BBC Radio 6 Music launched on March 11, 2002 and, two decades later, it’s the most popular digital station in the country.
Music Week has been celebrating the birthday with contributions from the music industry, including their favourite 6 Music tastemakers. The alternative music network is a key platform for labels launching new acts.
With 2.6 million listeners, it’s been a driving force behind the growth of DAB radio and digital listening, as well as bringing in listeners via playlists on BBC Sounds. The BBC 6 Music Festival returns next month with three days of live music in Cardiff.
BBC 6 Music is nominated for the Music Week Awards in the Radio Station category, in which it has triumphed many times over the years.
Congratulations on the anniversary - how do you feel about reaching this milestone?
“It’s a wonderful thing. Twenty years is a significant amount of time. So to reach 20 years, when you think about where 6 Music started, and its journey since and where we are now… it's incredible, really, how the station’s developed and grown. The artists that were supported along the way - some have [stayed], some have gone. And the figures that we have now - 2.6 million listeners tuning in, the UK’s biggest digital radio station - is really quite something. So I’m very proud of what we have done over those years with all the presenters and the producers, everyone that's worked on it. To stand where we are now is incredible, and to have meaning for a lot of people is a lovely thing.”
Will it be quite a celebration on air?
“I always feel that 6 Music is quite a modest station. We just let the music do the talking right? But we are going to mark our 20 years on air with music and memories from the listeners, from musicians and our presenters. But we're also going to have birthday presents, in a way, for our listeners. We’ll mark it with music from the 20 years, of course; but you'll also be able to go into BBC Sounds and access 20 playlists from our 20 years curated by 20 different [guests]. It’s an incredible line-up. Beck’s done us a playlist for 2002, there will also be Simon Pegg in there, Emily Eavis, and I’m very pleased to say Adam & Joe will be back with a playlist too. So it's a gift to the listeners.”
A lot of artists step up to present for 6 Music’s Artist In Residence series featuring favourite tracks and influences…
“We've been very lucky in terms of the people that have agreed to come and be with us. Loyle Carner kicked it off, then it was Arlo Parks and Phoebe Bridgers. We've had loads of people, it's been going over a year now - we’ve had Mykki Blanco, St Vincent, Wolf Alice, Father John Misty at the moment. He just did one about music at the bowling alley on a Friday night [episode five - Friday Night at the All Night Lanes: A mixtape of nostalgic fun].”
Do you get a sense that the artists have a connection with 6 Music beyond just promoting their music?
“Yeah, I think so. It's busy when you're promoting content, busy when you're promoting your album - you might be on tour, you might have to do a lot of interviews. So the fact that people can find time to be with us and share their [favourite] music is very generous.That's fantastic, because they're sharing their loves with our audience. So I'm constantly thrilled by the people that say ‘yes’. It's a nice way to get different voices and different picks on air.”
You've got to have presenters who can make sense of the past and tie it to the future
How do you feel you've changed the station in terms of reshaping the line-up since your appointment in summer 2020?
“Anyone who has the privilege of helming a radio station, you're constantly thinking about where it's been, where it's at and where it's going. So that is a key part of my job, to think - how is music evolving? How are people listening to music and consuming music? How can we be part of that with our audience? I just want 6 Music to have as much meaning to as many music lovers as possible. So for me, bringing Jamz Supernova on board was just an absolute no-brainer. Jamz won the best specialist show at the ARIAs last year, she presents Selector for the British Council, she has an amazing show on 1Xtra.
“And why would we not have the Blessed Madonna join us, to have a significant show around club culture and dance music? We've touched on that over the years at 6 Music, but the absolute sweet spot is having someone that is renowned amongst the DJ community who can absolutely do a show celebrating the legacy of Sophie, and talk with authority about the Continental Baths, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, and how music developed from those roots. She can do it all.”
You’ve got a mix of experience and newer talent. Is the line-up fairly stable now?
“The nature of the radio station is that you've got to have presenters who have a legacy and a meaning, who can make sense of the past and tie it to the future. So it's really important that the presenters we have on 6 Music can absolutely do that. My job is to always have an eye on now and on the future. So, ultimately, there are always going to be changes on whatever radio station you’re at. But we have gone through a bit of a cycle - Saturday's changed, Sundays have changed. Radcliffe & Maconie are starting later, Iggy [Pop] has now come into the afternoons, Amy Lamé has moved to Sunday. Craig Charles has come into the [weekday] afternoon. You do want to allow a schedule to settle and find its place. But that doesn't mean to say that we are remaining static.”
Do you think there's an opportunity for the station with alternative music having quite a moment, such as Wet Leg, Yard Act and Fontaines DC?
“A year or two ago, Music Week wrote about how 6 Music was having a real impact with certain artists like Black Country, New Road, Squid, and this whole kind of scene coming through 6 Music and Steve Lamcq’s programme. We do talk about it - is it another iteration of guitar music? Potentially, but there are so many other interesting kinds of music that 6 has been part of the story of, whether it’s Ezra Collective or Nubya Garcia. It's just very nice to be able to trace that story back to other genres that 6 Music has been really supportive of.”
With its strong RAJAR results, where can 6 Music go from here?
“The thing that 6 has always struggled with a little bit is awareness. So if you know 6, you know 6; but in terms of national awareness, it is still quite low. So that's the nut I’m trying to crack, and that's why you will see things where we try to make more impact. We might do things like Artist In Residence, when you get an artist like Phoebe Bridgers or Arlo Parks, putting that into the world and then hopefully their fanbases come into 6 and want to stay for the rest.
“There are also things like our Goes Back To The… seasons, and we might just play our cut of ’90s music all day long. You might be a bit more of a casual listener, you hear it and you think, ‘I kind of like what's going on here, I'm going to stay for the rest.’ And [BBC cross-network] brand campaigns help, so we have one that started at the beginning of March.”
Finally, is 6 Music good value as a service, particularly in terms of supporting UK artists?
“I was putting together something recently and I saw a listener’s text message. And it was like, ‘6 Music is more than a radio station for me this year, it's a lifeline’. You could have been at home not seeing anyone and your company was Lauren Laverne in the morning, or Huey Morgan on Saturday. That was maybe the only voice you heard in that room all day long.
“But it could also be if you are an artist - if they've not been able to play in a venue, but we've given them a session or we've played their music. That to me is the wonder and the privilege of broadcasting. So I think there is a place for 6 Music.”
Click here for the music industry’s birthday wishes for BBC 6 Music.