Can Radio 3 escape the digital squeeze?

Plus: if only they ploughed their money into shows like The Verb - rather than doing grandstanding live relays

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

The new controller of Radio 3 has at last been appointed. Alan Davey (not to be confused with the former bassist from Hawkwind) comes to the BBC from the Arts Council and a career in the Civil Service. This will be his first job in broadcasting, and will be no small challenge. These are tough times for Radio 3, squeezed between the commercial charms of Classic FM and the trendy allure of BBC’s 6 Music, and, worryingly, in the last quarter its audience numbers went below 1.9 million for the first time since 2010.

The BBC’s home of classical music and ‘culture’ is often criticised for being too off-putting, too elitist, not in tune with the current mood. Critics like to ask why, with just under two million listeners, the station should continue to be funded by UK taxpayers, most of whom will never tune in to hear Matthew Sweet or Philip Dodd on Free Thinking or to Opera on 3 live from the Met in New York.

At the other extreme, some formerly loyal listeners (including, I suspect, more than a few readers of this magazine) have been complaining that Radio 3 has gone too far down the populist road, breaking up its morning sequence with chit-chat and gimmicks such as the classical top ten and nerd-ish interactive quizzes, which ask listeners to phone in with their answers to questions such as identifying a piece of music after hearing it being played backwards on the rewind button.

Davey has referred to his new job as ‘an honour’, especially because of his remit ‘to renew’ this ‘wonderful institution’ for ‘the digital age’. But what does renewal imply? What kind of digital new life does Radio 3 need?

Last week’s offering from the newly created super-channel BBC Music, an umbrella organisation in charge of all the BBC’s musical output under the control of Bob Shennan (also the controller of Radio 2), was a digitally remastered version of the Beach Boys’ inimitable ‘God Only Knows’, performed by 27 international artistes and played simultaneously at eight o’clock last Tuesday night across most of the BBC’s radio stations and TV channels. Radio 3’s listeners were saved from the trauma of hearing that ethereal, haunting song given new digital life by the likes of Elton John, Stevie Wonder, One Direction and Nicola Benedetti because at the time it was hosting a ‘live’ concert from St George’s Bristol and could not be interrupted.

Years ago, when digital editing was just taking off, ‘Perfect Day’ was similarly re-created by a cast of unusual cohabitees for the BBC’s Children in Need campaign. This, though, wasn’t claimed as ‘a unique, impossible performance’ (the less than inspiring tagline for ‘God Only Knows’). Nor was it anything more than part of the charitable campaign. In contrast ‘God Only Knows’ appeared out of nowhere and as part of nothing, and little was said about the fact that the recording is also being sold to raise money for charity. On the contrary, the BBC appeared much keener to show off its ability to pull in the superstars whenever it wants. How much, I wonder, was spent on this extravagant enterprise, money that could have been spent on truly inspirational programme-making?

As Ian McMillan asked last week on The Verb (Radio 3, Friday), ‘Is there any other radio station in the world apart from Radio 3 where you could talk freely about the anacoluthon sentence?’ He meant it not as something to be ashamed of, but as a celebration of 3’s perverse delight in the little-known, the forgotten about, the hinterland of knowledge. McMillan himself can hardly be accused of being highbrow, metropolitan or exclusive. His own poetry is rooted in the everyday, the matter-of-fact; direct and easy of access. His strong devotion to his native Barnsley is echoed in his distinctive accent. His 45-minute ‘cabaret of the word’ discussed the ways in which our subconscious will find itself an outlet for what it needs to reveal, talking to the poet Simon Armitage and the psychotherapist Jane Haynes.

How does this link up with the anacoluthon sentence? (No, I hadn’t a clue either.) Poems are negatives, says Armitage; they describe the absence around things, not the thing itself. ‘I’ve told you what it isn’t what I am saying it is.’ The anacoluthon sentence, to be a little more precise, is ‘a crack in the window of grammar’; it’s a change of direction in meaning or description, a sudden turn, that has no immediate warning, although there will always be a clue.

Why is such a linguistic tool useful to Haynes? Because the unconscious doesn’t like to reveal itself. It does its best to elude us, but at times we will find ourselves saying more than we intend, usually not in words, but by suddenly changing the direction of thought. In that turn lies the meaning. I was listening in my car and on arrival found myself switching off the engine but not opening the door, unwilling to leave behind the warm, enthusiastic company of McMillan and his guests.

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  • almorr

    I grew up with Radio 3, it was that station that introduced me to classical music, but I must admit I don’t really listen to it much now at all, the first and last night of the Proms and on 1st January for the New Year Concert from Vienna have been the only time I have listened to R3 this year, sorry.

  • Friends of Radio 3

    Apparently, most of the population who pass confident opinions on Radio 3 never listen and, in any case, only expect BBC radio (like the rest of radio) to offer light/ popular entertainment. Why should the BBC not fund one service for people – minority or not – who want a station with more depth? And why can Radio 3 not understand that trying to get more listeners by fitting the content into a populist style won’t attract people who aren’t interested in the content and alienates the listeners who can’t stand the style? The BBC needs to look again at its remit – especially the bits about educating and informing.

  • trace9

    The sound of rescue can be deafening.

  • Anyone who listened to Radio 3 in the old days will know that the station as it then was can hardly begin to be compared with the station as it is now . Admittedly I’m referencing a rather shaky memory, but as I recall Radio 3 used to shutdown around 10 or 11 o’clock every night, and if there was cricket it wasn’t on the air at all. I remember terrible programmes like Bandstand, mercifully only on once a week, and Homeward Bound, which was on every weekday night, a selection of light classics played by the BBC Northern Island strings or some such ropey outfit. For some reason the station rarely played classic recordings. Rare too was the live concert, and even rarer the live concert from abroad. Yes, I miss the plummy voices, but as far as I’m concerned Radio 3 as it is today makes me about as patriotic as I’m prepared to get. I wonder if Kate Chisolm has actually listened to God Only Knows. It has swept across the world, sends shivers up my spine, and as a PR exercise for the BBC as a whole and what it stands for must have been worth at least every penny spent on it. I did listen to that particular episode of the Verb and it was a very good one, but the idea that Radio 3 might be saved (from what I wonder?) by more programmes like it is ludicrous. If the annoying chitchat of the morning programmes is what we have to put up with for the luxury of the afternoon and evening concerts, the balance seems fairly struck. The audience has dipped below 1.9 million. So what. What would look like success? 2.1 million? And what it the audience was replaced by a more fickle one? It can’t be said of course, but perhaps the 1.9 million Radio 3 captures is a more valuable 1.9 million than any part of most other audiences. To say so would be to risk elitism, but that’s a whole other problem and one that faces the world not just the BBC. The challenge is to draw an audience for Radio 3 from across the world. I am writing this from New York and from where I can stream Radio 3 in HD sound and listen to any programme broadcast in the last 30 days. How amazing is that?

  • zugzwang

    If you go back far enough, it wasn’t “Radio Three” at all, but the “Third Programme”. That was an evening-only station, characterised mainly by its seriousness, and as much by the formal radio talk (practically extinct) as by the sorts of concert or radio play that were considered too serious to be relayed on the “Home Service”. (The second station was the “Light Programme” which morphed into “Radio Two”). A lot has been gained and a few things lost in the intervening years. Radio Three is now the only serious provider of live music on radio or internet. If nothing else is preserved, this should be, as a national cultural priority. The vestiges of serious talk, such as The Essay, need to be encouraged too. The habit of playing recorded music in the intervals of live concerts is a distracting error, and should be reversed by a revival of the interval talk (the viability of which is successfully demonstrated in the Proms season). If too expensive, silence. Imitation of every other classical record station in the mornings is already a wasteful capitulation.

    • Roger Hudson

      Did the Third Programme ever have 1.9 million listeners?
      Intelligent talks seem to be deserting Radio 4 so where better than Radio 3 for interesting voices.

  • Ken

    I often listen to R3 from breakfast to early evening, when working at home, so I could be called a loyal listener… But there is so much about it now that is intensely irritating – the Clemmys, Sarahs, Suziis etc and the flat voiced Salford crew for a start.
    Personally I always loathed the Beach Boys and would go a long way not to hear any version of God Only Knows. (I am also sick of hearing the over-exposed Nicola Benedetti…) As for The Verb: Macmillan is a rotten poet, a Yorkshire McGonogall, clearly picked up by R£ as a token Northerner: he is excruciating. Simon Armitage isn’t much better. Roger Wright was a disaster – for the Proms as well as R3. (Dr Who? Paloma Faith, whoever she is….). So basically I think Chisholm is more than usually up the creek. What is good on R3? Live concerts, opera (though spoiled by tedious chit-chat), choral Evensong, and,above all, the excellent Through the Night, which is just good music, not idiotic comments from the likes of Sean and Suzi and mindless competitions etc.

  • Roger Hudson

    I don’t watch TV, radio is so much better. Radio 3 is the only part of the BBC I would fight hard for, it is great.
    A good tip :If you want background music for work etc. just record ‘through the night’ and play it during the day.

  • Ali

    Radio 3 is my station of choice, I remember better days, the mornings are pretty rubbish except Saturday, but some of the CD reviewers fancy themselves too much and judge from a set of criteria which they believe shouldn’t be questioned. The music is nearly always good though, even when the talking is patronising and cringey. Howells, ‘The House of the Mind’ was played this Sunday morning, I didn’t know it but it was one of those hairs on the back of the neck standing moments that you get fairly often on R3.

    Last year about this time, or perhaps late September, driving home from choir, about 10.30pm or 11, I heard a discussion programme about post modern architecture and whether the penguins at London Zoo had appreciated their post modern penguin house – priceless.