Think of my programmes as your research department

Early-1996, on learning that a forthcoming, weekly drum & bass programme was to eat into his own show’s airtime, shortening it by an hour, pioneering DJ John Peel made his disappointment known by writing the following letter to Matthew Bannister, then-controller of BBC Radio 1.

John Peel remained with the station until his death in 2004.

(Source: Margrave of the Marshes; Image: John Peel, via.)

25th January, 1996

Dear Matthew,

I wanted to say how disappointed I was to lose yet another hour on air in the recent schedule changes. I had naively imagined when I heard you were attempting to contact me that you were going to tell me that you had, as you had suggested you might a year earlier, managed to claw back some time.

As you may have noticed over the past few years, I have enthusiastically supported, in thought, word and deed, the many changes you and your team have made to Radio 1. I did this, not out of any thought of self-preservation, but because I believed that the changes were very much needed. No-one doubts, I think, that Radio 1 is a much better station now than it was in the last days of Beerling. Last summer, our son William gently pointed out that part of the policy I was endorsing included the gradual reduction of my hours on the radio. (Our other son, Thomas, was more forthright when I told him why you had called the other day. ‘They’re taking the piss, Dad,’ he said.)

When you came to Radio 1, it was with, amongst many other things, ringing endorsements of the type of programming practised by Andy Kershaw and myself. Andy was overjoyed. I advised caution, knowing that such attitudes can change overnight, particularly when there is much critical hostility to the changes that are being made – as there was, of course. There does seem to be a new orthodoxy in the air, one which supports narrowly focused programmes rather than broadly based ones built on the if-you-don’t-like-this-record-wait-until-you-hear-the-next-one principle.

Over the years my programmes have often been the first to play music which subsequently found a wider audience and, very occasionally, a niche on Radio 1. This, I know, is what I am employed to do.

For example, I started playing hip-hop when the first records, imported from New York, arrived in this country. I did this despite the fact – perhaps, on reflection, partly because of it – that a producer and presenter both came to me independently and told me I should not be playing what was, in their view, the music of black criminals. Now, of course, we have Westwood – and quite rightly so, although I would suggest that he should have been on Radio 1 seven or eight years ago. This, I know, was the fault of the previous regime.

Since then, I have played jungle – for about three, three and a half years, I think – and we are, again quite rightly, about to have a jungle programme. I have played reggae since 1968 and, apart from two sadly misconceived programmes that ran fitfully for a while in the seventies and eighties, no-one else has. Now there is to be a reggae programme and, again, this is exactly as it should be. What saddens me is the fact that, with the introduction of these programmes, I lose air time. I already have to leave unplayed music which I believe deserves exposure and, with the new hours, this situation can only get worse. I already circulate lists of recommended records that I have not had time to play to an admittedly small number of regular listeners.

I know that no-one has the right to be given radio time and that with the number of new programmes that you are scheduling, something has to give. I appreciate the move to Sunday night, understanding that on Friday night people are out, going out, watching laddish comedy stuff on television and so on. I agree with you that Sunday night is a better time for my/our programmes.

I hope you understand this. There remains in me, I suppose, some of the old hippie and something of an evangelical fervour about the work I do. I think – and I hope this isn’t going to read wrong – that the programmes on which I have worked, with a range of enthusiastic people from Bernie Andrews to Alison Howe, have contributed to the enduring health of British music and the capacity of that music to reinvent itself. There are several things going on now which may or may not evolve into something substantial. It would be disappointing, in the event of one or other of these being really popular, to lose yet another hour so that you could schedule time for programmes devoted to it.

Think of my programmes as your research department. Noisy, smelly but occasionally coming up with the formulae which you can subsequently market.

Thanks for reading this.

John Peel