Lauren Laverne has had a busy morning, even by her never-stand-still standards. Her BBC 6 Music programme (10am-1pm) was an outside broadcast, with Laverne hosting from London’s Tobacco Dock.
With Gaika and Soak playing live, plus an on-the-spot Desert Island Disco mix from Riton and Kah-Lo, the show was a packed one. Before that, she managed to squeeze in a voiceover.
Laverne is also the stand-in host of Desert Island Discs while Kirsty Young takes some time off due to fibromyalgia, she presents Radio 4’s Late Night Woman’s Hour, narrates Tee and Mo on CBeebies, hosts awards ceremonies and BBC events, writes columns and does all the prep required to do such jobs properly…
Laverne, 40, remains unfrazzled. She arrives at the photographer’s studio with a let’s-crack-on attitude, chatting with photographer, stylist and make-up artist, grabbing a vegetarian sandwich before sitting down for our chat, jokey but efficient. She’s in the moment and time, as ever, is of the essence.
“Well, it’s not for me to make decisions about who goes on air,” she says. “But yes, it’s really exciting to have Mary Anne there. For there to be two of us is great. Personally speaking, I feel that it’s important to reflect the audience that you’re talking to. The BBC is a public service… So, in terms of what I do, I make sure my show is diverse and engaging in all sorts of different ways: genre, era, ethnicity, gender.”
This hasn’t gone unnoticed: her 6 Music show has long been admired for its welcoming eclecticism. She’s as happy playing West African jazz as she is German experimental rock. But no matter how open-minded 6 Music listeners are, the reshuffle will change the station’s feel…
“If people get upset, I can understand it,” she says. “Live radio is such an intimate medium. If someone you’re not keen on comes on a TV channel, you switch over and don’t think anything about it. But it’s not like that on the radio, is it? It’s a personal affront: ‘I don’t like this record!’ It’s like someone coming into your house and swearing at you.”
Still, Laverne is quietly confident about her new job: “I’m excited!” She does her homework, she knows her stuff. She’s presented “all across the dial”, and indeed, all across the clock: she’s hosted on Radios 1 through to 6, presented breakfast and drivetime in the five years she worked at XFM, as well as late night programmes. So her new 6 Music show won’t be exactly like her old one, though some existing features will transfer.
“I’d get beaten up if Desert Island Disco didn’t come with me,” she says. “I want listeners to be able to feel like it’s an easy listen. I don’t want them to turn the radio on and be bashed over the head with loud, honky, brand-new things. That’s going to just feel like hard work.”
Anyhow, if the show doesn’t gel at first, she can cope. Her general approach is to be as prepared as possible (she looks at listening data, programmes the music with her team), but also flexible enough to throw preparations into the air if something changes; for instance, when David Bowie and Prince died, and 6 Music responded by playing their records all day. “It’s like any DJ,” she says, “you read the room.”
Laverne has been a presenter for over 20 years, moving from being in a band (Kenickie) to TV presenting “for shoe money”. She still loves hosting telly – “It’s like going to a great party, putting your glad rags on, loads of people” – but in radio, she says, she “found my people, my tribe”. Still, being a music radio DJ is very different from her other gig presenting Desert Island Discs (including interviewing Tom Daley, above).
Laverne has a couple of analogies for being asked to step in. First, she likens it to house-sitting Buckingham Palace; then she says, “It’s like being a cab driver and Prince gets in the back. I mean, you know how to drive and you know the routes, your competence isn’t a big deal, but it’s not an ordinary day at work.”
Luckily, she has the ability to see the bigger picture while focusing in on the details: “It’s not about how you feel, it’s about what you are here to do.” This pragmatism serves her well, as does her curiosity about the world. “I’m the kind of person who will walk past a building and think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’, so then I Wikipedia it, and find out the architect, and before I know it, I’m deep into the architect’s life.”
Her curiosity comes from her upbringing. She was born and raised Lauren Gofton in Sunderland, Laverne’s parents came from working-class families; her dad, Lesley, one of six, her mum, Celia, one of nine. They both passed their 11-plus and went to grammar schools, and Laverne and her younger brother Pete were brought up in a house they call “the culture Tardis”: full of books, music and philosophical ideas. “Son House would be playing on the stereo, and your mam’s off to Greenham Common… it was a house full of ideas.”
A few days after we meet, Laverne’s dad dies, and she puts up a lovely tribute on Instagram: “His life was unusually and extraordinarily rich in the things he cared about – music, ideas and us… small in number but infinitely and endlessly meaningful.” It reminds me of something she says when we meet – that her dad taught her not to be intellectually intimidated. “I’ve never felt not good enough to try and understand something,” she says.
Laverne is exceptionally well-informed, but she wears her knowledge lightly. She’s not a show-off, she’s a sharer – someone who tells you about interesting things because they’re interesting, rather than to score points. In the past, she’s likened her job to a dinner-party host, the person keeping everyone happy while hiding the carnage in the kitchen.
I’ve seen her present in a hectic live situation, and her calm and humour never deserted her. In fact, the only time she’s seemed uncomfortable, work-wise, was during her 2011–14 stint on Channel 4’s late night politics show, 10 O’Clock Live, when she had to do rant pieces about her political opinions. “It was tricky for me,” she says, “because nothing I’ve ever done has been about me.”
After coming out of that show, Laverne set up the online women’s magazine The Pool with ex-Red editor Sam Baker. “The Pool came out of that experience,” she says. “I thought, well, I could continue working as part of big organisations, or I try something where I have more control.” Both she and Baker have now stepped back from day-to-day control of The Pool, but Laverne is “proud” to keep co-founder on her Twitter bio.
I press her on why they left, but Laverne won’t give much away. Certain things are off-limits (she’s careful not to reveal too much about her two sons, aged 11 and eight). So I ask her about her broadcasting heroes.
“Oh, I’ve had so many! Annie Nightingale – sensational and pioneering. John Peel: he changed my life twice. Because he played our records on the radio and then the first big TV job I got was working with him at Glastonbury. In one of the breaks he said, ‘You’re made for this s***, aren’t you?’ And I thought, ‘I must be, because John Peel has said so.’
“I adore Jo Whiley for how she broadcasts and how she lives her life. When I had my first son, I was thinking, ‘I can’t imagine how I’m going to do telly jobs after having a baby.’ And Jo was there, going, ‘It’s going to be all right, don’t worry.’ Vanessa Feltz, who I worship. And, obviously, Kirsty Young. Sometimes I go back to my favourite Desert Island Discs, and every time I’m like, ‘How did she do that?’”
Laverne sits back, happy. She loves talking about other people’s talents. So it remains for me to say: Laverne is very good at what she does. Long may she continue.
Lauren Laverne starts on BBC 6 Music (10am-1pm) from Monday 7th January 2019