s the best we can make it,” Rodgers begins, enthusiasm quickening his breath. “Listeners respond to something that happens in a moment, so live music is what we do. BBC 6 Music Live goes out on Lauren Laverne’s show with a great, great community of people responding to it and there’s no substitute for that.

Our live offering makes us a really different proposition and it’s uncompromising.”

It’s a passionate opening, and Rodgers doesn’t let up for one second of our time together. Such excitement, he reveals, was sparked a few years after 6 Music was launched as one of five new digital stations in 2002.

Rodgers was a daytime producer on BBC Radio 2 back then, but 6 Music soon got to him.

“The music I was looking at in my professional life wasn’t the same as that in my home life,” he explains. “Two or three years later, 6 Music really started getting underneath my skin. It touched me musically, the music was - and is now - extraordinarily varied, interesting and not played elsewhere.

“It reintroduced me to music from the past that I had forgotten and introduced me to cutting edge, contemporary music,” he continues. “[I was] just like any other consumer of 6 Music who enjoys the station.”

And Rodgers does sound like a 6 Music punter, peppering our conversation with musical recommendations and playing the role of tastemaker (The Fall’s recent New Facts Emerge LP, Courtney Barnett and Courtney Marie Andrews are his current favourites).

In some ways, it feels surprising his inner music anorak took the long way round. It finally married with his career after he left university in Newcastle - where he was regularly in the crowd as The Tube was filmed - to begin a stint as a teacher before moving into researching and producing on BBC radio.

“I originally wanted to write,” he remembers. “I loved music and music radio, but that wasn’t the aim initially.”
How things have changed. Rodgers first joined 6 as editor in 2008.

Having emerged from the shadow of 2010’s proposed closure, the place has seemingly seeped into his blood. “It may sound lame, but I haven’t got any plans to leave 6 Music, it’s a job that I love and I really value how the BBC can publish a station like this that can be so loved by its audience,” he says. “It’s a brilliant place to work.”

With that, we settle down to unpick 6’s role within the industry, its importance to emerging acts, plans to expand and the alternative music scene in general.

We begin, however, with the elephant in the room, the sceptre of closure that might have derailed Rodgers’ beloved station forever.

6 Music was threatened with closure in 2010, does that feel like a distant memory now?

Yeah, it sort of does, but it had quite an effect on people who were closely involved in the radio station at the time. Personally, it was quite a tough time.

Things like that shape your attitude to something. I liked the station, but it did initially have a problem describing what it was, defining itself.

In 2010 we had just started a whole raft of things, and audiences were starting to grow. We had started defining it better; better describing what 6 Music was and bringing it together around a more coherent set of principles.

So we had high hopes and it was dispiriting to hear that it was going to be proposed to close.

How did you respond?

I remember talking to people about how we would put our very best efforts into making the very best radio that we could.

We were getting more attention paid to us, and I wanted to ensure that any new awareness yielded satisfied new listeners.

I wanted to make sure that we conducted ourselves in a very positive manner on air, because this was the BBC airspace that we were occupying and I wanted to avoid any kind of possible cause for censure due to our own actions.

People behaved impeccably and understood that the best thing to do at a time like that was to make brilliant radio. And actually that’s got to be helpful, in the beginnings of something.

Does it feel as if attitudes are very different now?

I think the BBC values us for what we bring to its music portfolio. They can see that we are doing a lot of what the BBC is here to do, which is to create very unique, different, distinctive content, and make sure that it reaches the most listeners possible.

We have a greater understanding of the roles of the radio stations in the music portfolio as well. The kind of music content that 6 Music brings to audiences is valuable and much loved. There is an appetite for it. So yes, the BBC actually understands 6 Music, as well as values it.

Your office is full of Music Week Awards, which are voted for by the industry. What draws the biz to 6?

I can understand why they might think we’re an amazing radio station, because 6 Music plays extraordinary music all of the time. It plays more of it, with a greater breadth of it than any other radio station I could name. So I would imagine it satisfies that kind of judge.

What does the industry want from 6 Music?

I think they want us to be there for them, to give exposure to what they create that isn’t necessarily going to create, certainly initially, a big commercial success.

So we can support artists that aren’t necessarily aiming for mainstream success. I think there’s a lot of music like that, and 6 is a place where it can get exposure and support.

Do the ways in which support from 6 Music can help an artist come into your thinking in the editorial process? For example, Queens Of The Stone Age played a session before they hit No.1…

This is one of the most egalitarian places I know, with shared values and a shared respect for music and deep involvement in it.

We are under no illusion that Queens Of The Stone Age aren’t a band that other radio stations have an interest in, and we know that our audience has an interest in them.

That will be our primary reason for doing the session. So if you compare Queens Of The Stone Age with Sleaford Mods, for example, both will be of interest to our audience, but one of those bands will find 6 Music more useful to it than the other.

What role does 6 play for emerging artists?

It’s certainly a part of it. We are fully involved in BBC Introducing, we have our own new music property, 6 Music Recommends, and we shouldn’t forget that a lot of the new music that arrives on 6 Music does so because of the passion of the presenters.

So Gilles Peterson, Cerys Matthews, Marc Riley or Gideon Coe bring new music through to us. We do more than 300 new music sessions per year, so that is a great resource for new bands.

We play an awful lot of first plays by acts where we are not first and foremost looking at their commercial potential.

We are not really the radio station that is trying to play a band so that we can say they headlined Glastonbury in five years’ time. We are playing that band because we think they’re good and deserve a chance.

I think we sit at the grassroots to be perfectly honest. That’s where our presenters like it as well.

How would you assess the current state of the alternative music scene that 6 draws from?

We have never had more music to choose from. So I think that alternative music is in good nick. Obviously, it’s much richer than what appears in the charts.

If something we play gets chart success then great, but that’s not really why we’re playing it. We’re playing it because we think it’s music that our audience expects to hear from us.

To say that ‘alternative’ means non-mainstream isn’t quite right, because there’s a set of values in alternative music, but as soon as you try to unpick them they become difficult to pin down. It’s one of those things where you know it when you see it.

That’s why it’s really useful to rely on curation, because you can accept that different people have different views of what alternative music is. That’s very useful to us.

How can you increase listener figures?

I want our audience to grow, but I don’t want 6 Music to massively change its distinctive, brilliant offer in order to do that. I think there is a real appetite for the kind of music 6 Music plays, so the job is to continue to create awareness and grow the audience.

We live in a time of great homogeneity, and the flipside of that is, in such times, there is a great appetite for the distinctive, the different, and the unique.

Our job is to get to the people we think will have that appetite. I’d say that is people that are curious about music, and that curiosity isn’t exclusive to any particular age demographic.

It can exist in the older and younger audiences. But we need to acknowledge that we have to work harder to reach the younger audience if we are going to continue to bring them to music radio.

And what can you do to ensure that happens?

We have to go to the platforms where they are. We have to create video. We have to have appealing social media. We have to make sure that 6 Music remains connected to an emerging music scene, as well as explaining the heritage of music.

It’s possible to bring new music to anyone, but you have to seek [further afield] to find younger listeners if you are to have any chance of bringing them to the radio.

Does the nature of 6’s output mean you have a smaller pool to draw from anyway?

I don’t know. The point I make about appetite is one that I hold sincerely and have seen evidence of. The more high rotation radio there is, the more a section of people realise maybe that’s not for them.

And that is a definable and growing group of people. People want something different. It becomes a kind of reaction to homogeneity.

There comes a reaction to large-scale commercialism that is in itself quite powerful. So I think there’s plenty of room to expand 6 Music. It’s part of the feeling of the times we live in.

How dangerous is streaming to 6?

We have to take it seriously, engage with it and understand it. I would say it’s probably more of an issue if you play music that has massive commercial potential.

If you’re a radio station and your lifeblood is low rotation of tracks, then they are probably the ones that are getting streamed in the hundreds of millions.

I think streaming is therefore less of an issue for 6, although it is an issue. One of the things people really value about streaming services is the depth and breadth of their catalogues, what journeys through music it can take them on, and that’s definitely our territory.

How do you tackle it then?

I would like people to spend time being guided around our music catalogue, rather than simply exploring a streaming service.

We’ve got an ability to add value to the music that we play, which is basically people talking to other people about music.

That communication is one of the things that radio can do that streaming really can’t. Listeners want to hear stories and presenters want to tell them.

No algorithm really wants to get you dancing. Lauren Laverne does. It matters that she is motivated to get your feet tapping.

Streaming just cannot convey that sense of authenticity, feeling, passion, humour, empathy. That’s quite valuable isn’t it?

Your presenter line-up is very stable, does it need shaking up?

One of the reasons 6 sounds fresh is because we season it with guest spots from the world of radio and musicians as well.

That allows us to get different perspectives and add different voices to the network. But there are no immediate plans for new [permanent] presenters.

And I would say that 6 Music is in pretty good nick, it’s in pretty robust shape. So I am mindful about messing around too much with something that people value and are satisfied with.

Does the presence of your DJs on the BBC’s highest-paid employees list stand to affect that relationship with listeners? Has there been any negative reaction?

No, I haven’t seen any of that. Not to say that there hasn’t been any of it, but I haven’t seen any of that.

There hasn’t really been a particular negative response to the three names [Lauren Laverne, Mark Radcliffe and Shaun Keaveny] that 6 Music had on that list.

I think people understand that these presenters are really good at their jobs and there is a market for them and you need to pay what you can pay.

I’m obviously aware of the quite compact range of fees across 6 Music, and I’m aware of the need to balance 6 Music’s budget so that I get the most value I can out of our budget.

And finally, who would be your dream presenter?

It has always been Tom Waits. I somehow suspect he could tell quite a good story….

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