Entertainment & Arts

How a radio show from Blackburn became a cult success

Steve Barker in his studio in Blackburn
Image caption Thirty years after launching the cult show Steve Barker says he is still in love with music and radio

Thirty years ago I started a little radio show called On The Wire, playing alternative non-mainstream music. It has become a cult success and the internet has helped it to attract fans in obscure parts of the world.

On the Wire will be celebrating its 30th anniversary all this month and has commissioned several special bits of music for its birthday show on 20 September.

Back in 1984 the possibility of hearing anything other than mainstream music on radio on a Sunday afternoon was remote.

But something was stirring in deepest Blackburn, home of BBC Radio Lancashire where the then station manager, Mike Chapman, realised the younger end of the listening demographic needed a choice in listening and launched On the Wire between 2pm and 5pm every Sunday afternoon - prime listening time.

I was the man at the helm.

The show's first guests were UK dub master Adrian Sherwood and Sugarhill Gang drummer Keith Le Blanc. The following week we had Depeche Mode.

I had pitched the show after hosting the twice-weekly Spinoff programme for the previous four years featuring interviews with a series of new artists later to become stalwarts of the UK music scene including The Smiths, Joy Division, U2, Madness and The Specials and international acts including REM and Burning Spear.

On the Wire has run without interruption since it started, although its broadcast slot has varied and it currently goes out at midnight on Saturdays.

I trained in journalism and one of my early assignments in January 1967 was an interview in London with the newly arrived Jimi Hendrix.

Having a compulsive interest in music, but no aptitude for playing, I resorted to music journalism and joined BBC Radio Blackburn in 1978.

I remember the first track I played on radio was by the reggae harmony group The Abyssinians.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Depeche Mode performed on the second episode of the show back in 1984

On the Wire went on to generate a large audience in north-west England and outside the station's area press coverage appeared in music magazines such as the NME, Sounds and the style magazine The Face.

In June 1985 the show hosted the live broadcast of a gig by The Fall at Clitheroe Castle with an estimated crowd of 2,000 turning up in east Lancashire on a Sunday afternoon to be shepherded by a solitary policeman.

In December 1988 a sold-out Ritz in Manchester hosted On the Wire's Christmas party with Adrian Sherwood, 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald and the Tackhead Sound System and to close the show a heavily pregnant Neneh Cherry.

On the Wire was one of the first shows in the UK to play electro, then hip-hop, house and techno music, while also championing experimental and avant-garde music of all genres.

It gave the first radio plays in the UK for techno pioneers Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson and the radio premieres of 808 State's classic Pacific State and A Guy Called Gerald's Voodoo Ray.

The legendary reggae producer Lee "Scratch" Perry made two appearances on the show, one of which was edited for a CD release.

The show continued until 1991 when, during a review of output, a new station manager decided to take the show off air.

The "last show" actually went out on the Sunday but - after a public uprising - it was saved by the BBC board, with the show being described as a "unique BBC product".

Fellow BBC DJ John Peel was a key figure in rescuing the show as was journalist and former radio DJ Martin Kelner, who had written a piece for The Independent in support of On the Wire.

Image copyright Steve Barker (BBC)
Image caption For a decade, from 2002, Steve contributed to the programme from Beijing and explored the Chinese music scene

In 2002 I was tempted to work in China for the British Council and for the following nine years sent a weekly contribution to On the Wire from either my apartment or the BBC bureau in Beijing.

The show was kept running in Blackburn by my colleagues Jim Ingham and Michael "Fenny" Fenton.

The new location led to some interesting departures as China was developing rapidly, including its rock and experimental music scenes.

I was able to feature a new set of bands such as CarSickCars, Arrows Made of Desire, PK14, Hang on the Box and New Pants and was instrumental in the development of Sound & the City, a British Council sound art project in Beijing 2005 which brought British sound artists Brian Eno, Scanner (Robin Rimbaud), David Toop, Peter Cusack and Clive Bell to China.

The advent of the digital age meant that not only was On the Wire able to continue through my physical absence from the UK, but also On the Wire's presence has impacted way beyond the boundaries of Lancashire, becoming renowned across the globe with listeners across Europe and into Asia and across the Americas.

To celebrate its anniversary On the Wire has commissioned work from three contemporary Lancastrian artists, all friends of the show, composer and musician Richard Skelton, Miles Whittaker from Demdike Stare and (Sam) Shackleton, who has produced an exclusive 30 minute piece entitled Drones over Lancashire.

The Orb and Youth have also contributed a 30-minute special mix called Off the Wire and archives will be fully opened for a selection of the highlights from the past three decades.

Listen to the 30th anniversary edition of On the Wire on BBC Radio Lancashire at 00:00 on 20 September, live online or later on the iPlayer.

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