On The Wire – An Interview With Steve Barker

If you’ve been reading Louder Than War for any length of time now you’ll know we’re all passionate supporters on Steve Barker’s “On The Wire” radio show. Personally I rank it alongside Dandelion Radio as the joint best radio show around atm, as I wrote in the blog I wrote on these pages some time ago referencing where to find new music in a post Peel world. Despite what he says in the interview below On The Wire comes closer to being what Peel’s show’s used to be like that anything else on the airwaves, now or ever. More recently our dear leader John Robb also wrote a piece celebrating the show & alerting us to the fact that its existence is threatened – more info about which below.

One of our writers, Paul Scot-Bates, shares our passion for the show & is actively trying to raise awareness of how damaging losing it could be. Therefore it seemed like a no brainer to ask Paul to interview Steve for us.

We at Louder Than War want to join Paul in extending our thanks to Steve for the amazing work he (and his co-pilot Fenny) have been doing over the last 28 years & wish the show many, many more years of the same. BBC cuts be damned.

September 16th 2012 is an important date.

It marks the 28th Birthday of the BBC’s longest running radio show ”“ On The Wire ”“ broadcast by BBC Radio Lancashire. Maybe the number 28 isn’t as significant a Birthday as 18 or 21 or 40 (as the greeting card makers would have us believe) but, given the recent developments in the BBC’s ”˜Drive For Quality initiative”˜, it is quite a landmark.

In 1984, I was 16. I listened to the Top 40, I was a convert of electronic music and many a hit single. I made handwritten lists of the Chart every week. I listened intently and believed it as gospel. Back then, I’m pretty sure that Radio 1’s chart show was piped through local radio from 5pm until 7pm and I’d always tune in ready for the countdown. There soon came a time when rumours of ”˜fixing’ were rife and I started liking stuff that wasn’t an instant hit.

Sometime during 1985 when I was waiting for the Top 40, I stumbled across On The Wire on Radio Lancashire. The host, Steve Barker (along with ”˜The Boy Fenny’), was playing loads of stuff I’d never heard before. I thought I knew so much about music but quickly realised that there was a world, a far bigger world outside of the hits of the week. One of the tracks he played, Bop Bop by Fats Comet, is still one of my all-time favourites. Part of it was a sample from People Are People by Depeche Mode (of who I was / am a big fan) ”“ an On U-sound remix, by a chap called Adrian Sherwood. I loved it. I hunted it down. I was hooked.

Over time I became a regular listener to OTW. Music that was completely new to me on every show. I didn’t like it all but that wasn’t the point ”“ the point was that it wasn’t your run-of-the-mill stuff. It had feeling, essence and purpose.

I’ve always loved music and On The Wire opened up a new World to me.

So, back to the BBC cuts. What is not so well known is how these cuts will (not ”˜could’) impact the specialist shows hosted locally. Effectively there would be no “local radio” after seven o’clock in the evening. Shows will be shared between groups of stations. For instance, in the North West this group will be the Lancashire, Manchester and Merseyside stations. There is a possibility that BBC Radio Lancashire will only be responsible for shared programming on a Sunday afternoon. The high probability is that any output in this slot will be in an “easy listening” format. Therefore, sometime between now and April 2013, by which time all the agreed changes will be implemented, there is a danger that On the Wire will disappear from the airwaves after over twenty eight years of continuous broadcasting.

For me and others like me, this is devastating news, and quite literally, a huge loss. So much so that towards the end of 2011, I set up a Twitter account @SaveOnTheWire to try and rally support. I tweet links to the show, featured tracks and news. It’s my way of both saying thank-you and trying to preserve something I truly love.

I caught up with Steve Barker recently and asked him what his initial plans and hopes for On The Wire were, and to what extent he thought they had been achieved.

“Basically to play tunes that we either liked or felt should get an airing on radio, basically we are still doing that. I would have to thank a series of managers at the BBC for letting me self-produce the show.”

On The Wire was last under threat in the 90’s when a certain John Peel lent his support. Did you ever meet him?

“Yes, two or three times. Once at Broadcasting House at the Beeb during one of his shows. He did all the usual stuff like play a tune at the wrong speed and listen to the football whilst music was playing. I feel very ambivalent about John’s influence from the time, he was very helpful to us but then again because John Peel was there then he represented the whole 99% of the music that wasn’t played elsewhere ”“ so there was no room for anyone else, and then he became a yardstick by which others were measured. On the Wire was never an imitation of Peelie, we were totally different.”

My introduction to On The Wire coincided with my discovery of On U Sound. Adrian Sherwood is obviously a good friend and you’ve written several sleeve notes for On-U releases. What in your opinion makes the label so special?

“Well, On U Sound has become a bit of an institution ”“ unfortunately! It started out for the first few years very radical ”“ an experimental UK dub excursion – but people weren’t really interested. Then it became more hip and the problem there is that people then move on to next big thing. On U has kept a focus on the more radical over time and Sherwood’s new album is probably his best solo effort as he’s created it largely himself rather than relying on other input.”

Once a month On The Wire presents Funkology ”“ how did that come about? Do you like a good funk?

“This has to be seen in context, as Funkology started out soon after the show itself began. There was little black dance music played on radio. Things are different now with all the numerous shades of Radio 1 etc. However, Pete and Andy still plough their own furrow and are not affected by plugging or fads. Funk is the preacher, jazz is the teacher ”¦”¦”¦.”

I’ve just reviewed Rough Guide compilations of Ethiopian and Hungarian music for Louder Than War. The Ethiopian one really surprised me at the diversity of the music. Are there any other countries that you think are worth looking at?

“All of Sumatra and Java, Columbia, North West Africa ”“ the Sahel.”

What was the first record you bought and where did you buy it, what’s your favourite record of the moment, and all-time favourite?

“With my own money? Probably late fifties or early sixties, maybe Buddy Holly. My favourite of all time remains “The Mountains High” by Dick and DeeDee from about 1962. And now I’m listening to a lot of instrumental music, drone and drift. Chilly Gonzales “Solo Piano II” is nice, also the recent Robbie Basho reissue on Tompkins Square, and Jeb Loy Nichols “Long Time Traveller” album (although it’s only out in Japan).”

Who, or what music excites you nowadays?

“It’s good to hear new generations dealing with drone, drift, process music. Lots of good new stuff coming out of the USA and Europe from people who don’t feel guilty or embarrassed about their influences especially lots of new women artists like Julia Holter and Maria Minerva.”

Chilly Gonzales Solo Piano II – Piano Vision Medley from Chilly Gonzales on Vimeo.

Listening to your show, your knowledge of music seems infinite ”“ who’s the most famous person in your phone directory?

“I have only a few famous people in my phone book and they probably would not answer the phone to me now anyway”

We seem to live in a world of ”˜talent’ shows nowadays, do you think they’ve damaged the music industry or made it a better place?

“They are just a manifestation of the dumbing down of the media and life in general, basically they are pretending that a music biz exists that actually doesn’t exist anymore, they are their own self-contained environments into which people get sucked then spat out. I find people’s fascination with them offensive, and that goes for Big Brother and all its derivations.”

My first article for Louder Than War was called Home Taping Is Killing Music, from a strictly personal point of view, what are your views on ”˜illegal downloading’?

“A bit like weed ”“ for personal use only…”

Why does Fenny still sound like he’s 20 years old?

“Apart from the regular monkey gland injections, he remains resolutely a fan and young at heart.”

In 2002 Steve absconded to Beijing initially relying of the help of Christiaan Virant, co-founder of the China-based nu electronic unit fm3. Is he in the UK to stay now, or, is a return on the cards?

“Staying in UK now, hoping to be asked to do some gigs ”¦”¦”¦ Will return to China for short trips now and again.”

Over the years, the show has featured more and more reggae and dub. Is there any reason for that?

“Yes, because we love the dub! And its rebel music that is under-represented.”

I’d publicly like to thank Steve and his team for many years of musical education. Without it, my music library would be a lot smaller (although, my pocket would be a bit fuller!) With support, I feel sure that On The Wire will be around for many many more years to come. If you want to do your bit, and at the same time educate yourself, then I’d strongly suggest your tune in to the show every Saturday 10pm until midnight (subject to change!), and check out the blog where you can find “listen again” links. Alternatively, follow the @SaveOnTheWire Twitter account and get the links to playlists, downloads, etc…

As a final question, I asked Steve whether of not if On The Wire were ever a casualty of the cuts, would he aim to carry on elsewhere. The answer is still bringing me to goosepimples.

“On the Wire will never die….”

All words Paul Scott-Bates. Paul’s website (where this first appeared) is Heaven Is A Place On Pendle. Paul has been working hard to save Radio Lancashire’s On The Wire, easily one of the best radio shows on the BBC. Follow him on twitter as @saveonthewire for all On The Wire news or follow his personal twitter, @hiapop.

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3 comments on “On The Wire – An Interview With Steve Barker”

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  1. “September 16th 2012 is an important date. It marks the 28th Birthday of the BBC\’s longest running radio show – On The Wire.”

    Not wishing to be pedantic, or anything (well, actually, I DO wish to be pedantic), the BBC’s longest running radio show is actually Sunday Half-Hour on Radio 2. It began in 1940.

    The top five longest-running BBC radio shows are:

    Sunday Half Hour – began 1940
    Desert Island Discs – began 1942
    Women’s Hour – began 1946
    The Archers – began 1950
    The Today Programme – began 1957

    Desert Island Discs probably claim to be the longest-running music show, although some would say it doesn’t really count because it’s actually more speech than music. Sunday Half-Hour contains music, too, so could also probably stake a claim.

    The longest-running show that is predominantly music – with the presenter simply announcing the tunes, DJ style – is The Organist Entertains, on Radio 2. It began in 1969.

    • How about the BBCs ‘longest running alternative music show’?

      Either way, On The Wire remains a institution.

      Without it, Inspiral Carpets, 808 State, Dodgy…. may never have had their first breaks in the industry. It was the first British radio programme to play hip-hop. And, let’s not forget the legendary free concert at Clitheroe Castle fetauring The Fall, where almost 2,000 people turned up.

      Music Like Shower.

  2. I remember back 20 years ago when there was a campaign to save the programme and the NME got involved.The Beeb ran scared then.
    True the show has become more and more parochial but even if they get rid this time it will stay online.Hence Steve Barker’s comment.

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