John Peel would have been 75 years old on Saturday. I was reflecting on his impact on me both musically and on my approach to life. Here are five HR qualities about Mr Peel that stand out for me – what are yours? 

1. CPD – John Peel never became ossified within a particular musical genre or decade like many people who say things like "Music was only any good in the 60's" and so on. Peel used to constantly search for new music, saying "I just want to hear something I haven't heard before". This really amounts to what we call CPD. One of John's teachers spotted John's talents and said of him:

“It's possible that John can form some kind of nightmarish career out of his enthusiasm for unlistenable records and his delight in writing long and facetious essays…"

2. Refuse to be ruled by performance metrics – Peel refused to be influenced by ratings or playlists. Instead it was the "John Peel brand" that made the ratings. You never knew what you might hear on one of John's shows and that in itself produced the listeners which he needed to satisfy BBC bosses and beancounter metrics.

3. Support innovators – John would break new acts that would otherwise not receive radio play. Amongst a long list of artists and bands that owe their success wholly or in part to John Peel are: Pulp, Bill Nelson and Be-Bop DeluxeThe White Stripes, Mike Oldfield, Nirvana, The Strokes, Bauhaus, P.J. Harvey, The Smiths, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, The Cocteau Twins, Marc Bolan and T.REX, The Slits, The Cure, The Undertones and Billy Bragg.

The manner of John getting to know Billy Bragg was a rather unconventional piece of talent management in it's own right. Bragg heard John say he was hungry on air and rushed in with a Mushroom Biryani and a copy of "Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy". Peel went on to play a track from Bragg's album but at the wrong speed (Bragg's early albums were recorded at 45 RPM rather than 33 RPM to make them louder).

Mushroom Biryani – The influencing choice of champions

4. An anti-establishment member of the establishment – John Peel's biography states that Peel was anti-establishment because he knew how the establishment worked – he’d been part of it and he didn’t like it. He attended public school in Shropshire, but was shy and quiet and he was frequently bullied for not fitting in. Instead of playing rugby, John rebelled with a choice selection of rare vinyl. It's a feeling that resonates at my core. I went to a grammar school, hated rugby and suffered a degree of bullying for not fitting in, preferring to listen to music and obsessing about science – something of a geek by today's standards 🙂 A great life lesson for innovators is to know the system you are trying to influence. John Peel knew what he had to do to keep the BBC just on the right side.

5. A Life Long Learner

Towards the end of his life Peel had embraced hip hop, drum and bass and a number of other musical genres, never getting stuck in a musical paradigm. Eventually the BBC succumbed to ratings and Radio 1 decided to cut an hour of his show in favour of a Drum and Bass programme. Peel responded with his usual wit – read the full letter here and his parting shot to Matthew Bannister:

"Think of my programmes as your research department. Noisy, smelly but occasionally coming up with the formulae which you can subsequently market"

Peel's attitude to most things was filled with a totally original wry sense of humour and irony – none more than with his views on his eventual death:

“I’ve always imagined I’d die by driving into the back of a truck while trying to read the name on a cassette, and people would say, ‘he would have wanted to go that way.’ Well, I want them to know that I wouldn’t"

Finally, some video content of a few of Sir Richard Branson discussing John's contribution to Virgin. HR textbooks would describe John Peel as a 'conformist innovator', sitting inside a machine bureaucracy (The BBC), working from the inside out to change the organisation. How would you describe his contribution?


Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering better Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. He offers keynotes that blend World Class Leadership Thinking with the wisdom of the street via The Academy of Rock – where Business Meets Music. Author of seven books on Business Leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE.

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