On the Wire, BBC Radio Lancashire, review: It is radio at its simplest and most effective

It’s the kind of music that, should you have ingested something illegal and unexpectedly strong, could cause you to lose your mind permanently

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The Independent Culture

In the early hours of Monday morning, a man in a studio in Blackburn was having a tiny celebration.

Marking 30 years of his esoteric music show, On the Wire, on BBC Radio Lancashire, the presenter Steve Barker did what he always does. He played some very long records and, over two hours, said about 17 words with the voice of a man who had just woken from a deep sleep. And to be fair, given what time it was, he probably had.

On the Wire is local radio, but not as you know it. Turn the dial where I live in Sussex at any time of the day or night, and you can pretty much guarantee that someone somewhere will be playing Bonnie Tyler. I’d put money on the fact that Barker has never, in 30 years of broadcasting, ever played Bonnie Tyler.

Instead, he specialises in obscure dub, reggae and electronic music. These are the kind of sounds I used to hear in nightclub chill-out rooms in the Nineties, where, after the pounding, strobe-filled chaos of the dance floor, you would move into a blue-lit antechamber and suddenly find yourself surrounded by fractal art and getting an impromptu foot rub from a hippie-type called Dog.

It’s the kind of music that one might find soothing, if your idea of soothing is sounds that make you feel like you’re standing a few yards from the South Pole, with the wind whistling, the cold biting and death a foregone conclusion. It’s the kind of music that, should you have ingested something illegal and unexpectedly strong, could cause you to lose your mind permanently. Barker’s preferred sounds are challenging and often startling, but they are never, ever boring.

Back in his first broadcast in 1984, Barker’s guests were dub record producer Adrian Sherwood and Sugarhill Gang’s Keith Le Blanc; the following week he brought in Depeche Mode. The presenter, who could probably name every record ever made, subsequently developed a following across the North-west and beyond, all in thrall to his knowledge and wilfully out-there tastes.

In the mid-Nineties the BBC threatened to take the show off air but John Peel rode to the rescue. Two years ago, the show was nearly lost in a wave of cuts to local stations but this time listeners, both national and international, begged for it to stay so it did.

This week, instead of bringing in a bundle of party balloons, Barker played a series of specially commissioned tracks from Lancastrian artists Richard Skelton, Miles Whittaker and Shackleton, some of which were more unsettling than others. One piece lasted 30 minutes, during which time Barker probably went for a Chinese and had a post-dinner nap. The show was a milestone in its history but for Barker it was business usual – even though there’s nothing in the least bit usual about what he does.

Roughly 5,000 miles away, another long-running radio show is quietly bewitching all who hear it. Radio Paradise (radioparadise.com) is the online brainchild of Bill and Rebecca Goldsmith, a husband-and-wife team who broadcast from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Paradise, California.

The Goldsmiths prefer not to have their show interrupted by loudmouth advertisers, and instead rely on the donations of listeners to keep them afloat. The couple share presenting duties though I use the term “presenting” loosely.

Forty minutes can go by without anyone saying anything and when they do it’s little more than a laconic “Hey”. Instead, listeners can hear the best in alternative rock and Americana played back to back from an outhouse in the Goldsmith’s garden. It’s radio at its simplest and most effective.