Gilles Peterson on why music has never been more important
How to keep creativity in radio alive
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Gilles Peterson can barely sit still. He practically fizzes with ideas: they fire like neurons in all directions between reflections on his long-lasting career as one of Britain’s best-known tastemakers. Since his early years on pirate radio in London in the 1980s, his career has spanned club promoter, label head, globetrotting DJ, festival curator, BBC broadcaster and, with Worldwide FM, radio station director. From travelling the world tracking down forgotten saxophone legends to breaking new British talent on his flagship Saturday radio show on 6Music, musical discovery is his what makes him tick. In this interview he discusses the past three years since Worldwide FM’s inception, the role of music in troubled times and how to keep creativity in radio alive.
— Kate Hutchinson
Kate Hutchinson — How did the idea for Worldwide FM start percolating?
Gilles Peterson — I always believed there was an interest in the way I approach music as a DJ and curator. It’s the “back room philosophy” [usually the second, smaller room of a nightclub that traditionally would play a more varied selection than the main room]: being eclectic, but also understanding where what you’re playing is coming from, and how new music and culture can be connected to history. On the one hand, I’ve been about putting out old records and travelling the world. I don't think there's any DJ, anywhere in the world, who's done as much diverse gigging as I have. But on the other, I've also been completely obsessed by the idea of who “that new kid called Slowthai” or “that Black Midi band” is.
Kate Hutchinson — So what was the catalyst?
Gilles Peterson — It was two things: knowing I had a formula that worked and when I got asked to do a show on Grand Theft Auto 5. It was the biggest thing in pop culture at the time, bigger than any pop record, and they said: “When people are driving around LA on this new game, we want them to be able to pick your radio station to listen to.”
Kate Hutchinson — Hang on, the genesis of Worldwide FM was a video game?
Gilles Peterson — Partly, yeah! We called the GTA station Worldwide FM and I suddenly found a whole new audience. The thing that's really important for whatever you do; I'm always looking for the bigger platform. If someone says to me, “Can you go and play at Sonar? You're on after Richie Hawtin,” I'd be like, “I'll die, but I'll do it.” Because maybe 5% of people watching are going to discover me and the others are going to think I'm a dickhead and go to another room.
Kate Hutchinson — What I also think is standout about WWFM is how many different not just backgrounds but accents and languages are represented.
Gilles Peterson — I agree. People say, “Oh, you should translate this and that on WWFM” and I don't think we should, I'm quite happy having shows in Korean, or in other languages. It brings an imaginative dimension to the music for me.
Kate Hutchinson — There’s been a huge boom in online radio stations and podcasting – how else does Worldwide FM stand apart?
Gilles Peterson — Finding DJs who can do nice mixes for you is not difficult. The future I want for Worldwide FM is high-end documentaries and high-end radio. If you can have a balance between that and super loose, relaxed live stuff – that, to me, would be what the others are missing. People want the discussion; they want opinions. You can be too neutral, somehow, and I think you need to agitate and be a bit subversive, like when there's a show and it just falls apart. Any successful brands end up losing their instinct because too many rules are being made. The art of having a platform now is to be fluid and open to change. The thing is, this is a really important time at the moment for all of us. There's a lot of responsibility on music and these kinds of platforms to be able to send out the right messages.
Kate Hutchinson — Which are about… positivity?
Gilles Peterson — Yeah! You can't believe politics; you can't believe practically anything you're reading. Music has never been more important: it's the closest thing to the truth in being able to actively move people and change them. It’s in a place it hasn't been for a long time, where it can really make a difference.
Kate Hutchinson — Musically, have listeners become more curious too?
Gilles Peterson — A few years ago I started noticing that you could throw in some more curveballs while DJing than you could back in the day. People have become more sophisticated in their tastes; they’re searching for authenticity and they want to go deeper. They can happily listen to a traditional cumbia track next to gabba from Bali. It's just music, right? What was more fringe a couple of years ago has now become more mainstream, which is why people like Floating Points or Four Tet are the headline acts these days. They're way out there, on the left [field of music]. The left is winning. The backroom is not as small as it used to be.
Kate Hutchinson — If everyone has good taste now, what does it mean for WWFM?
Gilles Peterson — It allows for platforms like ours to grow. They become these reliable hubs where people can feel comfortable and joyful getting their inspiration from. At the end of the day, you can just stick to your Spotify and allow the algorithms to take you wherever they're going to take you, but I think you still need a person who's feeding off the mood. It's a place you're going to go when you want to discover something new, and I think there's a bigger hunger for that than there's ever been.
Kate Hutchinson — A while back, you once told me you thought online radio has replaced nightclubs in terms of community. Do you still believe that?
Gilles Peterson — Yeah, totally! But we need a hub. We need a visual place where you can go and see the radio in action, and where artists can perform and feel part of it – a radio meets club meets café meets live performance space. Hopefully we are going to do something in the next six months.
Kate Hutchinson — Where do you get your best ideas?
Gilles Peterson — When I’m running. I don’t listen to music when I run, only my thoughts. After half an hour I'll get into a new zone and then I’ll start coming up with all kinds of fun things I want to do.
Kate Hutchinson — Do you ever stop?
Gilles Peterson — With me, the only way I survive in terms of being a tastemaker who people can trust is to be continually doing what I do.
Worldwide FM DJs on their favorite radio moments.
“When we broadcasted from New Orleans during the Jazz Festival in 2017…for 11 days! New Orleans is one of the most iconic music cities in the world and connecting with locals and hearing their personal stories about growing up there was a truly interesting and natural way of exploring its music history. Worldwide FM is all about telling good stories with quality music.” — Mari Kimura
“My favourite moments have been when I've been able to push radio a little bit further, such as the times we've been able to do week-long specials. The week I produced on Worldwide FM about migration, which we called Freedom Of Movement, was a powerful week where we put voices to the headlines that we'd seen over the past five years and we brought in guests who could speak about the deportation in the UK and how horrendous and inhumane detention centres are. It was a life-changing series of broadcasts that really moved a lot of my listeners.” — Erica McKoy
“A definite highlight is the introduction to radio workshops that we did recently called Women In Jazz at the Worldwide FM offices. I've seen some girls from the workshops really thriving since, doing their own shows or podcasts. It was a really great way to connect with up-and-coming female broadcasters, nurturing new talent and making those connections is essential to Worldwide FM.” — Tash LC
“Worldwide FM has been integral to my life over the past two years. It has provided me with a stepping stone to release my album Radio Highlife on Brownswood, which is twinned with and inspired by my Worldwide FM radio show and the musical adventures that have followed suit. Every month my audience inspires me to dig deeper, continuing my quest to explore and push music on the edges that doesn’t get the exposure it deserves.” — Auntie Flo