Laconic, irreverent, and fired by an overwhelming passion for music, Shaun Keaveny is one of the most loved DJs in the history of BBC 6 Music. A born broadcaster, his departure from the station in 2021 was never going to be the end. Since then, he’s launched a massively popular podcast and become a pioneer in the future of “listener-run” live radio.
Following in the spiritual footsteps of Desert Island Discs (and like The Big Issue’s own The Music That Made Me), The Line-Upuses music chat to get the great and the good – from Johnny Marr and Joe Lycett to Self Esteem and Jodie Whittaker – to open up about their deepest desires and fears. Now in its fourth series, Keaveny’s podcast sees each of these celebs pick their dream line-up for a festival, the wilder and more imaginative the better.
Each Friday, Keaveny also gets behind the mic to broadcast live on his own DIY station, Community Garden Radio. Going out direct to a band of paid subscribers through Patreon, it’s a “warm and fuzzy” broadcast community.
The Big Issue: How did The Line-Up come about?
Shaun Keaveny: It was conceived of in the deepest, darkest depths of lockdown. It was born of that deep-seated sadness that a lot of us music fans carried around that time.
Obviously, since then, we’ve gone back to the fields in earnest, but we’ve got all kinds of other horrendous challenges around us. So, it’s just a great escape to get in a room with one of my favourite people. We are ostensibly talking about music and their favourite acts… and about 20 per cent of the discussions have been about that. The rest is an outpouring of either complete trivia, or we go incredibly, deeply emotional. Because that’s what music does, isn’t it? It takes us to those emotional places.
It’s like if you have a chat with somebody in the car, more seems to come out sometimes because the pressure’s off. You’re looking out the window, so your mind drifts off, and then you are talking about things you weren’t expecting to talk about.
I think the genius of Roy Plomley coming up with Desert Island Discs was exactly that. You can say: “why did you choose this song?” Which is an incredibly basic interview question. But then the next question can be: “so it reminds you of your mum when she died…?” And then all of a sudden, you’re in much deeper water.
I would be remiss to not turn the tables and ask you about your own dream festival line-up.
I’m old-school, and I am old. I like guitar music, and funk music, and rock music, and blues music, so it will be unsurprising stuff for me. It will be Frank Zappa and James Brown and Aretha Franklin. I would absolutely put The Cure as the headliners. I would have a host of top comic talent through the ages, shuffling on stage in between to introduce the next guests and do sketches. Maybe Laurel and Hardy, maybe Bill Hicks.
What’s your worst festival moment?
I had some terrible experiences in Glastonbury in the ’90s. You know, the proper Battle of the Somme years where it was completely washed out? Sitting there, in your pants because everything else was wet, on a Saturday afternoon, playing cards in the tent in the rain, sweating. That thing where it’s cold, but it’s also really humid at the same time. And all you can hear in the background from the Pyramid Stage is Robbie fucking Williams. Then we had our tent broken into, then we decided to leave.
What are the advantages of doing it yourself versus your old job at 6 Music?
I’m a broadcaster. That’s the way I see it. I just love putting headphones on and hearing my voice. I do a thing called Community Garden Radio, which is like a Patreon radio show, every Friday. And that’s about the most free I’ve ever felt speaking into a microphone. We’ve built our own tiny little radio station and we broadcast to our little cabal of superfans. We can do whatever we want. We can play whatever music we want. I can write the most outlandish sketches and deliver them or swear, which is puerile but freeing. It’s like how I imagine Howard Stern must’ve felt in 1989. The freedom before certain strictures came in is very, very intoxicating. I love that.
I always hanker to go back to live radio, out there to the nation. And I’m actually doing it in January. I’m standing in for one of the biggest legends ever in radio, Johnny Walker, doing his rock show radio for four weeks. That’s the ultimate adrenaline thrill for me. One day in the future, I would love to get back to doing that on a daily basis.
Can you be more political when you’re not on staff at the BBC?
Yes. That’s one of the payoffs that you have to consider when you take a job like that. You can’t go around espousing your niche political view when you’re doing a breakfast show for a big corporation.
One of the great pleasures of the last year or so for me, has been the freedom of being able to speak my mind. I don’t for one minute think that it makes any difference. But it doesn’t matter, as a citizen, I really enjoy doing it. There are so many things that I feel really passionate about. And I feel like sometimes I want to say that.
Having said that, discourse is virtually non-existent. It is a binfire of the vanities: everybody thinking that what they say is more important everybody else. I’m hoping that we are slowly moving to a better place with all that, but at the moment it’s like we’re at the bottom of the barrel, aren’t we? We couldn’t really get much worse than it is at the moment. But then we’ve been saying that for the last five years.
Are you sticking at Twitter for the moment?
I’m staying around for the moment because I don’t have a viable option [to get] off. I still need to let people know about new things that I’ve done. And I’ve accidentally built up a few numbers on Twitter, so it’d probably be a little bit hara-kiri for me to just completely shut it.
I’ve heard people that I love and respect big up Elon Musk and I have to disagree with them because there are no two ways of cutting the cake. He’s a deliberately divisive libertarian. The fact that he’s got his hands on a big part of everybody’s communication is not a positive development. So I am definitely going to be slowly edging away.
You’re often compared to my one of my great heroes, Terry Wogan. Do you think he would be doing podcasts if he was still with us?
It’s such a kind thing to be put in the same paragraph as Terry. He took me under his wing when I started on the breakfast show at 6. He used to regularly come down and feed us carbohydrates. He was the ultimate human hug and the world just needs so much more of that.
I guess he probably would have ended up doing a podcast on BBC Sounds and it would have been bloody brilliant. But he was a curious mix, Terry. He was he was a hard-working guy. But he was a smart-working guy. He just used to look at everything as, what’s the path of least resistance to get this job done really well? All the stories are true about how he got so good at being on the radio that he would just turn up with about nine minutes to go. His producer would just hand him a colossal pile of emails, he’d sit there with a big cup of coffee, start going through and away you go – that’s your show. That’s where you want to get to in life. Then you go home see your wife, see your kids, learn to play golf.
You’ve said before that you were confused about why the BBC let you go from your 6 Music show. Has it become clearer with time?
Everything becomes clearer in time. It causes you a certain amount of grief when a big change happens to you. And then you give it a year, and you go, “Oh yeah, I should have seen that coming a mile off. It’s fine. Look at where we are now.” So I’m utterly sanguine about it. No hard feelings. The BBC gave me something unbelievable. They gave me a 14-year stretch in one of the hottest slots that you can imagine in the world of radio. There are no better places to work. So, how can you look back on that with any bitterness? I simply don’t. I feel it was a gift, and it’s still giving to me, so I’m pretty bloody lucky.