It’s been 42 years since St Annes-based East Lancs lad Steve Barker made his broadcasting debut on Radio Blackburn, his contributions to the RPM magazine show leading to him helping usher in the 1980s with follow-up, Spin Off, and in turn a show that has remained on air ever since, On the Wire.
But the coronavirus lockdown saw Steve and his team – chiefly Clitheroe-based UCLan lecturer Jim ‘Jimbo’ Ingham, producing and engineering, and on-air sidekick Michael ‘Fenny’ Fenton – exit BBC local radio schedules for the first time in 36 years, their initial spell working remotely curtailed and leading to a notable gap on the station timetable and turntables.
Not as if Steve stopped or has any intention of stopping, the septuagenarian having entered the realms of internet broadcasting via MixCloud instead. But with his departure from BBC Radio Lancashire came a listeners’ backlash that has already led to more than 1,000 names on a petition against its removal, the station itself insisting the show has been ‘rested’ rather than axed.
His BBC online listing suggests Steve’s legendary freeform show involves ‘the latest leftfield releases in electronica, ambient and dub/reggae’, promoting underground and new music every weekend as Saturday turns to Sunday. But don’t try categorising exactly what it is he does, that remit having altered somewhat over the years, even during each show maybe, its main presenter never keen on lazy labelling and putting names on boxes. And perhaps that’s a major part of the success of what for some time has been recognised as ‘the longest running continuous alternative music show on UK radio’.
I write this knowing that many readers here will know most of the story already, but the man behind the mic. was among the first to interview The Smiths and Depeche Mode, and in the late ‘80s played various crossover dance tracks before anyone else. He also helped stage a memorable free gig at Clitheroe Castle by The Fall in 1985, with Mark E. Smith having already guested on the show, as was the case with reggae artist turned producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. And the reputation of each hardly suggests a presenter not willing to take risks on air. Yet there was rarely an easy relationship with BBC management, the show threatened by cuts long before this latest move, previously saved with the help of fiercely loyal listeners across Lancashire and worldwide.
After the initial mid-March Government lockdown, two On the Wire programmes were made remotely via the BBC before Blackburn-based Radio Lancashire switched to an ‘almost skeletal structure’, as Steve put it, the show continuing via MixCloud while restructuring talks went on behind the scenes at the corporation to undergo cost cutting moves nationwide, the axe seemingly ever closer. Then, after brief discussions between Steve and station managing editor John Clayton and what the presenter described as ‘unanswered’ emails to higher up the BBC corporate tree, he felt he had no option to but to make public the resultant decision.
Steve wrote, “The BBC announced that, as ‘part of its future plans’, the basic structure for local radio would remain as it is now and all late broadcasting would be shared across the local network, those slots would eventually be competed. For On the Wire this inevitably means the end of its relationship with the BBC.
“For me personally and the team, no BBC representative has taken the trouble to formally inform us that On the Wire is not required, discuss any possible future for the programme or even thanked us for running the show without break since 1984….. or even said anything at all, save the local manager telling me by a quick phone call I would not be getting another contract and he was really sorry …”
In a further statement to Lancashire county councillors, he added, “On The Wire features a vast array of different music and has a reputation not just at county level but also regionally, nationally and internationally. From the comments made on a petition launched last week it is clear that the programme is revered and respected by listeners everywhere, as well as by journalists and the music industry. Total signatories now exceed 1,000 protesting the cultural deficit that would occur with the loss of On the Wire.
“Last week Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC, said, ‘We’re not going to move away from specialist music on BBC local radio’. But this is the first time the subject has even been mentioned, probably in response to growing public dissatisfaction at the lack of consultation.”
Steve further appealed to those councillors to show support via social media, signing the petition, and writing to John Clayton and also BBC head of local radio, Chris Burns.
In response to those emails, John Clayton directed those contacting him to a national statement including the premise that the BBC ‘has to make savings to address the financial challenges the organisation faces’. He added, ‘We have set out proposals to transform what we do across the country, including on local radio, but remain fully committed to providing local content, including community and specialist music programming, and are talking to our stations about what their schedules could look like.’
On a more specific note, he wrote, “I fully appreciate your concerns for On The Wire and I am very much aware of the programme’s history, its reputation and its standing within the world of music. It has been a fixture in our schedules for considerably longer than my 20-year tenure as editor and, prior to March, I assumed that would remain the case for some time to come. Now, although Steve and the team continue to make a weekly edition which is shared via Mixcloud, it has been rested from the BBC Radio Lancashire schedule … along with a number of our other specialist programmes … because of the pandemic. The emergency schedule was put in place to help us significantly reduce the number of people using our buildings in order to minimise the risk of spreading the virus. It is also designed to make it easier for stations in our network to opt in and out of the output from sister stations, should they find that they are unable to sustain all programmes because of absence through illness or the need for colleagues to shield or self-isolate.
“It is now proposed that the emergency schedule will become a permanent arrangement as BBC England looks to play its part in achieving the huge savings required. If the plan is implemented there will be an England-wide Late Show each night between 10pm and 1am which means that we will no longer be able to broadcast On The Wire at midnight on Saturday, the timeslot it has occupied for many, many years. The challenge is to work out if and how the programme can still be accommodated within our reduced schedule. It’s important to bear in mind here that there are a number of community and specialist programmes, all of which are loved and respected by their devoted followings, which would also require a new home in our schedule. There’s also a further question about the affordability of sustaining a schedule rich in this type of programming when we are likely to be expected to get by with a smaller budget. Although individual programmes may not necessarily appear terribly expensive, the cumulative effect of handful of these programmes can have significant impact on our tiny share of the licence fee.
“Clearly there is work to be done but, as things stand, On The Wire remains ‘rested’ but not ‘axed’. It is true that Steve’s contract has been ended for the time being but that was simply a matter of practicality and he has been treated in exactly the same way as countless other freelance presenters across the BBC who have seen their programmes taken off the air because of our response to the pandemic. It is unfortunate but I am sure that most licence fee payers would question the wisdom of a corporation continuing to pay people when they are not making their programmes, especially when that corporation is facing such a huge financial challenge.
“I appreciate that this will not fully allay your concerns about the future of On the Wire, but I hope that it reassures you that the so-called axe has not fallen yet and that we will continue to look for practical solutions. It’s early days as the decision about the schedule was only announced a weeks or so ago and there has been a lot to take in and assess, with staff understandably concerned about the large number of job losses across English Regions. And in the end, should we not be able to make On The Wire part of our post-virus schedule, I can assure you that we will certainly mark Steve’s significant contribution to the BBC in general, and BBC Radio Lancashire in particular, in appropriate fashion. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that just yet.”
Reflecting on his previous statement, I felt Steve carried a sense of inevitability about the BBC decision when I called him, although you could tell he was also hurt.
“I think I’ve been reasonable, really. Our view – me, Jimmy and Fenny – is that the BBC has left us. But I’ve clearly got a few issues. I don’t think any employer, of whatever ilk, should treat somebody who’s worked for them for 42 years in the way I’ve been treated … cursorily.
“I think it’s rude and I think it’s disrespectful, and in many ways just incredible. I know there’s lots of other things going on, but the BBC’s no different to anyone else. We all like to be dealt with in a clear and respectful way. And it’s clear if you look at the petition that people see On the Wire as something that the BBC should be proud of.”
Friend of this website Rico la Rocca – behind several John Peel tribute nights in Lancashire in recent years in his Tuff Life Boogie promoter’s guise – and an avid listener to On the Wire over the decades, sees the show as ‘a genuine local landmark, with a global reach, that should not be removed from the airwaves’.
He added, “Even though On the Wire has not been broadcast by Radio Lancashire during the lockdown, Steve has continued to post weekly two-hour shows of new music on Mixcloud. I can’t think of many BBC 6 Music or Radio 1 DJs who would bother to do that if they got taken off.
“I’ve listened on and off for 35 years and I’m still feeling guilty I didn’t manage to organise an On the Wire tribute show when I was doing gigs, alongside the John Peel ones I did. Steve’s cultural importance is on a par with Peel’s. I suggest everyone signs the petition and considers writing to BBC management to let them know what we think about these proposals.”
And that seems to sum up the feelings of many listeners, I put to Steve.
“Exactly. We do what we do, we do it from Lancashire, and we’re proud of being from Lancashire, we always have been, and we’re all from Lancashire, but we play music from around the world. We play music that excite sus and we think people will enjoy, and that seems to be a pretty clear intent.”
The new online version is little different from the BBC operation, although Steve now records from home on the Fylde coast, albeit still with technical assistance from Jimbo and contributions from Fenny. In fact, Steve told me Jimbo’s only his third engineer, both predecessors still involved to an extent, the second now Glasgow-based but running the show’s Facebook group.
Looking at On the Wire’s website and Facebook page, it’s clear there’s a lot of love out there for the show from a proper community of listeners from across Lancashire and far away, as has always been. John Peel was a fan, and so too is BBC 6 Music’s Stuart Maconie, who started listening after a tip-off from a student while teaching in Skelmersdale in the ’80s, telling Steve Urquhart in the splendid Greetings Music Lover audio documentary – celebrating 40 years of his namesake Steve Barker on air, also featuring rare archive material and including interviews with On-U Sound’s Adrian Sherwood, the legendary Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and veteran reggae DJ David Rodigan – “People would drive from other parts of the country, park their cars up on remote hillsides in Dobcross and Blackburn, so they could get within the signal.”
What’s more, while Steve refers to himself and colleagues as ‘old guys like us’, he clearly still has a passion for what he does, in the same way Peelie did, with a continuing inspirational desire to seek out new sounds.
“That’s the other thing. There’s so much good new music, and a lot of what we play isn’t played elsewhere on the BBC. And last time we were saved in the early ‘90s, John helped a lot and the BBC board said we were a ‘unique product’.”
Steve’s been based in St Annes for the last 30 years, and while he doesn’t tend to return to his Brierfield roots in the east of his home county, he’s been known to get back to Burnley FC’s Turf Moor ‘now and again’, priding himself on being one of the few Clarets fans at what was originally Radio Blackburn, adding that his two On the Wire colleagues are both Rovers fans.
He had a season ticket when Burnley won the league title in the 1959/60 season, although he reckons even then he’d pass people on the way to the ground wearing Manchester United colours. Yet perhaps in music as in football, he’s always been more about championing underdogs, I suggested.
“We were always a big music family, and would always have it on, usually pop in the ‘50s, then Radio Luxembourg. But I got subverted at school by an older boy, when I was in my early teens, converting us to Ray Charles and James Brown. Then I got into country-blues, before the British blues bloom, becoming this horrible, snotty, superior muso!”
Steve was at Nelson Grammar School then, in time heading for the capital to study for a diploma in journalism at Regent Street Poly in 1967. Was there a career plan by then?
“I wanted to do journalism, but unfortunately was a victim of the time. People were rebelling and dropping out, doing the alternative thing, but a lot had comfortable middle-class backgrounds to lean on. Whereas I was just a working-class lad from Lancashire. I didn’t want to do house journalism, but it was a fantastic place. Pink Floyd were there at the same time, doing architecture.”
That year, 1967 saw the arrival of BBC Radio 1 (and myself, I might add), but Steve didn’t stick around to give kindred spirit Peelie, newly arrived from pirate station Radio London, a run for his money, instead moving on to Keele University. His CV was already shaping up though, Steve one of the first to interview Jimi Hendrix, something he did twice, in London then Manchester (although he told me the original cassette was thrown out many years ago). There was also an interview with Yoko Ono around the same time he spoke to Hendrix, and David Bowie was once a neighbour, borrowing one of his records.
“I lived in Beckenham for a bit, and he used to come ‘round to see a mate. I had a copy of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes on quarter-inch … which he borrowed. He was a nice enough chap. It was around the time of ‘Space Oddity’. He needed prompting to return it though. Ha!”
Steve initially returned to the North West to work in Liverpool, for the DHSS, where he met wife Jan, moving back down to London in 1975, living for a couple of years in Notting Hill. He added, ‘the rest is history, with four kids and 10 grandchildren for me and Jan’.
There’s Scout too, his nine-year-old Dalmatian, following in the paw-steps of Herbie (named after Herbie Hancock) and Jammy the Jack Russell (after Prince Jammy). Everywhere a music link, it seems. When Steve’s not recording or preparing shows, he’s writing a reggae/dub column and reviews for The Wire magazine. And while in Lancashire for much of his broadcasting career, he still has plenty of tales of adventures in London.
“I’d only been there a week and got a call from a mate, who said his mate had a band and did I want to see them. So we went round to this pub at Red Lion Square in Holborn, and he introduced me to his mate, who was Malcolm McLaren … and we saw his band, the Sex Pistols, in their second gig, supporting pub rock band, Roogalator.”
History in the making, that show at the Central School of Art on November 7th, 1975, just a day after the Pistols’ St Martin’s School of Art debut. And when he moved back down to London, was there already a personal fascination – for a presenter whose first song played on the radio was by The Abyssinians – for reggae, dub, and all that?
“I’d say it was an interest and awareness, but it wasn’t a fascination and involvement. It was a fantastic place to be though. You walked along Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road and the reggae was just there, pumping out. It was brilliant. I started buying a few reggae albums. Just open at the time was the Rough Trade shop, with Geoff Travis, and I’d pop up the road to Honest Jon’s. All these people I’ve known a long time.”
Living in the neighbourhood, were you on hand as Joe Strummer and bandmate Paul Simonon made a nuisance of themselves on Notting Hill Carnival day in ’76, the inspiration for The Clash’s debut single ‘White Riot’?
“Ha! Yeah … it wasn’t me! Of course, we did interview The Clash, in 1980 on the ‘Bankrobber’ tour, ending up with a bit of a fight in the toilets in the dressing room with The Notsensibles. They interviewed The Clash, and I interviewed Mikey Dread.”
It was RPM in 1978 that provided Steve’s foot in the door, broadcasting-wise, while Spin Off in 1980 truly saw things come together, the station rebranded Radio Lancashire the following year. Then in September 1984 the initial three-hour On the Wire started going out on Sunday afternoons. Did that slot suit him?
“In a way. For the show it was fantastic. At the time there was no internet, shops weren’t open, you’d go out on Saturday night, have a good time, then have a bit of a lie-in. There was bugger all else to do. You could just chill out and listen to On the Wire. We had a fantastic listenership across the North West, and ever since we’ve been like this anachronism on the BBC.”
The time slot switched around, including a Thursday night before moves towards the current weekend midnight slot. And there was that brief foray into concert promotion, The Fall playing Clitheroe Castle in 1985, carrying near-legendary status now (as mentioned in my recent interview with fellow On the Wire fan and friend of Mark E. Smith, Ajay Saggar). Did it all go swimmingly from Steve’s point of view, I asked, mischievously.
“Funny, isn’t it, we put that on and said we were doing it but didn’t really know what was going to happen. We knew we could broadcast it though. Those old school BBC technicians were fantastic, they could do anything. But we didn’t think two and a half thousand people would turn up … and that there’d be one policeman! Ha! In fact, the production editor of Q magazine sent me a fantastic, unpublished photo this week of Mark E Smith on stage there, which I hadn’t seen before.
“We also put on The Mel-o-tones at the same venue about a month or two later, with maybe around 400 people there … but there were loads of police. Ha! Then there was Manchester’s Ritz Ballroom for a Christmas party in ‘88, around 1,800 in. That was fantastic – 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald …”
Incidentally, the day before I spoke to Steve, I saw a 1989 Top of the Pops rerun featuring 808 State, when ‘Pacific State’ charted. And On the Wire were also champions of those bands, again providing some of their earliest radio airplay.
Mind you, when I put that about Clitheroe Castle to Rico la Rocca, who missed The Fall as it was the day before one of his O-levels but attended the Mel-o-tones show, he doubted Steve’s optimistic 400 attendance figure for the second show, reckoning it was ‘more like 50 or 60 tops’. He added, “We had to go before the end of the set because the last bus from Clitheroe on a Sunday was something ridiculous like a quarter to five. But the Mel-o-tones were a great Liverpool band on Probe Plus that Steve used to play a lot. They were three blokes in their early 20s and Martin Dempsey, the guitarist from The Yachts, who was the sort of experienced older head ‘pop’ influence. They did a couple of EPs and then the lads dumped Martin and did their own thing as The Walking Seeds. Bob Parker, bass player in the Mel-o-tones and guitarist from the Walking Seeds manages the Probe record shop in Liverpool.”
As I understand it, the last BBC Lancashire show in mid-March was the 1,850th edition of On the Wire, but I’d stress again here that on the whole I found Steve diplomatic about the situation during our chat, affable as anyone who knows him will tell you. Hurt about a lack of communication from the top regarding the show’s axe, but at the same time philosophical about it all.
I get the feeling – as with Governmental motives of late – that times of crises always bring kneejerk, quick-fix reactions that often do more harm than good. In this case, maybe On the Wire was seen as easy pickings for the chop by bigwigs far higher up the corporate tree than those involved with the show at county level like John Clayton, looking for more obvious examples of shows that might not necessarily fit in with an accepted premise of what works with a perceived station ethos.
Yet no balance sheet will tell you the true value of this broadcasting enigma and proud oddity. And it seems that those behind the decision – be it temporary or not – again over-looked the strength of feeling out there among the show’s long-term fans. I’m not looking for alternative scapegoats, but when you compare the amount of new music put our way by Steve and his team compared to what Steve Wright’s given us these last four decades on national radio …
On a more positive note, Steve and co. and their army of listeners have successfully fought previous battles over the years and come out victorious. And maybe they will again. In fact, Steve tells a lovely tale about a fresh young buck who joined Radio Lancashire in the early ‘90s and his behind the scenes war with Steve, including illuminating detail of what he initially perceived Steve to be playing in his ‘graveyard’ slot. And while Steve actually appreciates a bit of Dire Straits, that’s not quite what he was offering.
So where are we at now? Well, Steve and his team intend to keep putting out shows ‘every week at Saturday midnight with no changes to our modus operandi other than we could run over time a bit’. And therefore they continue, On the Wire.
I hope Deadbait blogger Matthew Jones, who started the petition supporting the show, doesn’t mind me finishing this feature with his own conclusion about the show and what it means to him and many more listeners. For the full piece, I’ll direct you here, but I feel this closing paragraph about On the Wire says so much.
“It’s a piece of solid gold, an oasis of new, strange and unusual wonders, a trove of hitherto undiscovered treasures from the past, a kaleidoscopic window on so many worlds. It’s two hours of headspace and it goes from strength to strength. Gently evolving, always moving yet always in the same place. It’s just some people playing records, but so much more at the same time. It weaves a world of magic, takes you somewhere and shows you things you didn’t already know. If that’s not what the BBC licence fee is for, then I don’t know what is.”
For more information about On the Wire and the petition to push for its reinstatement on BBC local radio – which you can find via this link – you can head to the On the Wire website, where you’ll also find various archive shows and can listen to Steve Urquhart’s 2018 Greetings Music Lover audio documentary. And to personally voice your opinion, the BBC is open to feedback via BBC Radio Lancashire managing editor firstname.lastname@example.org, copying in head of BBC local radio, email@example.com