Media: Thanks a million, John

The critics hate it, but DJ John Peel has more than one million listeners for Home Truths. By Paul McCann
John Peel played Daniel O'Donnell and Shakin' Stevens on his radio show this weekend. Not because he has had a musical taste transplant with my granny, but because he is front man for the most innovative and controversial show in Radio 4's new schedule - Home Truths.

The show, at 9am on Saturday mornings, is an exploration of the ordinary. It roams over the terrain of domestic life, nudging gently at the minutiae of the world to uncover wonderful real stories and much family folklore. The item requiring a Shakin' Stevens song was a feature about couples who had broken up because of their opposing musical tastes - making radio from the Bill Murray statement that the world is divided into people who like Neil Diamond and people who don't.

Home Truths has divided Radio 4 listeners into those who love it and those who hate it. It has been attacked by some of those opposed to the network's new schedule as not about anything - as if Just a Minute is "about" anything. In fact it is about real people, something of a rarity in today's celebrity-obsessed media. Much of the resentment is simply down to the fact that it replaced the fawning, but venerable, Sport On Four and travel show Breakaway.

The feature on couples with divergent musical tastes will not die with its appearance on Home Truths. Peel encourages listeners to contribute with their own take on anything they hear on the show. An item about love letters has been kept alive for six weeks because of the anecdotes that have been pouring in. Other topics to run and run include the lies we tell to children - one man confessed to telling his four-year-old that, if he unscrewed his belly button, his bottom would fall off - and slugs, which the producers had to call a halt to because it threatened to take over the show.

It is this tendency to allow listeners to decide what the show is about that makes Home Truths unique. Unlike phone-ins, it is not filled with the wilder prejudices of taxi drivers who can be bothered to call. Instead the production team is able to filter through the 400-plus responses it gets each week from the country's most articulate audience.

In each programme there are three or four interviews recorded by Peel with a listener and, usually, a few columns by writers like Tom Bussman, Sue Limb and Anne Enwright and features recorded by reporters - all of it interspersed with listeners' e-mails or voice mails and Peel's deadpan delivery.

Despite what Radio 4 traditionalists think of having a disc jockey on their frequency, Peel, now 59, is the perfect presenter for the show. A man who lists "staring out of the window" under his recreations in Who's Who has an immediate affinity with the ordinary wonders of life.

"I have to be careful not to sound pretentious," says the most down-to- earth man in British broadcasting, "but I always believe you can learn more from the study of the small details. You could stop anybody in the street and they could tell you something that would take your breath away. It's that `good Lord, really?' effect I'm looking for.

"Anyway I always got rather awe-struck when I had to interview celebrities. I would ask them when the tour starts and when the LP comes out and then I wouldn't have anything else to ask."

On Saturday's show Peel referred to his listeners as the "Home Truths congregation" and there is a feeling of inclusion when you listen to him - just as there was for the generations brought up on his Radio 1 show.

This accessibility has made Peel a broadcasting institution and explains his longevity. He goes to Buckingham Palace this Thursday to receive an OBE, although modesty would only allow him to tell his listeners he was getting a "Hedgerow Heritage Badge".

"I discussed it with my kids and we decided what would be the point of not accepting it? I would only end up in the pub telling people: `I turned down an OBE you know.' Also I've got something to hand back when I object to the ravages of Blairism... alternatively, it is something to have stripped from me when they catch me with three air hostesses and a goat somewhere off the M1."

Home Truths marks the rebirth of Offspring, a similar programme about families that won several awards during its few short series on Radio 4. However, the hour-long format and full-year commission for Home Truths allow listeners to build up more of a relationship with the programme and, crucially, get used to its interactive nature. Each week responses get more numerous and the audience grows: it is now more than a million.

Peel, who also hosted Offspring, was thought ideal because of his inclusive style of broadcasting and because his Radio Times column had always been full of references to his home life - wife Sheila, known as "pig" because of her laugh, and four children are often the subject of anecdotes on Home Truths.

"I try to check with them first, but I occasionally get `Oh, for God's sake, dad' for mentioning some things." Then to illustrate what they have to put up with he launched into an anecdote that could only embarrass the hell out his youngest daughter, Flossie, if reprinted.

He once said his family's main reaction to seeing him on TV was to shout "Yeah! New shoes" in recognition of another pay cheque. The gentle magic of the painfully open Peel and his Home Truths congregation should ensure the Peel children at last earn their new shoes.