Mark Radcliffe: The human search engine

As the co-host of radio's most talked about new show of 2007, Mark Radcliffe is helping listeners make sense of a vast and bewildering music scene and filling a gap that had gone strangely unnoticed by the medium. He talks to Simon O'Hagan

It's been a tumultuous year for the music industry. We've had the first No 1 based on downloads alone, Radiohead let their fans pay what they felt like for their latest album, iTunes bestrode the world, unsigned bands were everywhere, and record labels wondered what the hell they could do about it all.

The country went festival-crazy, and for one evening last week it seemed to come to a halt entirely when Led Zeppelin took to the stage once more. An award for best British film went to an account of the life and death of Joy Division's Ian Curtis. Everywhere you looked in the street, on the train, at their desks people had their earphones on, lost in music.

The accumulation of half a century of rock'*'pop and all its myriad offshoots, the instant availability of millions of tracks, the constant refinement of the technology that enables us to hear them, and listeners' staggering appetite for artists new and old, mainstream and obscure, add up to a phenomenon that is as bewildering as it is exciting. And this, in a way, is where Mark Radcliffe comes in.

The 49-year-old radio presenter, five times a Sony Award winner, can take half the credit for the show that more than any other tries to make sense of everything that's going on, to provide its audience with a route map through a vast musical landscape. Indeed, when pop historians come to look back on 2007 and decide what was really important about it, they might well conclude that the arrival on the airwaves of a four-nights-a-week Radio 2 music show co-hosted by Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie was no less significant than a bunch of ageing rock gods bashing out "Whole Lotta Love" at the O2 Arena. And there is an argument for suggesting that the latter fed off a musical awareness that the former has done much to foster.

"I think of us as a kind of search engine," Radcliffe says. "It's all very well being able to download any track in the world, but which track?" In a typical programme, the most interesting new releases drawn broadly from the indie and country scenes will be mixed in with classic acts from the past, but the obvious is always avoided. "We'll play Smokey Robinson," Radcliffe says, "but it wouldn't be 'Tears of a Clown'. I think that's quite important."

Radcliffe points out a paradox in radio, which is that while it plays a lot of pop and rock, it devotes very little time to discussing it. "Where do you go if you want to find out about music? You've got the papers and magazines and you can read all the reviews but that's not the same as being able to hear it. We thought there was a gap in the market for intelligent but not up-itself chat about records.

"You've got loads of people on the radio talking about TV, books, the news and you've got endless things about politics far too much air time given to politicians, in my view. The only place you might find it was Front Row on Radio 4, but that's a very particular kind of reviewing and we didn't want to do that. We wanted opinion and conversation that wasn't intimidating or over-intellectualised or over-scripted. The idea seems to have crystallised as the show's gone on."

The show which is broadcast from Manchester and goes out between 8pm and 10pm Mondays to Thursdays brims with the legacy of misspent youth. Radcliffe and Maconie's musical knowledge is prodigious, the result of a lifetime's devotion to the subject. Discussing music, analysing it, laughing about it, bringing a historical perspective to bear, are all, in the context of the programme, just as important as playing it.

The radio presenter Martin Kelner, who once had a show that Radcliffe produced, speaks for many in the industry when he says that "professional jealousy would normally prevent me praising anyone else's work, but this is one show I am happy to admit enjoying a lot".

Fans of Radcliffe won't need telling that it is also one of the funniest programmes around a showcase for both men's gift for wit and spontaneity and a key contributor to the Radio 2 success story. Probably the most cherished of its mini-features is "The Chain", in which listeners nominate a record linked in some way to the previous one. In the nine months since the show launched, nearly 400 records have been chosen, in a process that could stretch to infinity.

Then there are the presenters' voices. With his rasping but genial Bolton accent, Radcliffe has one of the most distinctive on radio unless you're one of those people who thinks he sounds a bit like Maconie, in which case Radcliffe will put you right. "Utterly different! Stuart's from Wigan!" Audience figures of nearly 2 million and rising are impressive for a mid-week evening slot when audiences tend to switch off and turn to the TV.

Radcliffe has a theory about changing listening patterns that he thinks have benefited the show. "One reason I think it's gone quite well is that the evenings used to be seen as a bit of a dead time, but that goes back to a time when everyone finished work at five, had their tea at six, and put the telly on at seven. Now people are working all kinds of hours, they're working later, and life's got a lot more fluid. And by general consensus there's nothing much worth watching on the telly."

There's an anti-television thread that runs through the show. "The idiot box," Radcliffe and Maconie call it. They love it when listeners tell them they've spurned the TV and turned to their show. "I have real belief in radio and what it stands for," Radcliffe says. "And I think I've got more passionate about it as I've got older. A lot of people pass through radio who just see it as a stepping stone to presenting a TV quiz show, but that's not how I see it at all."

Music, the media and Manchester are all in Radcliffe's blood. His father was a newspaperman and broadcaster in Manchester with a large collection of classical records; his mother played the piano. Radcliffe ended up going to Manchester University, on the condition that his nearby mum and dad left him alone.

He started out at Piccadilly Radio but has been at the BBC since 1987, first producing, then broadcasting, largely from Manchester. He now lives in a village in Cheshire with his wife and family. (He has daughters aged eight and five, and one of 19 from a previous marriage). For this interview he has travelled to the nearby town of Knutsford, but he stresses that "I've never felt I've been fighting a great battle on behalf of the north. I like London a lot but it seems almost impossible to live there unless you're prepared to commute a long way or have 10m to spend on a house, and I don't fall into either of those categories."

He isn't thrilled by the prospect of the BBC moving to its new premises in Salford Quays, feeling that its long-time Oxford Road HQ fed off the buzz of being in the heart of the city. Neither does he welcome the relocation of Radio 5 Live from London to Salford. "5 Live seems to be in a way least suited to the move, because if you depend on rolling news, shouldn't you be where the country is run from?"

Radcliffe is still probably best known for the partnership he struck up with Marc Riley ("Mark and Lard") in a Radio 1 show of off-beat music, comedy and readings that built up a devoted following in the mid-1990s, starting out in the late evening before moving to the afternoon. Then when Chris Evans vacated the breakfast slot by joining Virgin in 1997, Mark and Lard were brought in to replace him. The show famously bombed. "It just wasn't right for that time of day," Radcliffe recalls. "We couldn't make it work. We were rightly fired, and at the time it was horrendous."

Riley now broadcasts on BBC 6 Music, and Radcliffe has bounced back, though clearly he is drawn to being in a double act. "You can do a different kind of show with someone else there. I find it easier to generate fun and laughter." He's certainly at his best when responding to others. There's a touch of comic genius in the way he feeds off listeners who call in to the show.

People in commercial radio will look enviously at the freedom that a show like Radcliffe and Maconie enjoys. Not for them the narrow musical range that advertisers demand. They are given the Radio 2 playlist but only play what they like on it.

Radcliffe says he thinks commercial radio has lost its way, and that while the BBC may not be under the same kind of pressures for audience figures, they are under other pressures. "I've always felt that the BBC is the benchmark of what radio can be. I've been in situations where we've sat there and thought, 'Right, we could go to the pub now, or we could stay here and work at this for another couple of hours and make it a bit better', and that's what you've ended up doing. I think it's inherent to the BBC that it gets in people who are really aware of these standards. That was the culture that was impressed on me when I started out anyway."

Radcliffe singles out for praise John Walters, the long-time producer of John Peel "so funny and right and insightful and original" and thinks that the BBC's maverick spirit is still alive. "They've taken a lot of flak for employing Russell Brand, for example. But they've held firm. Likewise Chris Moyles, who might not be to everyone's tastes, but he's successful."

Which brings us to Jonathan Ross: is he worth all that money? "Obviously his salary is not justifiable in terms of the work he does compared with the work that, say, a nurse does, but that's not really the equation. The equation is more to do with what you think the BBC is for. And if you think the BBC should provide top entertainment to a mass audience and Ross can deliver that, then you can't look at it in terms of his wage, but in terms of the price of the product that the BBC creates. If we want light entertainment and these are the high-profile people, then the BBC is going to have to have some of it, and it won't get it cheaper than elsewhere."

And what of Radcliffe's future? "Stuart and I have a vision of us as two old blokes in wingback chairs dictating little links from a library on the shores of a loch somewhere. Hopefully Radio 2 will see me through. That's the thing about radio: why would you need to stop?"

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