BBC bosses face a new battle for the “soul” of 6 Music after thousands of listeners demanded a U-turn over a schedule shake-up.

Managers are facing a backlash over a decision to slash the hours that longstanding DJs Gideon Coe and Marc Riley present on the alternative music station.

Listeners took to social media to condemn the evening schedule changes, revealed in i, with many warning that the digital station, which reaches 2.5 million people a week, was losing touch with its core audience.

Thousands of rebellious listeners have signed a Change petition calling for the BBC to reverse its move to cut Riley and Coe’s airtime from 20 hours a week to just eight, with the pair asked to share an evening slot two days a week.

One insider said: “The 6 Music audience is very loyal and protective. Bosses have a real battle to covince listeners – and its own staff – that these changes are a natural evolution and that the soul of the station isn’t now under threat.”

Maxine Peake, the Bafta-nominated actress and music fan, who recorded a collaboration with Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, was an influential voice adding her name to the petition.

Musicians who rely on 6 Music to help them reach new listeners were among the most vocal in opposing the shake-up.

American songwriter BC Camplight tweeted: “This may be biting the 6Music hand that feeds me but I’m so saddened by this.”

Camplight objected to the BBC describing Riley and Coe as “two of our finest creators” in its official announcement.

Riley is “not a ‘curator’. He is an irreplaceable communicator, entertainer, and musical stalwart who makes many of us look forward to 7pm,” the musician wrote.

Peter Guy, editor of the leading Liverpool-based music website Getintothis, wrote: “Feels like much loved 6 Music is spiralling into the abyss. Cutting two of its best two DJ slots into one is truly rubbish.” He called it “another poor BBC decision. Hard to understand.”

There is suspicion that the changes are being introduced to make 6 Music more attractive to younger listeners.

Launched in 2002, to scoop up music fans too old for Radio 1 but who thought Radio 2 was for their parents, the average age of 6 Music’s listenership was 36 during its early years.

With its original audience now in their 50s and older, 6 Music needs to bring in younger listeners who are less in thrall to “indie guitar rock” but still want to hear cutting-edge sounds.

Where Riley and Coe play classic sessions from the BBC archives, the replacement 7pm show, presented by Tom Ravenscroft, the son of John Peel, and Deb Grant will focus on new music.

However one listener complained that “it’s no longer the radio station I’ve loved since its beginning, and the one that we listeners fought to save” – referring to the campaign which successfully rescued 6 Music in 2010, doubling its audience, after BBC bosses announced that it would be axed.

Samantha Moy, Head of 6 Music, said: “A love of music unites all of our 6 Music presenters.”

The pairing of Ravenscroft and Grant, along with Riley and Coe “means even more music will be found and shared with our audience, giving a new sound to 6 Music at night.”

Bosses are unlikely to be influenced by the petition. Coe has agreed to move from London to the BBC’s studios in Salford to present his shows.

Riley and Coe endorsed the change in a BBC press release, with Coe saying: Marc plays great records and hosts fantastic sessions. I very much look forward to doing that alongside him.”

Listener reaction wasn’t all negative. One welcomed a “positive, evolutionary change”, describing the line-up as “a little tired from mid-afternoon onward.”

Last month, a Change petition demanding a U-turn on the decision to axe the BBC Singers, attracting 150,000 signatures, declared victory when the move was paused with the BBC saying it would explore alternative financing for the choral group

The changes mean that all of 6 Music’s evening output will be broadcast from greater Manchester from June, helping the BBC hit its target of shifting 50 per cent of its network radio and music spend outside of London by 2028.

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