Things could have been very different for 6 Music boss Paul Rodgers. In 2008 he made the jump from being a programme producer, having made his name working with the likes of Steve Wright and Dermot O’Leary, to being made editor of 6.
He immediately made his mark, attracting eye-catching presenters like Jarvis Cocker and Cerys Matthews to the station, and the future looked rosy.
But then disaster struck.
It seems remarkable – now that 6 Music is the UK’s most listened to digital station, recently becoming the first to top two million weekly listeners – to recall how close it came to closure.
In 2010 the BBC’s then director general, Mark Thompson, announced cost-cutting proposals which included axing the station, the corporation arguing that it lacked sufficient “unique listeners to the BBC” to justify its survival.
The decision was eventually overturned after its supporters mobilised noisily and led a campaign to save it.
The success of 6 Music since then – ratings have rocketed from a weekly average of 590,000 in June 2009 and it has won Sony and Music Week awards – has led some people within the music industry to label the near closure a benefit in disguise, raising brand awareness and galvanising the team.
It’s a convenient theory but one that Rodgers acknowledges and then skewers unprompted when I ask for his memories of the time.
“I don’t think it was a turning point in terms of what we did. It was always a brilliant radio station with really top talent doing something unique in radio. There wasn’t a before and after in terms of changing the music we played or the tone of the station... we carried on doing what we were doing.”
When I first met Rodgers in 2011 it was obvious that the station was still recovering from the trauma, working hard to establish its future. Four years on there is a different feel about the place.
“I realise the closure is part of ‘the story’ of the station but it’s really not something I think the station should be defined by,” he says.
“We really have kicked on since then and we don’t live under the shadow of what happened, we just look at what’s next.”
What’s next is 6 Music’s second festival, which takes in multiple venues in Newcastle and Gateshead this weekend while bringing nearly 50 acts to the region and broadcasting live.
Launching the festival on air at the end of January, host Lauren Laverne was clearly thrilled to announce the festival was coming to her native North East but admitted she didn’t know exactly why the station management had given Tyneside the nod and said she hadn’t had a say in the decision.
Rodgers says the process of working out where to stage the festival began last February, literally the day after the inaugural festival in Salford had ended, and that he had started to think about the North East during a visit.
“I went to an event arranged by BBC North in Durham which was attended by people who worked in and around the media and entertainment in the North East. I was struck by the appetite there was for 6 Music and for it to perhaps do something in the area.
“We looked at a few towns. We wanted to do something different. The key is to make it interesting, not just bigger, and Tyneside afforded us some really good options. Last year we were in a single warehouse space but this let us spread over a whole metropolitan area and that different scale was interesting. We can do things in concert halls like the Sage or smaller venues like The Cluny.”
Rodgers is not a stranger to the North East. He studied in Newcastle in the 1980s, visiting the studios of Tyne Tees TV to watch acts perform on legendary music programme The Tube which was one of Channel 4’s groundbreaking new programmes.
“We used to get passes which was an amazing start to any Friday night out. I got to see Siouxsie and the Banshees and Public Image Ltd but what really stands out was seeing Tina Turner. I had never seen anything like that.”
The venues he used to watch bands in have changed. Instead of the Mayfair and the Riverside it’s the Cluny and Boiler Room, but Rodgers says his time as a student on Tyneside meant he knew about the atmosphere and vibe.
“The North East has always had a massive appetite for music and for having a quality night out which really matters when you’re having a festival”.
That appetite may be undiminished but as regional TV has declined and programme-making has pulled back to London (or Salford), the chances of music shows being produced in the regions, as The Tube and Razzmatazz were in the 80s, has seemed increasingly remote.
Some TV producers say it would be impossible to recreate that type of programming – claiming it’s now much harder to get acts to travel to the regions – but Rodgers looks baffled by that theory.
“We haven’t found any problems getting a brilliant bill assembled, first of all in Salford and then on Tyneside. I don’t see a bill like that anywhere else in terms of its range and depth.
“I’d add that we have had brilliant support from the universities and business schools on Tyneside and also from the creative agency Generator, who have been exceptional in showing us which venues we could possibly use and offering support. People in the North East understand the music industry and I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about working there.”
Rodgers, who is originally from Rotherham, nearly didn’t go into radio at all. He became a teacher after university but his passion for music led him to write for fanzines. This led to an offer to do freelance radio shifts in London and he never looked back, going on to produce a string of Radio 2 shows and heading the BBC’s Glastonbury radio coverage before joining 6 Music.
His office is lined with posters promoting the station that repeatedly use the word “alternative”, which is also used constantly on air. It sounds slightly smug but it’s difficult to think of another that better describes what 6 Music does.
Essentially it feels the polar opposite of so many stations where you can feel the cold hand of focus groups and pre-programmed playlists that guarantee you’ll hear the same song every hour.
Rodgers says it is difficult to neatly categorise what “alternative” means because it is so instinctive.
“Ultimately it’s about knowing what is ‘right’ for the station. For example, we could have gone for bigger venues at the festival but it wouldn’t have felt right. We were offered some larger acts but they just weren’t the right ones for the station and the listeners would have known it.”
He says he’s proudest of the range of voices featured on the station – running through a list from Iggy Pop via Pauline Black and Guy Garvey to poet Kate Tempest – and also that people are listening to the station for longer.
“I saw a tweet the other day that said someone had given up Sundays now because they stay in all day from Cerys [Matthews] onwards. That’s the sign of a proper station, when people give up more of their time to be with you. We have presenters who are very curious and unique and that’s why we are bringing in new listeners.”
The future will bring a new challenge. BBC Radio controller Bob Shennan has set the station a target of reaching 2.5m listeners in the future. Rodgers clarifies this, saying the mission is not just about getting new people listening in.
“What’s next for us is set by the BBC Trust and that’s to grow but remain unique and not dilute ourselves. That means we remain distinct.”
Rodgers adds that that no longer means getting new listeners. It also means red button viewers and website users.
“Radio is at the centre of what we do but I don’t think anyone who is head of a radio station just thinks about radio any more.
“The nature of how people get their audio has dramatically changed. I think we need to work in a multi-platform way where appropriate. How you work on a tablet is different to how you reach people via a computer screen and we need to work out how we engage with people in these different platforms.
“For us, leading digital is the point and that job gets more and more complicated because new things come along that you have to respond to. New devices mean new ways of being 6music.”
Interesting problems to solve... but before Paul Rodgers goes I want to ask who is the one that got away, the star he would most like to hear presenting on his station.
There’s a pause and then a smile.
“Well, it would obviously be very nice to have David Bowie. There are a lot of others. You can find great passion for music in all sorts of walks of life but David would be something else.
“We’ve not given up. ”
6 Music Festival 2015 starts on Friday and runs until Sunday, with evening gigs at Newcastle 02 Academy (on Friday) and at Sage Gateshead (Saturday and Sunday) and daytime events on Saturday and Sunday. The tickets are all gone but the festival can be heard on air. Details of all on www.bbc.co.uk/6music