BBC Across The Line is 30 Years Old: Why Does That Even Matter?

Across The Line is 30 years old, and its birthday bash on 5th September in the Ulster Hall will have Villagers, The 4 Of Us, Neil Hannon, Soak, R51 and Saint Sister helping to give Stuart Bailie the bumps. Sounds good to me.

Across The Line started in 1986 as The Bottom Line” presenter Rigsy told me over the phone. And right from its inception ATL has been championing original home-grown music from this, and all other corners of Ireland.

It’s an amazing institution” fellow presenter Stuart Bailie told me. “There are probably three or four generations of young people who have been raised on ATL … in broadcasting that is just a ridiculous achievement.”

Bailie has been involved right from the beginning. “I was in London working for various music papers including the NME. At a lot of the summer festivals you would see Mike Edgar, who was then the presenter of the show. He was a larger than life figure just fizzing with enthusiasm. He’d be hanging out with the bands from Belfast or Derry.”

ATL started to ask Bailie for news stories, and he soon became ATL’s ‘man in London.’ He returned to Belfast in ’96, and by spending time with the ATL team he saw how Mike Edgar “had the energy to move mountains – and he probably needed that energy most of the time because he had to convince so many people that ATL was worth keeping.”

ATL is worth keeping for various reasons, and whether you are a musician or just into your music, ATL offers a unique service. “Radio Ulster doesn’t really have another show like ours that represents exclusively Irish music, or that represents the young gig goers like we do” Rigsy told me.

The show for many years had a strong international focus. Indeed Bailie’s first contribution was from Moscow about the launch of Greenpeace. “I’d been in France with Eurythmics; in Japan with Primal Scream … I must have been ridiculously smug. I rubbed it in a wee bit, but at the end of the day I was very jealous of what they had over there.”

In more recent years the decision was made to focus on music from Ireland, north and south, as Rigsy explains. “My producer Paul McClean had already started it. We were opening the show with Irish tracks. The show was just on one night a week so it had to be very strong because it was just that few hours … We thought what’s the point of us playing non Irish music when Radio 1 would just get the big exclusives. Why not play to our strengths, which was smoking out the best of our own stuff.”

A key element to smoking out this music, and to the weekly running list for ATL, is the BBC Introducing Strand, in which new artists can upload their music via a link on the website with potential of getting BBC airtime.

Some absolutely enormous acts have gone on to do great things” Rigsy explained about BBC Introducing, keen to point out the pride when a new act with potential is discovered. “You get them to Glastonbury, or T in the Park , or whatever” he went on to explain. “They get support that they might not get outside of the BBC because there are very few radio stations that support new music in that way. Without ATL I think a lot of those bands would be lost. They would not have that initial stepping stone.”

If you are a new act and have music you want to be heard read Rigsy’s advice here. “You upload your track [from the ATL website], and then my producer Jimmy gets all the tracks that have been tagged as Irish. We get sent those through on a Tuesday, 50 – 100 tracks. Myself, Stuart, and the music contributor that week listen to every single track.

We meet on the Thursday to discuss each track. That can be a 10 second yes, to a five minute debate/argument/row about a track’s merits. That is how our running order is dictated for the Monday night. The vast majority of our running order is dictated by the [BBC Introducing] uploader.”

Then every few weeks Jimmy will say we need to recommend bands for Radio 1 airplay. I would say 50% of the time our recommendations are followed through. And that leads to the likes of The Wood Burning Savages, R51, or Saint Sister, all playing big music festivals.

However, before you hit that upload button, make sure you are good to go, as Rigsy explains. “First of all it has to be well recorded. There’s really no excuse nowadays not to have music in a presentable format.” Some songs can be too long, and others “are just barking up the wrong tree and thematically they don’t suit ATL, so we’d pass them on to other shows.”

An element to why this service is possible was pointed out by Stuart Bailie. “It’s part of the remit of the BBC as a public service, so it’s not always hung up on the listener figures.” So, through introducing us to our own local talent, ATL is serving the community. However, like any radio show, it still needs an audience. Luckily, this has not been an issue, because the music from this small island has proved repeatedly that we punch way above our weight. “I guess the show is only ever going to be as good as the music that’s on it” said Rigsy. “That’s what radio is driven by … luckily the music just got better and better. It’s made our lives very easy.”

All this is why the 30 year celebration of Across The Line is actually special. There is more to it than the BBC patting its own back. Without our local buy-in, whether that’s tuning in or uploading your music, ATL has nowhere to go. It’s our show, directly supporting the local music scene. Let’s make the most of it.

If you didn’t manage to get tickets for the event it will be broadcast live this Monday 5th September on BBC Radio Ulster from 8pm-10pm and streamed live on bbc.co.uk/radioulster

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