Gilles Peterson: Hello world, this is London

Star DJ Gilles Peterson pioneered international radio syndication and his show can now be heard from Finland to Singapore. The BBC Radio 1 presenter tells Ian Burrell of his expanding role as a musical ambassador for Britain
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The Independent Online

Gilles Peterson is the alternative BBC World Service. The international version of his radio show - appropriately titled Worldwide - is broadcast in 14 countries and gives him a global reach matched by no other DJ.

Listeners to his drive-time show on Tokyo station J-Wave or his programme for Belgrade's B92 (the station that galvanised youth protests against former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic) tune in as Peterson leads them expertly to music's cutting edge. Worldwide is also broadcast in countries as far apart as Finland, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

This is a commercial operation. Although Worldwide is made for the BBC and is broadcast live, Peterson records a separate international version in his north London studio. Somethin' Else, the independent production company which produces both versions of the show, sells the international one around the world.

According to Peterson, his appeal is not so much that he looks outside of Britain but rather that he comes from a country that has assimilated international cultures. "I think a lot of people internationally look to me as someone who's representing the incredible, exciting place that is the UK," he says. "Anywhere you go around the world people are looking to London and the UK more than anywhere else. This is the crossroads somehow. If I were living in Paris or Geneva it wouldn't be the same."

He says that he is offering listeners "an attitude and energy that is uniquely London". His on-air delivery is slightly breathless and endlessly enthusiastic, like a messenger returning with good and exciting news.

For Somethin' Else co-founder Jez Nelson, Peterson has provided the perfect vehicle for developing a business in international syndication of radio programming. Nelson, a long-time friend of Peterson's, says: "Gilles has been doing radio for more than 20 years and has pioneered the idea of an international syndicated show."

The pair began working together in pirate radio in the mid-Eighties, Peterson having set up his first broadcasting operation in a garden shed. "I did a three-month radio course at the National School of Broadcasting, which I failed," he remembers.

Nelson and Peterson were both involved in the setting up of a pirate station called KJazz. Peterson's reputation as a jazz DJ in the late-Eighties (particularly his sessions at Dingwalls in Camden Town in London) earned him an international reputation and invitations to perform in Vienna, Paris and Wuppertal in Germany. These were the days before big-name DJs lived out of suitcases and racked up air miles like global CEOs.

Peterson prospered because he combined his love and knowledge of jazz with an appreciation of other musical styles such as rare groove and funk. When new genres emerged from Britain's rave culture, Peterson was quick to spot them and identify the artists that mattered most. In so doing, he has gained a lasting reputation for quality, rather than merely as a barometer of passing musical trends.

He is perhaps the best-placed British DJ to inherit the mantle of John Peel, a musical guru for a generation that spent its formative musical years in a smiley T-shirt rather than a pair of bondage trousers.

Like Peel, Peterson is not afraid to be unfashionable. Expect edgy Brazilian drum and bass but don't be surprised to hear an avant-garde Seventies Polish funk record he's unearthed from somewhere.

After his initial DJing forays in Europe in the late Eighties he was asked to make shows for such stations as Radio Mafia in Helsinki, Radio Nova in Paris, Couleur 3 in Switzerland and KCRW in Los Angeles.

Indeed, the name for Peterson's show, Worldwide, was coined by hip-hop outfit The Roots, not because of the eclectic, international content of the show but because he seemed to be on the radio in every country they visited.

In Britain he was associated with a range of stations including BBC Radio London, Jazz FM (now Smooth FM) and Kiss but the former pirate DJ is now well established at Radio 1.

He says: "The BBC internally has changed and weirdly it's the holy grail if you are a DJ to be on the BBC because you are not dealing with the commercial pressures of [independent radio], and they have got a remit which is more adventurous than commercial stations."

Peterson has just released an album with tracks culled from 80 sessions recorded at the BBC's famous Maida Vale studios (where star names from Bing Crosby to 50 Cent have taken advantage of the revered facilities).

"That's taken very much from John Peel," says Peterson. "He was the leader in that area and was very inspiring, particularly when I was young and listening to The Clash and all those bands in session. What I do is coming out of club culture, and to be able to incorporate a live element gives my show a real twist."

His BBC show is available free online for seven days after broadcast on the BBC Radio Player site (where it is one of the most listened-to shows).

But Nelson (who presents a show of his own for Radio 3, Jazz on 3) believes that future changes to rights regulations will give independent radio production companies the opportunity to sell shows as downloadable podcasts. A new Gilles Peterson website will, it is hoped, be set up to sell downloadable versions of all of the DJ's 500 previous Worldwide shows, in their pre-recorded international version (rather than the live BBC programme). These shows include tracks so rare that collectors would find it hard to source them anywhere else.

Somethin' Else, which was set up 14 years ago, now represents Radio 1's Annie MacManus, Radio 2's Helen Mayhew and Virgin's Ben Jones, among others. It sells internationally shows by dance DJs Judge Jules and Roger Sanchez, and radio broadcasts of the Brit and Mobo awards.

The company has made a success of international radio syndication by being flexible. Serbian station B92 was not, in its darker days, charged more than a minimal fee for Peterson's show. Wealthier stations, by contrast, paid "quite a lot of money". The recorded, international version of Worldwide also has advertising and sponsorship opportunities unavailable to the BBC.

"We have created a business in syndicating music programming around the world," says Nelson. "It's an interesting business that many people don't know exists. Television syndication has become big. Radio is much harder because the money involved is much smaller.

"For a long time no other company has done what we have done, apart from the BBC. We have put a lot of time into it and we believe that with the podcasting it will pay off."

'Gilles Peterson Presents the BBC Sessions' is on Ether Records. The Radio 1 Gilles Peterson Worldwide Music Awards take place in London on 12 December

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