John Peel was the king of alternative music on BBC Radio One. But BBC Radio Lancashire‘s On The Wire team has been dedicated to playing some equally challenging tunes for 30 years.
Steve Barker and his loyal team have long championed new music that would have scared more conservative listeners to death. So, how have they managed to fly the alternative flag in the Red Rose county for three decades?
“It’s mix of luck and judgement as when we first on air in the mid-80s it was really very unusual playing what we did,” says Barker. “It is difficult thinking back 30 years to what radio was like then but it certainly wasn’t very good for young people, or anyone interested in anything other than mainstream music.”
On the Wire has slowly built an audience of Sunday afternoon listeners keen to experience something different. Then disaster struck: a new station manager wanted to take the programme off air.
“When he came to the station he was very keen to hear the programme because he thought we were playing Dire Straits and stuff like that,” recalls Barker. “So he was shocked at how radical the show was, but that is exactly what people liked about us because they couldn’t hear what we played anywhere else.”
As the recent battle to save 6 Music demonstrated, the threat of the axe provoked real music fans to rise up and organise a campaign that attracted the support of kindred spirit John Peel. The battle went all the way to the main BBC board.
“Peelie’s support was great but the whole campaign was organised outside of me,” notes Barker. “Lots of people in the music biz also were saying what is going on here, then Peelie said something on air and there was a story in The Independent that was really important.
“Once we got over that, after being saved by the BBC board we became – and I hesitate to say this – a bit untouchable, and people didn’t want to close us down as the board said we were a unique BBC product.
“We now have a station manager at BBC Radio Lancashire who after the last batch of cuts knew how popular the specialist music shows were. There were no casualties so I think we now have more specialist shows on BBC Radio Lancashire than any other station. There is still a Northern Soul progamme, soul, folk, blues and us which is a good record for a local radio station.”
Before the advent of the internet, if you wanted to hear On The Wire you had to live near the Blackburn studio, but that didn’t deter an army of loyal fans.
“We used to have some people who travelled to hear the programme which was weird, and cassettes went around at the time,” laughs Barker. “I still get people saying I’m glad you put that show on the internet as I still have the cassette from 1988.
“The internet has changed the game for good and bad. So we have Twitter and Facebook, the equivalent of The X Factor, that are fake democracies, but on the other hand it has un-niched everything.”
So what have been the highlights for Barker and his team?
“In the 80s we had Lee Perry in a couple of times which was totally wild. I don’t think anyone else would have actually taken the risk of having Lee in the studio, and it was live at that time.
“The other one was putting was putting The Fall on at Clitheroe Castle with one policeman in attendance. Thankfully it was a well behaved crowd on a very pleasant Sunday afternoon.
“In the 2000s the thing I was most proud of was keeping the programme going when I spent nine years in China, so we had an hour from me then Fenny and Jim Ingham did the other hour in Blackburn. So between Beijing and Blackburn we kept On The Wire going without anyone at the BBC mentioning it.
“I think they thought that’s just what they do.”
It’s that sort of idiosyncratic thinking, and at times bare-faced cheek, that has kept On The Wire on air for three decades, reminding music fans why they play the licence fee.
In the midst of the heated debate about the BBC Charter, the continued survival of On The Wire is a timely reminder why public service broadcasting was created in the first place.
On The Wire is on BBC Radio Lancashire 95.5FM/103.9FM at midnight every Sunday