LONG RUNNERS / No 36: John Peel

Age: hard to pin down - Peel started with Radio 1 in 1967, under various labels (Top Gear, Sounds of the Seventies, Night Ride); started being billed simply as John Peel some time around 1971.

Frequency: twice a week, and holding. Traditionally, the Peel slot was 10pm till midnight, Monday to Thursday. Shifted to mid-evenings in 1988 - a move seen by many as an attempt by authority to lose hiscore audience and then slip him out the back way while nobody was looking. Later cut to two slots a week (post-pub Friday and late afternoon Saturday) at his own request, so that he could spend more time with his family ('I know this sounds like the kind of excuse that people make when they get chucked out of the cabinet').

Ratings: around 400,000.

Who listens? Traditionally, students. But research has suggested that Peel appeals to a wider age-range than any other Radio 1 DJ - 'a non-sectarian audience', in Peel's own phrase.

Format: Peel plays a lot of records from what has frequently been described as 'the cutting edge of popular music' - he has given breaks to everybody from The Cure to Joan Armatrading. He plays his role down, though: 'It's a bit like a newspaper editor claiming credit for the news.' The content of the programme has changed over the years. He started out as the godfather of flower-power, moved on to become the godfather of progressive rock, and in 1977 reinvented himself as the godfather of punk. A few years ago he was into rap, but 'it's too difficult to find stuff that isn't either grotesquely sexist or absurdly violent'. These days it's 'a lot of kind of dancey stuff, the trance ambient stuff, because it sounds like the people I used to play millions of years ago, Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream. A lot of noisy guitar players, a lot of Zaire by way of Paris and a lot of Kenyan music, but only because I bought about 170 Kenyan records off somebody.'

So does he never play the same thing twice? On the contrary. His playlist reflects strong loyalties to, for instance, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, and Mark E Smith's The Fall ('I know it's babyish to have a favourite group, but if I do have one they're it'). His favourite single is 'Teenage Kicks' by the Undertones ('Probably the closest anybody's come to making the perfect record').

Does he play any chart stuff? No, partly because he feels that once a group has made it they don't need him any more, partly because 'I have mixed feelings if bands go on to be successful - it can be a destructive process'.

What does he do apart from play records? Commission 'sessions' - recordings done specially for the show. The Peel session is a revered institution, and has spawned its own record label (Strange Fruit). The record for the most sessions is held by the Scottish bizarrist poet and harmonium player Ivor Cutler, with 21 since 1968; second place goes, naturally, to The Fall. The other thing he does is talk, in a laid-back pseudo-Liverpudlian drawl (he's from Merseyside but went to public school, and acquired the accent as a career move in America at the height of Beatlemania). The flow of modest chatter and mild sarcasm, delivered in distinctive trailing cadences, is funny and appealing. Many people listen for Peel rather than the music.

What is his status? He has a reputation for playing The Music They Tried to Ban (though he points out that the BBC hardly ever bans anything). The public regards him with affectionate awe: he has been voted Melody Maker DJ of the Year every year bar two since 1968. By going out of his way to avoid being a personality DJ, he has created an unrivalled personality cult.

The bottom line: is it any good? The question's hardly relevant - even people who never listen will admit Peel's value as a promoter of new music, and many who haven't heard him for years still name him as their favourite DJ. But a straight answer is: very variable - the music is sometimes wonderful, frequently appalling (and the older you get, the more it falls into the second camp). But as a precious and irreplaceable natural resource, Peel is up there with North Sea oil.

(Photograph omitted)