Radio 3 - why it matters, and why it shouldn't dumb down classical music

The BBC is happy to present classical music as light-weight reality TV - it's vital that the unique mission and role of Radio 3 shouldn't slip down the same route.

There is common agreement that, if Radio 3 didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be invented in the context of today’s broadcasting industry. So why does it exist at all?

It goes back to Radio 3’s predecessor, the Third Programme, launched just after the war and envisaging a small but appreciative audience for the arts. In those days the Home Service (Radio 4) and the Light Programme (Radio 2) both carried some orchestral concerts: the Third was aimed at an earnest audience keen to wrestle with the demands of new music or French poetry.

The station matters now because the BBC has an obligation to serve all audiences and since the arrival of generic radio in the seventies only Radio 3 would cater for such listeners. It matters in an age where classical music, which once featured regularly on popular programmes, has all but disappeared from people’s everyday lives. Every small child in the 1950s knew Fauré’s Dolly Suite which introduced Listen With Mother; in the 1960s Sibelius’s Karelia Suite introduced ITV’s This Week; and so on. The music was familiar even if titles and composers were unknown. It matters because it doesn’t rely on CDs but provides live and specially recorded music every day to many people who have few other opportunities to hear it.

It matters because without Radio 3 there would be little use for the BBC Performing Groups – the orchestras and BBC Singers – whose public performances are broadcast on Radio 3. In addition to commissioning contemporary composers and providing them with a valuable source of income, it employs the musicians capable of performing demanding new work. In turn, the regional orchestras do important outreach work in schools and communities in their areas. With their overseas tours, they are ambassadors for the BBC and for the nation.

It matters because it carries (and funds from its budget) every Proms concert during the season: when the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts became the BBC Proms it made no sense unless the concerts were also broadcast to the nation, and they are. It matters because for most of the year it broadcasts a full-length weekly play, from newly commissioned work to Shakespeare and Racine, Chekhov and Ibsen, Pinter and Stoppard, with audiences that would fill 50 regional theatres – if the plays were being produced in 50 regional theatres, which they aren’t.

All this and more – jazz, world music, arts and music reviews, discussions, interviews – which last year for the first time cost less than Radio 1’s.

So, to the second part: what should its future be? As a campaigning group, Friends of Radio 3 has a ‘view’ on this. Of course, we believe it should continue to do what it does – taking cultural broadcasting of this quality out to the nation.

Should it move towards appealing to a wider audience, that audience which is reportedly ‘daunted’ by classical music and the Radio 3 style? This is current BBC policy, which we oppose. Radio 3 is part of a broadcasting ecology: no other service in the UK, in the world probably, offers this mix of content. When the Third Programme started, there was no Classic FM to introduce a new audience to classical music. If for no other reason, it is anti-competitive for Radio 3 to use its public funding to target what is Classic FM’s natural audience – certainly it should not alter its style and ethos in order to do so.

Must it trim its budget to ensure that its relatively small audience is not favoured disproportionately? As mentioned above, the BBC has already seen to that by decreasing its content spend relative to other network stations (though infrastructure expenses bring its total cost to just above Radio 1’s). As a comparison, Jonathan Ross’s reputed £16m three-year pay deal would just about defray the costs of three entire Proms seasons.

But if there is no deliberate strategy to bring in new listeners or cuts costs, what of the future? The BBC Trust has said that those services with larger audiences (by which it probably means, if it has thought about it at all, principally BBC Two) should play their part in acquainting new audiences with the rewards of classical music. 

There will certainly be an audience for it: a 15-minute piano performance perhaps, or a short string quartet, with minimal background information or interviews. Why not put it on CBBC too? Young players dressed as they would be normally when they’re practising – in cargo pants and trainers. A rehearsal, perhaps, rather than a public performance. Remove the mystique: don’t let the concert hall formality detract from the main aim – that they should hear the music. And then point them to Radio 3. 

Scheduling children’s programmes on radio has become problematic, partly because young children listen less to radio, partly because parents must encourage them to listen: if the parents don’t listen to Radio 3 they won’t persuade their children to. Here the BBC has forgotten the lesson of perhaps the most successful of all children’s programmes on the Third Programme, from the 1960s: David Munrow’s Pied Piper. 

A large part of that success was due to the fact that adults enjoyed and learned from it too, with the cultural advantage of breaking down the barriers of listening compartmentalised by age. No matter how long it takes to build its young audience, that kind of programme is always worth its place in the schedule, in a way that recent attempts using the Blue Peter and CBBC models were not. 

The BBC too often dishes up classical music as trivialised reality TV, at unnecessary cost and minimal cultural benefit. Radio 3’s real challenge is to increase the audience for what it does, not to change what it does in order to get more listeners. It has changed over the years, introducing new voices and a less formal atmosphere, but with a notable loss of depth too.

About the author

Sarah Spilsbury is coordinator of Friends of Radio 3: http://www.for3.org/about/about.html