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John Peel – the innovator ‘s dna

October 27, 2014

Saturday saw the tenth anniversary of the death of John Peel, Britain’s most consistently innovative radio presenter for almost 40 years. While most of his colleagues became identified with a specific era, style or genre of music and thus superseded by the next generation, Peel endured thanks to his relentless reinvention and discovery, and an ability to adapt to changing musical fashions to remain at the cutting edge of taste.

He had a seemingly endless enthusiasm for the new and the disruptive, and in his time he championed many new musical styles and new bands before they crossed into the mainstream populism. Once they did, he lost interest and went off in search of the next musical innovation.

Born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft in Heswall near Liverpool a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War, his life was changed in the 1950s like that of so many of his generation by the advent of rock’n’roll. It was the beginning of a lifelong obsession. After initially working in America, he returned to England at the heyday of pirate radio stations, and with no outlet for a broadcaster of such eclectic tastes on the BBC, he joined Radio London, which rivalled Radio Caroline as an off-shore broadcaster.

Adopting the name John Peel, he called his late night show The Perfumed Garden. When the Marine Offences Act effectively outlawed offshore broadcasting in August 1967, Peel was one of several pirate disc jockeys to switch to Radio One, the new BBC vehicle designed to replace the now illegal stations. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the counter-culture of the time, often in open conflict with the BBC hierarchy and with his fellow, more conventional disc jockeys, whose chart-orientated musical tastes he openly derided.

During the 1970s, Peel’s influence waned a little as the music he had been responsible for popularising became increasingly mainstream. Then in 1976, punk exploded, and Peel became its most vocal champion on the airwaves. The event that ostensibly changed the face of the show for good was the first play of a track by the Ramones, Judy Is A Punk, on 19 May 1976. The musical make-up of the programme did not immediately revolutionise, but more and more of punk’s first wave began to find its way onto the show.

As he switched his playlist to a diet of the Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Undertones, he discovered an entirely new audience who loved the fact that he could play a record like Teenage Kicks by the Undertones and then declare he liked it so much he was going to play it all over again – the first time that had ever been done on BBC radio. It was clear that Peel’s sympathies now lay in a different area, and the average listening age for his shows dropped dramatically. He went on aligning himself with challenging new music for the rest of his career.

There were a number of major innovations that Peel introduced to radio, but two have stuck in my mind. Firstly, The Peel Sessions, which were radio debuts from new bands, often playing four songs live; secondly, an annual tradition of Peel’s show was the Festive Fifty, a countdown of the best tracks of the year as voted for by the listeners.

Peel’s over-arching dictum was that he wanted to hear something he had never heard before. It is notable that his favourite acts tended to be those where there was a strong, original and identifiable presence, whether it was the guttural singspiel of The Fall, the languid mocking commentary of Half Man Half Biscuit or the jingling guitar sound and sharp lyrics of The Smiths.

The first few times I listened to Peel was towards the end of 1977. A few of the lads at school were talking about the new Manchester bands, and Peel’s show, so I tuned the radio late at night and heard a few songs. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them all but there were enough interesting pieces of music to intrigue me enough to listen again.

In that one section I heard The Fall and Joy Division – both bands would lead me in new directions. They played stuff the likes of which I had never heard before. The most memorable song I ever heard on Peel’s show was Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil, sung by Elizabeth Fraser of The Cocteau Twins.

I became a dedicated listener from the summer of 1978 onwards. It was a golden period, every night finger poised over the record button with the microphone in front of the radio – because another thing Peel did was play the record in full and not talk over it, so you could record it. Brilliant! There’s a box of BASF C90 tapes in my attic of the various recordings I made.

By the close of 1984, at university, I was listening to Peel every night, but as time passed and I started work and got married, I drifted away from the 10pm to midnight slot he had. I got The Wedding Present and The Smiths as my last two gifts from John. I would still listen from time to time, especially The Festive Fifties, and there were still some great discoveries in there but times were changing for me. I had a job now and a house and a wife and you can’t spend two hours every night listening to the radio, can you?

In those early years of listening he opened me up to so much music that I would never have encountered otherwise, and I will always consider him to be a huge influence on my musical taste. I suppose I discovered his show at the right time – in my teenage years when I was more open and yet more opinionated about music. By a rough count, 75% of my iPod music comes from stuff I heard on Peel’s show.

I don’t think I listened to many shows after 1986, only when staying in hotels working away with work or up late studying my accountancy exams and then my MBA. No more listening to his show on headphones, half-asleep under the duvet: no more sessions from obscure and noisy bands from the middle of nowhere making you go ‘wow!’.

For me the appeal of John Peel was his non-demonstrative yet enthusiastic attitude to innovative music, introducing new bands and avoiding the commercial push to play the already popular bands. He was the antithesis of this – he sounded like he was having a great time just playing the music he loved and stuff that he thought you should listen to. For the generations of music fans who grew up on Peel’s eclectic and very human late night radio show, he opened the door to a whole new world of music, the kind of stuff you’d never hear on daytime radio, let alone find in mainstream High Street record shops.

Peel showed all the traits of a disruptive innovator, highlighted in The Innovator’s DNA, by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gergersen, and Clayton M. Christensen, build on the idea of disruptive innovation to explain how and why the likes of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are so successful. They identify five core traits and skills that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs from the rest of us, and how they are restless and repeatedly come up with great new ideas. They researched five hundred innovators and compared them to five thousand executives and identified five discovery skills that distinguish innovators.

First and foremost, innovators count on a cognitive skill called ‘associational thinking’. ‘Associating’ happens as the brain tries to make sense of novel inputs, it helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas. Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields.

Frans Johanssen described this phenomenon as ‘the Medici effect’, referring to the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together creators from a range of disciplines – sculptors, scientist, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects. As these individuals connected, they created new ideas at the intersection of their respective fields, spawning the Renaissance, one of the most innovative eras in history. Put simply, innovative thinkers connect fields, problems, or ideas that others find unrelated.

The other four discovery skills trigger associational thinking by helping innovators increase the building-blocks for ‘thinking outloud’ from which innovative ideas spring. Specifically, innovators engage the following behavioural skills more frequently:

Questioning. Innovators are consummate questioners with a passion for inquiry. Their queries frequently challenge the status quo, ask questions to understand how things really are today, why they are that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted. Collectively, their questions provoke new insights, connections, possibilities, and directions. They found that innovators consistently demonstrate a high Q/A ratio, where questions (Q) not only outnumber answers (A) in a typical conversation, but are valued at least as highly as good answers.

Observing. Innovators are also intense observers. They carefully watch the world around them and the observations help them gain insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things. Peel attended three concerts a week to check out new bands, gaining a rich observational insight of emerging bands.

Networking. Innovators spend a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals who vary wildly in their backgrounds and perspectives. Rather than simply doing social networking or networking for resources, they actively search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view of things.

Experimenting. Finally, innovators are constantly trying out new experiences and piloting new ideas, unceasingly exploring the world intellectually and experientially, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way. They visit new places, try new things, seek new information, and experiment to learn new things.

Collectively, these discovery skills – the cognitive skill of associating and the behavioural skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting – constitute what Christensen et al called the innovator’s DNA, or the code for generating innovative business ideas.

I think Peel showed he was made of an innovator’s DNA. Peel always embraced a number of musical genres, never getting stuck in a musical paradigm. Think of my programmes as your research department. Noisy, smelly but occasionally coming up with the formulae, which you can subsequently market he once wrote to the BBC. Peel’s attitude to most things was filled with a totally original wry sense of humour and irony

The main thing you can say about John Peel is he was unique and he stayed unique through his career. For many of us his shows were a source of the brilliant, the rubbish and sometimes the downright unlistenable, but it was always interesting and it made you think.

Music fans the world over mourned when he died in 2004 at the relatively young age of 65. Throughout his 40 years as a BBC DJ, Peel was the unofficial pied piper of new music. He gave innumerable bands their first big break and routinely exposed diverse and emerging genres. Check out his eclectic tastes on his own Desert Island Discs list:

http://www.johnpeelarchive.com/john-peel-desert-island-discs/

Peel was ironic and humourous too, a stream of random consciousness seemed to come out of the radio speaker from him either side of the music. I recall he introduced a Fall session with the words, Really needs to be played loud enough to start a civil defence alert – and another time Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, “Listen, mate, *life* has surface noise.”

Today’s world of music offers an embarrassment of riches, the ordinary listener hardly knows where to start to find new stuff they might like amidst the cacophony created by the internet and social media, and for me, there is now an almost inverse relationship between the popularity of a song and its quality.

Yet selection is creating, after a fashion. A sculptor picks which bits of marble to include and which to chisel away. Peel’s medium was music, which was shaped, at least to some degree, according to his taste. The number of acts he raised from obscurity to fame is large. His demeanour on the radio was one of pure delight: delight in the new, the unexpected and the good – the delight of an innovator when something new has come to pass and he can share it with the wider audience.

I hope you enjoy this one. He said such things, and meant them. But they were secondary. He never pandered to the audience. A catchy, addictive tune might be followed by a few minutes of sheer noise. What he most liked, he once said, was not only music he had never heard before, but music he could relate to nothing else.

Radio is by its nature ephemeral, but from his early days on the BBC, Peel invited musicians to come into the studio and perform for him and his audience. These ‘Peel Sessions’, as they came to be known, were innovation showcases, capturing emerging new ideas and talent of the past 30 years. They are testimony to his desire to seek out and share new ideas, and a fitting legacy to his life’s work.

John Peel, an innovator, ten years gone but never forgotten.

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