5/01/2009
John Peel and the rest of us

I won't be surprised if I lose you in the next paragraphs because of another exhibition of my useless knowledge over some subject. That partly means you, Ning.

In the mid-1960s, the BBC's radio stations were seen at stodgy, outdated and uncool. The youth of the time, on the other hand, were tuning in to the pirate radio stations, with transmitters hoisted from boats in the middle of the sea broadcasting pop music every hour of the day. Parliament eventually passed a law banning these boats from transmitting, and the BBC was tasked to overhaul their radio networks. After months of planning, a new pop station was born: Radio 1.

The station was set up to essentially fill the gap the closure of the pirates made. Part of the effort was the hiring of some of the outlawed stations' DJs themselves. One of them was John Peel, who broadcast from Radio London in the early part of the 60s after short stints in the United States. He, and his show The Perfumed Garden, became one of the proponents of the underground scene of the time, and listeners were sending him letters - and poems, and records - by the bucketloads. His stint on Radio 1 was pretty much the same, although there are the institutional regulations that meant some of the things he did before had to be checked now.

Regardless, he stayed with the station for 37 years, doing multiple evening shows throughout the decades. Known for his eclectic, if not eccentric, tastes in music, he introduced generations of young British ears to punk rock, hip-hop, dance and essentially anything that attracts his attention. Management might not have always agreed with what he's done, but his impact is undeniable. Many bands attribute their success to Peel's involvement, through his renowned Peel Sessions, or through mere airplay, regardless of whether he's played it at the wrong speed or not.

Peel died of a sudden heart attack in 2004, topping headlines across the country, and all of a sudden his impact and influence dawned upon a country, and perhaps the whole world. You can say that the United Kingdom being a hotbed for credible musical talent was due to his efforts. The kids wouldn't have been turned on to, say, Led Zeppelin, or Joy Division, or the Smiths, or the White Stripes. Nic Harcourt wouldn't have turned film executives and music supervisors on to Jem and Norah Jones. Steve Lamacq wouldn't have done that notorious interview with the since-and-still-missing Richey James Edwards. If not for him, I probably wouldn't be listening to Tom Robinson's podcasts on Friday nights, and to more obscure indie stations at work. Or be friends with Antonette.

If John Peel can change the world, why can't we?

"Well, you're popular now," Redg suddenly said a couple of months back. "You've even set a benchmark [for] political analysis in school." He was, of course, referring to Shale Campaigns, that notoriously unofficial coverage of the Student Council elections in DLSU that I returned to despite being busy at work. I was, of course, a little confused about how big my impact is on the ecosystem, partly because I never really saw it for myself - after all, I was just a dissident unconsciously taking on the secretive political parties in school.

I was chatting with Valerie at the same time, and I told her of Redg's remarks. "Sosyal," she said. "Good for you, making a difference in an institution. I have yet to do that." And then we returned to the topic of the hour - well, who else?

That idea's been drilled to our heads since we were kids, and perhaps more so for today's crop of younger ones. "Go make a difference," your school principal might've said on your graduation day. "Go change the world." And we come in with an idea of what to do, or at the very least, what we want to be. A vision, perhaps. As impossible as it may seem, we see ourselves doing something that will touch other people's lives in one way or another - a renowned writer, an inspiring educator, an acclaimed engineer, the president of the Philippines.

Maybe it's too early to tell, but the thing is, John Peel can change the world and we can't. They won't let us.

"It always ends up about me and the fucking wrong decisions I've fucking made," I told Valerie today. Yes, it was another dump rant, of sorts, at least. "Personally, professionally, personally... and the catch is, I have too good a memory. I can think back to as far as eight, nine, ten years ago. And attribute those to this fucking mistake."

My complacency in elementary school. My carefree, everything-will-be-fine ways. My being bullied in high school. My impulse to slap a girl I was arguing with, which got me kicked out. My feeling surrounded, alone, surrounded, alone, unappreciated. My inability to stand up for what I believe in, to be brave for once and pursue what I want. My bloated belief in myself. My tendency to make a fuss out of (almost) every girl I fancy, without doing anything about it. My bitterness, my cynicism, my need for absolute certainty, for absolute appreciation, for probably a hint of attention...

One less person to deal with, I guess.

Then again, everybody who's made it big and did their thing - the same people who seemingly did everything right - also went through troubles. John Peel, for instance, was raped by an older student, divorced his first wife, and failed in his attempts to establish a record label, apart from the criticism he got from more conservative sectors. Yet, a stage on Glastonbury was named after him. And a train. And his spirit is often invoked when the direction of another BBC station is being discussed.

And while I complain about the mistakes I've done, and whether I've banished myself to a deep hole, perhaps, it is too early to tell. Or too late. As always, I don't know.

And your responses...

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