Why The World Doesn't Need John Peel (Or Doesn't Think It Does)

There’s an excellent Poptimist column by Tom Ewing over at Pitchfork about John Peel’s unique position in music history, and why his legacy of educating his audience may never be revived.

After Peel’s death there was a general assumption– not much discouraged by the BBC– that there could never be another broadcaster like him. His unassuming style, pretty much unique among British DJs, is surely part of the reason, but it’s also true that the wideband license Peel had to play anything he fancied was increasingly out of place on radio even before he died. The idea of Peel as unique, an inimitably great and generous public servant, keeps his memory alive but does his legacy no favors by suggesting his Reithian project can’t be continued. The enemies of that project are easy to finger: They include marketers and pollsters like me, keen to help the BBC and its commercial competitors segment and identify sustainable audience subgroups. But that’s not the whole story: If John Peel were starting a career now, as a DJ or perhaps an mp3 blogger, it wouldn’t just be marketers that would stop him finding an audience. The digital culture of personalization– your own last.fm station, your own tailored recommendations, your own Festive Fifties every day of every year– makes the idea of “education” by tastemakers like Peel seem even more antiquated. The sudden left turns and infuriating inconsistencies his shows offered would as likely be resented as embraced. It’s probably easier to admire John Peel than it sometimes was to listen to him. But if he was sometimes disappointed in his audience– and if he often baffled them in turn– it was because he respected their intelligence rather than pampering their tastes. The renegotiation of that contract is what stands in the way of his successors.

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