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for November 15, 2004

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[Inscrutable Links: John Peel Says "Hi". FM106.3 Staff List. FM106.3's 1988 playlist.]

Can There Only Be One?
by Sean Carolan

The amount of reeling that the British music industry has done in the wake of the passing of John Peel has caught an awful lot of people off-guard. In a recent op-ed piece in the Guardian, Pulp's Jarvis Crocker says some very nice things:
"Ultimately, I think, Peel's appeal came down to something very simple: he was an enthusiast. The only reason he was doing what he was doing was because he loved it - and he loved it so much that he wanted to share it with people. To have your own radio show and play just what you like! To communicate with the audience just as if you were talking to a friend. What a simple idea! How obvious!"
But he winds up with this zinger at the end:
"So how come no one else is doing it?"
On their message boards,'s Mike Taylor reflected that "It's amazing and sad that there's been no one quite like Peel here in the USA who has enjoyed such a longstanding, respected & influential position with the public at large re: music."
And it's my opinion that, in the US at least, it ain't gonna happen.
There's a few things that work against it here in the states, the broadcasting environment itself being one of the biggest. Let's not forget that the BBC is, relative to the British population, kind of like PBS on steroids. It very organically grew in quite a different way than American radio:
- Outside of a couple of historical anomalies, England only had one broadcasting corporation until 1955.
- The BBC ran all legal radio (non-TV) broadcasting until some time in the seventies.
- The BBC runs a mutlitude of transmitters all over their country, each of which pumps out each of their four terrestrial radio signals, with regional inserts as necessary. If they're playing something you want to hear, and you're within the country's borders, reception is rarely a problem.
- Because each radio owner pays a radio license fee, the BBC is obligated to serve them in whatever is judged to be the most diverse way. That's why, for instance, BBC Radio 1 now includes a primetime Asian pop/club show, since they felt that Britain contained a license-paying audience that would be well-served by it. (Check out the Bobby Friction and Nihal show - pretty interesting stuff, and championed vocally by Peel when it was first added.)
- Because the BBC needs to pay attention to its listeners, it did so quite intently when they tuned away in droves to listen to pirate stations in the mid 60's. Clearly, it realized, there was an audience that it was not serving that needed to be served, and while altruism took a back seat to politics when the pirate stations were banned, the BBC reacted in a way you'd never expect a government-mandated monopoly to: by hiring the best of the pirate broadcasters (Peel included) to create a suitable fulfillment for the void left by the banning of the pirates.
By the time of his death, Peel's one-man diversity campaign was viewed rightly by BBC management as an aspect of their public service mandate. (Though they actually were sort of marginalizing him, too - he'd been bumped to 11pm-1am GMT. Because the BBC their own Tivo-like service for their Radio 1 specialty shows at their website, he could have been on any time of the day and I'd still have been able to catch any of his archived shows for a week.)
There aren't many public radio stations in the US that would consider having a mandate to present such diverse rock programming; rock is not traditionally part of Public Radio's domain. And, of course, commercial radio couldn't care less about airing new artists except on those rare occasions when it decides it needs a playlist refresher (that is, if the money's right.)
That does leave Internet radio - even with fewer resources than the BBC, all it took for there to be such a thing as John Peel was a combination of knowledgability, integrity and heart, and while it's lucky for us that the rest of it took care of itself, the fact of the matter is that it did (and none, apparently, were more shocked at that fact than Peel himself.) I'm sure other like-minded souls on the Internet aspire to that - present company included - but I think it's safe to say there'll only ever be the one John Peel.

©2004 Sean Carolan

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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