Ruth Barnes is the gorgeous-voiced speaker of BBC radio and champion of all things alternative on the Amazing Radio network. Barnes shared a pint of Guinness with Sean BW Parker, and discussed Yoko Ono, Amazing Radio, corporate festival sponsorship and the fact, ‘that fight is not only about equality but also about an end to the blandification of mainstream pop culture, the ‘sameness’ of the female voices we hear that gets worse as the music industry grapples with the shifting landscape.’
As a voice on the BBC, Guardian music and Amazing Radio, you seem to have things pretty much sewn up in the ‘spoken voice on the radio’ department. Could you briefly describe how you got here?
I’ve worked in radio for eleven years, starting out in BBC Local radio and then moving into music radio and documentaries. I’ve pretty much done everything along the way, including the 5 Live travel news (mispronouncing many a place name) and overnight talk radio on the BBC too. The latter means I can open a mic unprepared and pretty much start waffling on, whether it’s quality is another matter! Working as a reporter for BBC Ents news and BBC 6Music meant I got a huge amount of red carpet and interviewing experience which really prepares you for any eventuality – from broadcasting from the middle of a freezing empty field in the middle of the night at Glastonbury to cosying up to a Brit Pop idol like Brett Anderson and trying not to blush as I interviewed him about his solo album.
With you, Simon Raymonde, Bethan Elfyn and many other luminaries aboard, are Amazing Tunes and Amazing Radio staging an all-out coup on UK radio? What’s their story?
Amazing Radio is truly revolutionary. We play music by bands who upload their music to our sister site Amazing Tunes.com. When they do that they can choose to sell their music through us, getting 100% of the money, or be included in our In Store radio programme where they get played in shops all over the world and get paid for it. Its very much artist led in terms of radio, we can only play what’s on Tunes – so we sift through the best and make our playlists there. Obviously with labels like Bella Union and some top radio plugging agencies on board the standard is high, but its discovering the independent gems that really get me going.
Social media, music sharing etc. has I imagine revolutionised the cultural media. This is complicated for the industry, but lets face it, pretty good for the consumer. How are you and others in similar positions responding to this?
Personally social media really works for me and for the artists I support. It gives me real satisfaction to tweet about a video by a new band and to have people listen and respond. Whether they buy the music there and then is another story – but even if it translates into a gig ticket or some merchandise my work is done. Also social media is an excellent way for ad companies and publishers to find music for TV and film – like seeing The Handsome Family tracks used for the True Detective theme was so satisfying. The truth is social media allows a massive and diverse spread of good music to travel fast and direct to appreciative ears. (Yes, I’m looking on the bright side!)
You appear to be an unapologetic, outspoken feminist. How do you think feminism in 2014 compares with the Dr. Martens and crew-cut image of feminism of the past?
I’m not sure I can comment on a comparison as it’s not something I’ve studied. I didn’t realise I was a feminist until I had moved to London and was in my mid-twenties. Spending my teenage and University years (the 90’s) in Cape Town, South Africa, there was a bigger overall political agenda on the table so feminism was a late awakening for me personally. I’ve also come to feminism through culture, through supporting women in music and radio and the incredible network of women (and men – a lot of my most loyal listeners are men) supporting each other and fighting the good fight. That fight is not only about equality but also about an end to the ‘blandification’ of mainstream pop culture, the ‘sameness’ of the female voices we hear that gets worse as the music industry grapples with the shifting landscape.
In your Mad About The Boy documentary, you defend the rights of teenage girls to have possibly self-destructive crushes on male pop stars. Can you expand on your reasoning behind this?
My co-presenter journalist Jude Rogers and I were fascinated by the rhetoric surrounding teenage female pop fans – words like ‘hysteria, crazy, demented’ also fear around ‘uncontrollable’ young women. We went on a journey to uncover the empowering flipside of going through your first pop obsession as a teenager and how forming tribal allegiances in your peer group and the chance to deal with your burgeoning hormones in a safe non-threatening space is actually healthy and positive. Men have football, why can’t girls get together and scream their hearts out?
Who is your favourite female in the world right now, and why?
Yoko Ono. Effortlessly cool. She continues to rise above all the bullshit.
BBC6 has been saved, but BBC3 appears to about to be axed. What are your true feelings about both of these events?
The BBC is in a quandary there’s no doubt about it. It’s amazing that a station like 6 Music was saved from the axe, but it’s a very different station from when I first worked there almost ten years ago. There was far more presenter/ DJ freedom back then and less obsession with the playlist, which unfortunately as audiences grow, seems to be the way most stations go. I’ve never watched BBC3 on the telly, I’ve only ever watched programmes like Him & Her and Being Human on iplayer – excellent programmes both, but if the BBC stays true to it’s word and keeps 3 online then I don’t see a massive drop in audience. However, I doubt BBC3 will go online, it doesn’t make sense, if they’re looking to save money it’s the programmes that will have go surely!
The UK festival scene appears to be a constantly revolving door of the same indie rock headliners and enormo-sponsorship. Does it seem the same to you? If so, how would you change things?
Yes I think so. With my feminist hat firmly cocked on the side of my head, festivals are part of the blandification of music in popular culture. The big ones (you know the ones I mean) are a merry-go-round of the same white boys with guitars or heritage/nostalgia acts with a few electronic and folky types thrown in for good measure. The male/ female ratio at (the big) festivals is appalling – and what’s so depressing is that there’s a wealth of great talent out there if only festival organisers would look further than the bookers and agents who don’t have the creativity to go out and look for new and exciting talent. However there are plenty of festivals that give me hope – Green Man etc., Latitude used to be on that list but as with any festival that starts to do well the Man swoops in and screws it all up. It happened to the Big Chill too.
What are your top ten albums of all time?
I hate answering this question so this is spur of the moment/ top of the head stuff! It’s always changing… and as you’ll see I’m a big ol’ rock fan at heart:
Neil Young – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Bob Dylan – Desire
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Sufjan Stevens – Come On Feel the Illinoise
Joan As Police Woman – Real Life
Judee Sill – Heart Food
John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Pulp – Different Class
Daft Punk – Homework
Destiny’s Child – Destiny’s Child
What are your plans for the future? What do you have left to achieve?
I’m working on another Radio 4 documentary about Judee Sill – to me she’s the quintessential ‘Other Woman’, rejected by the music industry after two amazing albums, she made life difficult for herself being ambitious, head strong, a drug addict… she made two stunning albums and died in obscurity in her thirties. She should be a household name but has been forgotten like so many great female artists who were left out of the story of music.
Any new music recommendations for us in particular?
I’m listening to these guys a lot at the moment:
The Drink – ‘Playground’
Johanna Glaza – ‘Shall I Be A Saint’
Sephine Llo – ‘Home’
Lykez – Rosa Parks
Can I get you a drink?
Yes! Mine’s a Guinness thanks…