Category Archives: Radio

John Osborne: Radio Head

I was inspired to read John Osborne’s Radio Head, a disarmingly funny summary of the many British radio stations he made a project of sampling while holding down a dull data entry job, after going to see his show John Peel’s Shed a couple of weeks ago (my write-up of that is here). The format of the book couldn’t be much simpler: each chapter is devoted to a different station, to which the author makes a point of spending an entire day listening, with occasional chapters on broadcasters that have had particular influence on him. Osborne is a major music fan, brought up on the indie and Brit-pop bands of the 80s and 90s, but he’s no snob and he exhibits an all-encompassing curiosity that’s almost childlike – as well as the expected chapters on Radio 1, Virgin Radio, Capital FM and John Peel there are also pithy and incisive analyses of the controversy-mongers of talkSPORT, the deliciously rambling commentators of Test Match Special and the lesser-known hosts of Radio Humberside and Radio Broadland. He also completely nails the laddish George Lamb, who at the time had inexplicably been given a daily slot on BBC 6 Music which was largely given over to winding up the dedicated music fans who made up the station’s audience by putting out shows comprised largely of klaxons, incessant cries of “Shabba!” and largely incomprehensible in-jokes delivered in excruciating cod-patois.

All of this is set within the context of Osborne’s undemanding day-job, his routines and daydreams, and his quiet aspirations of one day becoming a broadcaster himself on a local station. It’s a lovely book which makes one appreciate the value of radio and it’s role in establishing connections between people in an age of ipods and spotify.

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John Peel’s Shed at The Junction, Cambridge 24/2/12

John Peel’s Shed is an hour long presentation currently being toured by writer and broadcaster John Osborne, whose all-absorbing passion for radio paid off in 2002 when he won a box of records in a competition to devise a slogan for Peel’s Radio 1 show. The simplicity of his winning entry – “Records you want to hear, played by a man who wants you to hear them” – demonstrates how in tune Osborne was with Peel’s ethos of paying as little attention as possible to fashion-driven trends, hype and commercial pressures in favour of devoting his energies to unearthing truly original sounds and artists, and Osborne’s sweet and engaging talk is a fitting tribute to the spirit of the great man.

Now, John Peel is pretty close to being my all-time favourite human being, friends and family excepted, and while it was certainly tremendously touching to be part of the great outpouring of affection that was unleashed in the wake of his death it was also mildly irritating to witness his career and accomplishments being regularly boiled down to T Rex/Teenage Kicks/The Fall/Home Truths. Peel’s tastes were genuinely eclectic and unpredictable, and while it would be churlish to criticise the goodwill and effort that was expended to curate the various programmes and schedules that were broadcast in his honour I felt at the time that many of the musical choices were a tad safe and acceptably mainstream – wouldn’t it have been more fitting to play a few long and unlistenable hardcore techno tracks, interspersed with some terrifying Scandinavian death metal and some joyous, if not necessarily comprehensible, African gospel? Thankfully Osborne avoids this establishment reduction of what made Peel such a one-off: firstly, the records that he draws from his prize box to play between sections of his talk are pleasingly obscure and appropriately non-commercial (Atom and His Package, anyone? What about Oizone? As in Boyzone songs played by an Oi band) and secondly, he doesn’t feel the need to dwell on Peel at all when recounting his formative musical memories – his working assumption is that his audience doesn’t need any further summaries of the man, leaving him free to talk more about radio in general, and his relationship with it.

Osborne loves radio and has a rare curiosity about it, to the extent that he’s prepared to spend months making sure he’s managed to spend a full day listening to every single station available to him. His accounts of the esoteric delights put out by small community stations are hilarious, but somehow life-affirming (I particularly liked the idea of the programme consisting of nothing but the sounds picked up by a microphone left on a living room floor for half an hour) and his gradual coming to terms with the blandness of modern day Radio 1 when forced to listen to it all day during a spell working in a warehouse casts light on the resilience of the human spirit. He’s an open, almost naively positive, presenter with a generous and winning manner – I think Peel would have approved. Podcasts featuring some of the records in the box are available from www.johnpeelsshed.com.