Keaveny's 6Music breakfast show was warm and genuinely funny. After more than a decade, he is moving to a new slot—and spoke to Prospect just before the first as live pilotby Steve Bloomfield / January 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
Shaun Keaveny is not wacky. He has no coterie of crazy sidekicks. He’s not a lad. He’s rarely upbeat—melancholic would be more accurate. In short, he is everything a breakfast radio DJ is not. And yet, for the past 12 years, his voice has mumbled into a few hundred thousand households across the country every morning (reaching more than a million listeners in total).
His breakfast show on BBC 6Music was warm, entertaining and genuinely funny. It was full of inside jokes and repetitive riffs, but never felt cliquey. It was a homely, gentle place where everyone was welcome.
The show came to an end just before Christmas, part of a shake-up that dramatically changes the station’s line-up. Keaveny will move to a new slot in the afternoons next week.
This interview, which took place at 6Music’s studios yesterday just before Keaveny’s first as live pilot of his new show, has been edited and condensed.
Prospect: What did the breakfast show mean to you?
Keaveny: It meant the world to me. The thing that we created together—the listeners and I and everybody who worked on it—it was a labour of love. At that time of the day you’re more susceptible to moods and you need a bit more protection and I think that’s why we were there for each other, the listeners and I. We got each other through some pretty tricky times. We’ve been there for the births of children, we’ve lost a couple of listeners along the way as well, people who had become quite dear friends. It’s a continuity that you have with each other over the course of a long period of time and that builds up a great trust and a sort of friendship I suppose, a kinship. I’ve probably overblown there a little bit to be honest but it is three days after New Year so you can forgive me if I’m given to a little bit of mawkishness.
Prospect: What are you trying to achieve with the new show?
Keaveny: It feels like, more than ever, we humans need safe spaces to just relax and to have fun with each other and not judge each other. I’m imagining the show to be a bit like the holiday I’ve never achieved where I’ve rented a huge villa, somewhere really beautiful and there’s like two swimming pools and there’s 30 rooms and there’s a games room there’s a lovely garden and there’s the beach over there and there’s a huge kitchen. You invite everybody and loads of different people show up and your son’s girlfriend comes along and a couple from around the corner and the only rule is you have a good time, you tell a story, you have a chat around the fire, you play some amazing music, you pass around the Spotify. That’s the kind of vibe we’re trying to create. But it won’t be that different. It’ll be me and the music and the listeners.
Prospect: What role did radio play in your early life?
Keaveny: The obvious start points: recording the Radio One charts, illegally, because home taping is killing music and everybody knows that. But then I also remember we got mad into listening to people like the Barron Knights, really dodgy yet hilarious to a six-year-old Russ Abbot-style comedy.
Prospect: Who was ‘we’?
Keaveny: My uncle Martin was always my partner in crime. He’s only two years older than me so he was more like an older brother, you know. A little bit later on we started listening to a gentleman called Alan Beswick on Red Rose Radio, that came out of Preston. He was funny—he was really, really funny. he was really, really withering. And he created a community of listeners.
Prospect: When did you think this was something you wanted to do?
Keaveny: I remember being at uni—I went to Leeds Trinity All Saints college—and I was utterly rudderless. Completely without direction. I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I did enjoy writing little not-necessarily-very-funny comedy skits. We were allowed free rein in the studio, occasionally. We could attempt radio comedy. I really enjoyed the freedom of that. That was the first time I thought maybe there’s a career in this somehow.
When I came out of college I was basically unemployable. If I could just get a job on the radio doing anything I’d be quite happy. And that led to me getting a job as a radio copy writer for a few years and that was brilliant because it’s sort of the same metier, it’s the same arena, isn’t it? It’s using voices and using comedy, mixing them together.
It’s not always like that. Sometimes you’re selling Ford Fiestas for 4995 including VAT, there’s nothing funny in that. But occasionally you were given free rein to try and come up with something that would make you laugh and that was a really great start point for me. It started me off thinking about how you can just use people’s imagination and a few sound effects and a few funny lines to paint a picture and I think that was quite an influential moment for me.
I first got on air behind a microphone in April 2000 on what was then known as London’s 104.9 Xfm. I used to do this arduous, tortuous six-hour, midnight to six am show Sunday into Monday. It was horrible. You can’t imagine what it’s like to try and talk bullshit for six hours. Three is a stretch. But six. And you’re on your own.
It gets real Colonel Kurtz. You put on a long song, you nip to the toilet and you stare at yourself in the mirror and it’s 4.43 in the morning and you think what am I doing here. Everyone that I loved at that point, all my friends and family, they’re all up north and I’m there in Leicester Square thinking ‘what on earth.’ I’ve got to get back because Heroes by David Bowie is about to finish and I’ve got to come up with some wry comment about the news.
It took about six years from that point to get on the BBC. And it has been a dream come true in many ways because it is still the best broadcasting corporation in the world as far as I’m concerned.
Prospect: Is the BBC valued as much as it should be?
Keaveny: No. I suppose I would say that. And I suppose a lot of people would go “oh here he is, typical, lefty BBC snowflake going on about how they’re undervalued.” I understand there’s a licence fee and in this day and age it’s becoming more and more unfashionable and I understand why people have problems with the structure and the unwieldly nature of the BBC. People don’t like that stentorian voice, they don’t like what it represents a lot of the time, feeling like they’re being talked down to by a big monolithic organisation.
But, sure as shit, when that goes, if it ever does, they’ll all miss it like the deserts miss the rain, there’s no two ways about it. Hope to god it never does. I hope we find ways to evolve and continue to be a central part of people’s lives because I think people need the Beeb more than ever now.
Prospect: Are there things that make you more worried than five or ten years ago?
Keaveny: Yeah. I’m dreadfully worried at the moment. I’ve got two kids who are 10 and eight. When you’re that invested in society and the future of it I think you’d have to be pretty stupid at the moment to not feel concerned about the path that we’re on. I’m not going to get political about it because it’s not my place to do that. But yeah, it keeps me up at night, the sort of things that are happening, internationally, economically.
It seems that we’re losing our way a bit at the moment, things are getting a little darker than they were 10 or 15 years ago. I don’t think we realised how optimistic and how comfortable a place we had societally a few years ago. We were doing alright and it feels like now the wheels of the tea trolley are coming off a little bit.
Prospect: Do you see that from home (Keaveny grew up in Leigh)?
Keaveny: If you spend time out of London—and I’m not talking about the bloody Cotswolds, I’m talking about if you go up north—there are many, many places that are really struggling, that are on their uppers, that have been starved of what they need for a very long time. That’s what concerns me. Until we start to address those bigger issues and the ideas of some kind of redistribution of opportunity in this country I think it’s going to get continually more difficult. What can I do about it? Sod all. But I can play some decent tunes and I can hopefully put a smile on people’s faces every now and again. That’s my remit I suppose.
Prospect: And being a father is your remit too.
Keaveny: It’s more complicated now. I’m a divorced parent as well which adds another dimension. It’s how you become a good role model, and how you find good role models in 2019. That’s the big struggle, isn’t it? Twenty or 30 years ago as a parent your job was primarily to get your kids through school, maybe get them to university if that’s the path they wanted to go on, or get them into an apprenticeship, get them making decent money, have a family and that’s your job done. It seems as if it’s a bit harder to do that now.
Also we’re analogue people. I’m 46. My children are digital children. There’s a huge gulf there. When they sit there watching YouTube videos of 21-year-old lads playing computer games that completely blows my mind. We can have arguments about that, I can sit there grumbling about how it’s not like it used to be in my day. Then your kid will turn around and say “yeah, that guy earned $38m last year doing that and he’s playing at the o2 tonight, playing computers games in front of 20,000 people.” There’s not really an answer to that.
I’ve got to go native. Maybe I’ve got to start playing Fortnite, just so I really understand my kids. Because at the moment I’ve only got a partial understanding of what their world’s like.
Prospect: How else do you think being a parent has changed?
Keaveny: We’ve become a very solipsistic society, haven’t we? We’re all responsible for this, all of us. You can go back to Reagan and Thatcher and the 1980s and when the banks and the credit companies took over the world and there is no such thing as society and all that business. You can get all Adam Curtis on somebody’s ass and say this is where it all started, that’s what we’ve become. We are now an atomised society.
And as a parent I’m trying to navigate that, to try to teach my children essentially to be good, thoughtful, loving and community-based people, people who want to help others who are less fortunate than them. I think that’s the only lesson that matters these days.
What I’m absolutely obsessed with, probably to a fault, is constantly repeating to my kids “you’re think you’re hard done by, you don’t know how lucky you are.” I hear all these aphorisms coming out of my mouth that my dad would have said 30 years ago. I’m like that with my kids because my kids are incredibly privileged. In comparison to the rest of the world, they’re just about the most privileged people on earth. Trying to get that point across to them and make them empathetic people is all I care about really.
Shaun Keaveny launches his new show Monday to Friday, 1-4pm, on BBC Radio 6 Music and BBC Sounds, from 7th January.