Andrew Green - 14 March 2014
Things haven’t been the same in my office since that Christmas present to myself took up residence among the cricket books on the top shelf. My mate Tony across the road had been yabbering on about the wonders of Bluetooth radios ‒ and lo, when the hi-fi serpent in John Lewis beguiled me, I withered.
Only a laggard in technological terms like me could get quite so excited at the discovery of what gadgets like this can do. And best fun is using my new-found friend to listen to classical music networks around the world over the internet, streamed in a sound quality I wouldn’t (in my ignorance) have believed possible.
On any given day I might hop between, say, KDFC in San Francisco (‘The Bay Area’s listener-supported classical radio station’), Hilversum’s Radio 4 (as I write, offering me ‒ yes ‒ Friedrich Gulda’s concerto for cello and wind orchestra) or Радио Орфей direct from Moscow. As the mood takes, I can skittishly choose Swiss Radio’s classical music output linked in any of three languages. (One revelation here has been startling: that presenting serious music can somehow make an Italian sound dull as ditchwater).
Current most-visited station ‒ away from Radio 3, of course ‒ is ABC Classic FM, broadcast from Melbourne – not in any way the ‘easy listening’ network the title might suggest. Informed, intelligent presenters by and large (especially later in the day), with playlists that contain much that’s eclectic, imaginative and contemporary.
Yet ‒ coming to the point ‒ no station I’ve come across formats its programmes via anything really to speak of beyond the linking of music. Which is why Radio 3 remains distinctive despite the schedule changes which have been forced on it by the latest round of cuts. Radio 3 aficionados will regret this or that loss, but still the network embraces the arts and culture in general like no other classical music station in the world ‒ not least via the medium of speech in documentary or discussion, thereby preventing R3 from sounding like the ghettos which music-only stations can easily seem.
Critics of the changes of course say that the direction of travel is what’s significant, especially when they connect them to the ongoing debate about the alleged stylistic ‘popularisation’ of Radio 3. Classic FM joined the debate in January, claiming that Radio 3 controller Roger Wright’s latest editorial changes ‘move Radio 3 even further away from its previous distinctive position, making it harder than ever for Radio 3 to justify its privileged public funding. The BBC appears intent on moving its network into the space occupied by a commercial radio competitor in a market of only two stations.’ Classic FM’s comments were inevitably seized upon by Friends of Radio 3 campaigners as supporting their own long-held view that Wright is on a mission to ‘dumb down’ the network.
Wright himself is in a no-win situation. He has little choice but to find ways of coping with savage budget cuts, not least via significant redundancies, while also guarding against the possibility that future cuts may well be based on whether or not his network is seen to be building its listenership – hence opening himself up to those charges of ‘popularisation’. The challenge, as he’s pointed out, is that of ‘trying to get people to sample the station’ while wanting ‘our regular listeners listening for longer’.
To me, though, the spotlight is less on Roger Wright than BBC director-general, Tony Hall. Yes, many rejoiced to hear him announce on arrival last year that he was committed to promoting the arts, saying that ‘arts programming sits right at the heart of the BBC’. But how far will this stance extend beyond flagship initiatives and be seen to have safeguarded Radio 3 long-term as a network devoted to plenty more than just the playing of music?
In any case, it’s a depressing thought that it takes a man with Hall’s background in the arts to take his stance. With the anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination last November came the reminder that despite being a musical ignoramus, he was able to recognise the vital role the arts could play in national life. Such an ability to think way out of one’s personal box is all too rare among those who lead. Who and what will follow Hall?
Radio 3 stands to lose more of its essential character through continual cost-cutting than any of the other national BBC radio networks. For now, as I say, Radio 3 retains plenty of its historic character despite the cuts, but what lurks ever in the background is that evidence from classical music stations around the world that accountants don’t tend to see much beyond the lowest common denominator: a presenter with a pile of recordings.
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