Hit for Six

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BBC 6Music celebrates 10 years on air on Sunday, March 11. To mark the occasion, Andy Welch finds out more from station stalwart Gideon Coe, daytime star Lauren Laverne, 6Music editor Paul Rodgers, and even has a go at broadcasting.

When the BBC launched 6 Music on March 11, 2002, digital radio was in its infancy and no one really knew if it was going to be a success.

As the first new channel the broadcaster had launched in 32 years, to cater for those not served by Radio 1 and 2, added to the fact hardly anyone in the country even owned a DAB (Digital Audio Broadcast) radio to receive the channel, the venture could have been a dismal, if well-intentioned, failure.

So one story goes, on Boxing Day 2003, 18 months after the station's launch when average listenership was 154,000, then breakfast show presenter Phill Jupitus appealed for anyone listening to email in. Just one listener responded.

A decade later, however, and the audience currently stands at just under 1.5 million listeners per day. In part, that's thanks to the arrival of high-profile presenters such as Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, ex-Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews and Elbow's Guy Garvey, who all present weekend shows, and Lauren Laverne, who has helmed the station's flagship 10am-1pm programme since late 2009.

"It's a very special station," says Laverne, seconds after turning down the fader on her microphone.

Sitting in the studio to observe her show, it becomes clear just how much work goes into making something appear effortless.

Laverne and her producer switch around songs at the last minute to ensure a balanced show, discuss upcoming events and answer emails, texts and Twitter messages - a platform on which she's particularly active - from fans.

All this at the same time as enthusing about the latest records they've heard and settling in live session guests.

"It's so important to react to what people are talking about," she says. "I want the show to have a community feel, like we're all listening together, but I'm in charge of the stereo."

Having come such a long way, during which time they've seen off a serious threat of closure, it's hardly surprising all at 6 Music want to celebrate its landmark 10th birthday.

Gideon Coe, who's been at the station since day one and can be heard on Monday to Thursday from 9pm, says: "I remember being given this adaptor for my radio at home so I could actually listen to the station I was working for. No one owned DABs then.

"I think the gradual rise in figures says a lot about the quality of what we're doing here, and it's more popular than ever," he adds, citing the recent Rajar figures (Radio Joint Audience Research), which show listeners are up 27% on the previous year.

Coe's 'if you build it, they will come' mantra is shared by station editor Paul Rodgers, who's been at 6 Music for the past three years.

"We've doubled our audience in the last 18 months or so," he says, "but I think we can get a lot more.

"There is a tallest tree in each forest, and there's obviously a maximum figure a station like this can achieve. But we're not there yet.

"I honestly don't believe popularity leads to dilution of purpose and I'm here to make sure that doesn't happen. We'd be shooting ourselves in the foot if we were to change."

In March 2010, the BBC's own Strategic Review, under pressure from the government to downsize the organisation, suggested the station, along with the Asian Network, should be closed.

Using the 'inform, educate and entertain' mission statement of Lord John Reith, who oversaw the BBC's formation as a public corporation in 1927, listeners picked apart the argument for closure and lobbied the BBC Trust to reverse their decision.

After many rallies, concerts and petitions signed, it was announced 6 Music would be saved.

The media spotlight won new listeners, but crucially, the majority have left their radio dials alone since discovering the digital-only station.

"Lots of people thought it was a clever publicity stunt at the time," says Coe. "But for those of us that work at the station, it was very, very real. Without the effort of campaigners, we wouldn't be here now, but ultimately it was the quality service 6 Music provides that saved it."

"People might have tuned in because they heard about the closure in the news, but if they didn't like what they heard, they wouldn't have come back," adds Rodgers. "6 Music is a place where like-minded people can consume brilliant things, and hear knowledgeable people speak about them.

"It's quite simple really, but harder than you might think to pull off."

Another example of the community spirit is Steve Lamacq's Round Table, which takes place each Thursday. Three guests are invited into the studio to pass judgement on the coming week's biggest singles in a Jukebox Jury-style manner. On the station's website, listeners are invited to do exactly the same, with scores averaged at the end.

A few weeks back, I was invited on to sit alongside James Brown of Pulled Apart By Horses, and James Endeacott, who discovered The Strokes and The Libertines during his time as the A&R at Rough Trade Records.

Talking to friends about music is something I've done since I was 12, just never before in front of a massive audience. Fortunately, after more than 20 years broadcasting, 'Lammo' as he's known, is hugely gifted in making his guests forget they're being listened to by around a million people.

"Just don't swear, libel anyone or be boring," is his only advice, and during the hour we listen to and award scores out of 10 to Gorillaz, Alabama Shakes, The Wild Mercury Sound, Graham Coxon, Santigold, Azealia Banks and Sleigh Bells, with Alabama Shakes's Hold On rightfully coming out on top.

And as Lauren Laverne scuttles off to organise more anniversary celebrations (set to include a series of live sessions at the BBC's Maida Vale studios, featuring the likes of Paul Weller), she concludes: "People might it's all a bit much. But we're 10, and 6 Music is definitely worth shouting about."

:: BBC Radio 6 Music celebrates its tenth anniversary on Sunday, March 11. For more information, visit www.bbc.co.uk/6music

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