Steve Barker: the 'anti-John Peel' sidelined by the BBC after 43 years

Not many people casually call themselves “Zelig-like”. But then not many people can say they were at Bob Dylan’s “Judas!” Manchester Free Trade Hall show as well as the Sex Pistols’ second ever gig, and that they gave A Guy Called Gerald’s acid house classic Voodoo Ray its first radio play.

This is Steve Barker, the 72-year-old host of On the Wire on BBC Radio Lancashire, which has been taken off air after 36 years and 1,850 episodes amid devastating cuts to local radio UK-wide. When the Covid-19 lockdown began, BBC local TV and radio stations were reduced to skeleton staff, but earlier this month it was announced that the new structures would be permanent, with the loss of at least 450 jobs and a major reduction in specialist and current affairs coverage.

Barker says he initially had amicable discussions with the BBC, but has increasingly been left in the dark, and is now “steaming… not just about the programme but also because [of] how I have been treated – or not treated in any way at all – by the BBC after broadcasting continually on the station for so many years.”

The managing editor of BBC Radio Lancashire, John Clayton, has said the show is being “rested​ … t​he challenge is to work out if and how the programme can still be accommodated within our reduced schedule​,” adding that the “so-called axe has not fallen yet”.​ Barker says: “I don’t know what ‘rested’ means, in any sense.”

Clayton added: “[Barker] has been treated in exactly the same way as countless other freelance presenters across the BBC who have seen their programmes taken off the air because of our response to the pandemic.” A petition has been started to defend the show, with support from longtime allies such as Mr Scruff and On-U Sound’s Adrian Sherwood.

Poster for On the Wire, Steve Barker’s BBC Radio Lancashire show.

Trailblazer … a poster for On the Wire, Steve Barker’s BBC Radio Lancashire show. Photograph: Steve Hardstaff

Since 1984, On the Wire has featured interviews with Bono, Michael Stipe, Depeche Mode and Morrissey, performances by Neneh Cherry and 808 State, and recent playlists that can rival broadcasters a third Barker’s age for depth and variety, with bass and electronics at the heart of the show but jazz, disco and psychedelia never far away. Jamaican dancehall producers sit next to Hyperdub’s weirdest releases, John Fahey next to Ras G, all of it held together by Barker’s gravelly Lancastrian voice, often back-announcing eight or more records in a row with occasional gnomic comments.

Barker was born in 1948 and raised by parents who ran working men’s clubs in east Lancashire, “so I got good at snooker”. He was only exposed to “Frank Sinatra and easy pop stuff” on the radio until he discovered R&B via Radio Luxembourg and an older friend at grammar school: “I can’t remember his name, but he looked not-right – over-Brylcreemed hair and black, heavy horn-rimmed specs. He told us about James Brown, and he’d delight in talking about about Brother Ray [Charles] shooting up.”

Steve Barker in the studio.

Steve Barker in the studio. Photograph: Courtesy: Steve Barker

By the time the Beatles and Stones came along, Barker had become quite the music snob. “I was already into Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, so I felt superior because I thought it was just English cover versions … a bit sad really, I’m sure I missed out on a lot of fun.” At 16 he was sneaking out of French lessons to see Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson at the Free Trade Hall, and a year later saw Bob Dylan packing the same venue out: “We had seats on the balcony above the stage, so we felt like we were on his side, we were on the side of rock’n’roll … when that band kicked into Like a Rolling Stone, it was transcendent.”

He had little time for hippy nonsense (“I’m a working-class boy, I’ve got a good bullshit detector, and it was working overtime through the 60s!”) though he did like the “common sense” mysticism of Gurdjieff and Sufism. Barker had no real ambitions in music and would take any job going. In 1968 he moved to London and worked in a factory in Hackney Wick “making glue from sacks of giant insect wings imported from India”, where he befriended a co-worker – “a Rastaman guy called Kingsley Hunter who was into astral travelling” – who introduced him to reggae. It would be a staple of his musical life ever after, and provided the musical backbone for On the Wire.

Another brief sojourn working in a homeless hostel in Notting Hill led to Barker seeing the Pistols and meeting Malcolm McLaren as well as watching the Stranglers as entertainment on his own wedding night. But in early 1976, before punk kicked off in earnest, he returned to Lancashire permanently to start a family. In 1977, a chance call for listeners to contribute to a local music review show called RPM on BBC Radio Blackburn got him on air. His segment became regular, then spun off into a show called Spin Off (now on the renamed BBC Radio Lancashire), which in 1984 became On the Wire.

Steve Barker, right, with reggae icons David Rodigan and Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Steve Barker, right, with reggae icons David Rodigan and Lee “Scratch” Perry. Photograph: Adrian Sherwood

To begin with, post-punk and dub dominated alongside extensive interviews, but Barker slowly and steadily – with zero input from the station, either positive or negative, he says – evolved the deep-immersion approach of playing long sequences of records without interruption that he has today.

He refers to himself as “the anti-John Peel”, the terse working-class Lancastrian counterpoint to the verbose public school-educated son of the Mersey. He hastens to add that Peel was a supporter of On the Wire, especially when it was threatened with cancelation in 1991, but, he says: “We were often compared to John but we were totally different: he played a lot more guitar music for starters. We played a lot more black music, a bit challenging in Blackburn where the [far right] British Movement were active!” With only three hours a week, Barker always focused on getting as much music in as possible, so has always made the show less about himself than Peel did. Not that he isn’t articulate or passionate in talking about music, but he’s vehemently against personality broadcasting. He winces at the mention of BBC 6 Music: “Celebrity DJs … bloody Smashy and Nicey all over again!”

His shows have remained resolutely local in production and outlook, featuring plenty of music sourced in Manchester’s music stores – Eastern Bloc in the rave days and the online Boomkat now – and resolutely antisocial. He never liked people writing in, let alone tweeting, and certainly doesn’t read comments out online, giving OTW a gloriously isolationist feel. BBC local radio, he says, is not like the “sonic ghettoes for the hip” of online radio stations such as NTS and Rinse FM – it can engage people, perhaps accidentally, who might not be aware of these specialists.

He’s fatalistic about the possible end of his show on the BBC, and the state of local media in general. “It appears like the whole infrastructure of local and regional journalism is breaking down across radio and print,” he says, “which is a dangerous sign. The growth of social media in the area is pervasive and pernicious – unmediated news chat diluting and poisoning information and debate.”

It’s never been his bread and butter – he only earned £108 per show, and that was a boost from £75 up until 2019. “That makes me angry too,” he says. “Check how much two hours on 6 Music costs – where it’s all inflated by production companies.” But having easily shifted OTW online under lockdown put out on Mixcloud from home, it seems like it will continue as long as there’s breath in him. “I knew one day they’d seal the escape hatches and leave us to drown,” he says. “But I’m not ready to stop. Just like listening to Bo Diddley and Little Walter as a kid, this still excites me.”

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