Stuart Maconie: The tracks of my years

Radio 2's emergence as the station for the discerning pop listener owes a lot to Stuart Maconie. As he moves to a new Saturday afternoon slot, he talks to Elisa Bray
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The Independent Online

"Never be overly chummy," has become his watchword. "What you should learn is you're never really their mates. Bands like having pet journalists."

Maconie discoverd this when his first assignment took him to Seattle to interview INXS. As he waited nervously for the sound of an Australian accent, a charming Michael Hutchence emerged to comment on Maconie's cigarettes and ask to join him for a smoke. "It was completely disarming, and of course I was on his side straight away. It's a good trick for bands to learn."

Not that everyone wants to spend time in his company. Maconie is still smarting from his recent experience at the South by Southwest festival in Texas, where Morrissey refused to give him an interview. "He blew everybody out, but I thought because we'd met before ... I thought I was one of his little friends."

Maconie's career can withstand this minor setback, though. He is a key figure in the establishment of Radio 2 as the station for the discerning pop'n'rock listener, his importance confirmed with a move to a Saturday afternoon slot that begins next weekend.

For the last five years Maconie has presented the hour-long Saturday-night show The Critical List, which will now be incorporated into the new, three-hour show. An expected audience of around 3 million in the afternoon represents around a fivefold increase on the numbers that tune in on a Saturday evening.

The Critical List is as informative as it entertaining. As Masconie says, "I think that old image of a DJ being someone who just opened supermarkets and said 'poptastic' all the time has kind of gone." Conversely, he blames commercial radio for "idiotic moronic jabber". "A lot of radio stations now work on the principle we know what our audience want and they want James Blunt and Robbie Williams ad nauseam, you know, 24 hours a day," he adds. "That way lies madness and the death of anything inspirational or intelligent.

"If there was a Radio Smiths, I wouldn't listen to it. I don't want to know what I'm going to get all day. If I want to listen to The Smiths I'll put a CD on. [Radio] is a bit of an adventure."

Maconie will still present his show on BBC 6Music, Freak Zone, enjoying the "luxury" of being given three hours to fill with music which he calls "Esoterica - anything that's a bit in the margins of music, that's sort of rare and strange and lovely and slightly obscure". He believes that playing a long-lost record that few people have heard offers listeners the "lovely sense of being let into a little secret".

Growing up in Wigan, a "pivotal moment" in Maconie's life was the the night in 1976 when he was doing his homework and heard Radio 1's John Peel play "Meat Meat Meat" by The Damned. "It was a genuine life-changing moment. Overnight I became a punk rocker. And it was a really empowering movement if you were a working-class kid. I think Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill would say the same. I would never have got a job as a journalist through any kind of old boys' network or familial connections, which is very much what broadsheets were like then, I imagine. And it said you can do this - you can take on the media on your own terms."

Music media has changed so much in the past generation that younger listeners might find it difficult to appreciate the impact of the punk movement, he believes. "In our saturated media world, where you get music from everywhere and new things every 10 minutes, it's hard to remind people how unbelievably shocking new punk was in the Britain of 1976 and 1977. Suddenly this thing came out of nowhere that sounded like music you'd never heard before."

Maconie's break came at the age of 25 when he was working as a teacher in Skelmersdale, Lancashire, but decided to send an unsolicited review of Scottish singer Edwyn Collins to NME.

"I did everything wrong. You're supposed to find out what the word length is supposed to be, the name of the live editor, do all this research. You're supposed to type it all properly. I think I put The NME, London."

Luckily for him, the then live music editor, James Brown, was looking to take on new writers and Maconie got a job. "It was quite amazing. Quite quickly I was in this funny position of teaching kids in Skelmersdale about sociology and English, but getting phone calls saying 'can you get to America on Monday to do interviews with bands'. So at the end of that term I had to give it up."

Modern music journalism, he notes, no longer has the big personalities, the "me me me" writers such as Parsons and Burchill that drew him to the job and who "were as important as the band". This is not an approach he favours in radio, where some presenters are "incredibly full on". "There are a lot of shock jock type people - it's all 'me me me' - and the implication is 'aren't I fantastic'."

Many of the broadcasters he most admires are not music specialists. He is a fan of Ian Macmillan, the poet from Barnsley who does a lot of Radio 3 for his "most wonderful voice and use of language". Maconie also likes Radio 4's panel show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and admires Radio 2 colleague Steve Wright for his "technical excellence".

But most of all he likes Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver from Channel 4's Popworld on Saturday morning. "There are so many appalling music TV presenters, but they are ironic without being smart alecky. They're funny, they make fun of pop music in a really affectionate way; I think they're tremendous."

The diversity in music that Maconie champions he applies to his own life. For two weeks he will be "bunkering" himself in the Lake District to write Pies and Prejudice - the follow-up to his successful music biz book Cider with Roadies. Pies and Prejudice will be about the north of England: its people and culture, its cities and countryside. The author's research involves trips to Leeds, Blackpool and the Lake District; so far he has sampled market stalls, fish and chip shops in Crewe, and afternoons on the freezing deck of the Birkbeck ferry. "I've absolutely loved it. You get such an insight into Britain."

While at the Lake District he'll keep up his hobby, walking. "I love the different bits of my life - I love the city bits of it and the music industry bit of it and the glittering high-powered world of the media, but I also love splishing about on the rain-soaked hillsides, pretending to be Wordsworth," he says. "It's a fantastic antidote to the other things that I do. I love my radio stuff, but writing is my first love and I would always want to keep it as part of what I do."

Stuart Maconie's new show is on Saturdays on Radio 2, 2-5pm