“Almost lunatic scholarship”. John Peel, Ken Garner and the BBC archive.

Photo of BBC Maida Vale studio by ‘warriorgrrrl’. Used under licence.

In 1993 Ken Garner wrote the astonishing “In Session Tonight” ; an inch thick “history of live pop at the BBC” and described by John Peel, at the time, as a work of “almost lunatic scholarship”. An academic and radio fan he worked hard with dozens of BBC archivists, producers and listeners to compile a snapshot of what is a key (but overall small) slice of the BBC archive. What sounds on the face of it a simple task; exposing publicly a full list of the bands, tracks, times and of dates broadcast for everything recorded usually inside the doors of Studio 4 (above) in Maida Vale is not as simple as just getting access to the “BBC lists” or some holy grail database which explains Peel’s accolade. If only. This became clearer when Ken returned late last year, following Peel’s death in 2004 with his follow up tome, this time devoted purely to Peel himself; “The Peel Sessions: A Story of Teenage Dreams and One Man’s Love of New Music” As he outlines in the appendix the sources for the book are varied fragments of scripts, sheets, ancient databases and catalogues..

  • PASB (programme as broadcast) running order scripts held on microfilm at BBC written archives, for the years 1967-1996
  • Session Sheets (1967-1996) at BBC Written Archives, more recent years held at Radio 1
  • Peels production wallcharts, planners, diaries, files, notes, recollections
  • BBC Infax programme archive and catalogue
  • Sue Armstrong’s files of session sheets held at Strange Fruit and now Universal Music
  • The (20 year old) Radio 1 Romeo computer system for logging shows, sessions and items
  • The digitised Radio 1 archive of recordings
  • Jon Small’s personal website of shows and sessions 1993-2001
  • The members of the John Peel News group on Yahoo!
  • Many individual listeners for their diaries, tapes, tape indexes etc

He also cites a “number of websites and reference books, most notably”

Ken also has a fascinating rubric for how he verified the data in his book.

  1. Construct from the calendar, Radio Times confirmed PASBs and existing session sheets a complete diary of Peel show broadcast dates 1967-2004 including all session data on first broadcast and repeat dates.
  2. Separately enter all full session sheet data in to a basic excel spreadsheet, check errors in dates against shows diary above.
  3. Check all blanks and obvious errors in both documents with reliable longstanding Peel listeners and tape collectors mainly via the John Peel News Group.
  4. Check remaining gaps and inconsistencies with PASB at BBC Written archive, Romeo, BBC Infax, Radio 1 digital archive and so on.

Thats quite a feat of devotion and the reason i’ve quoted the above in length is to illustrate not so much the complexity of any media archive (radio is very patchy) but to highlight a bunch of skills much in need round my way that Garner seemingly has in abundance; Curator, Archivist, Fan, Academic and Community Manager. He also has patience. He’s been at this task for several decades already. Peel Sessions is obviously targeted at a certain middle aged male (well usually) who can virtually quote the entire Festive Fifty from 1983 and is obviously heartily recommended. However if you are thinking hard about online archives then it could be a very frustrating read indeed. Remember this is  just a catalogue. The music, if it still exists, remains distributed amongst aisles of BBC tape archives and now shared amongst handfuls of mp3 blogs and the various Peel mail lists. You mean it wasn’t in the Radio Times ? er, no.


3 responses to ““Almost lunatic scholarship”. John Peel, Ken Garner and the BBC archive.

  1. One to add to the list.

    John Peel sessions and festive 50s under a CC licence:


    with a bit of an api:

    All available as RDF on the linked data semantic web:

    *smug smile*

  2. Pingback: Bookmarks about Johnpeel

  3. Pingback: Now where were we ? « Common User

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