About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

What's Happening to Radio 3?

If you don't listen to Radio 3, you can skip this blog. But if you do, read on.

I owe BBC Radio 3 a huge debt. It helped to form me as a child. At home in the 1950s and 60s, the radio would always be playing classical music wherever it could be found. Radio 3's predecessors Network Three and the Third Programme were the station of choice (unless it was time for The Archers). When it was silent, as it was for much of the time in those days, European stations closest to the UK would stand in. Hilversum had the honour of being picked out with a sticky label on the tuning dial. The hums, wheezes and whistles of short wave and AM were the unforgettable noise behind of my first experiences of music, as were the skips and scratches of the 78s I would play on my wind-up gramophone.

How vivid those early memories are of the music that emanated from that big brown valve radio in the corner of the sitting room! Mozart symphonies and piano concerti, and Schubert Lieder laid down the foundation, I recall. Next came Beethoven symphonies and Bach's keyboard music. Opera was represented by Bizet's Carmen and Wagner's Flying Dutchman. My mother listened keenly to chamber music and my father to the big romantic symphonies and concerti, though it wasn't till I was a teenager that I began to pay attention. By then I'd become a chorister, so I began to devour choral music on the radio, beginning with Bach's St John Passion, Mendelssohn's Elijah and Brahms' Requiem. Choral Evensong, radio's oldest outside broadcast now 90 years old, became a weekly staple - when I was home from school early enough on a Wednesday afternoon to catch it. Like many people, I could tell my life story through the music I've come to love and which I've found to be not just inspiring but life-changing. Much of that is thanks to Radio 3. It has to be one of the most inventive and rewarding music stations in the world.

Now that I'm retired, we have Radio 3 on in the house most of the day (in different rooms that each has its own interpretation of "real time" when it comes to picking up the same digital signal). It's an immeasurable gift to have great music playing all day long. But I've noticed a shift in the style and content recently. There seems to be more and more of what I call pot-pourri programming these days. That's to say, the kind of talk-show scheduling that fills large parts of the day by giving presenters a studio, a CD player and sometimes guests to talk to and live performers to listen to.

Tomorrow, for instance, we shall have Petroc Trelawny on Breakfast duty from 0630 to 0900. Rob Cowan takes over with Essential Classics until noon. In Tune with Katie Derham runs from 1700 to 1900, and for half an hour after that, a new feature called In Tune Mixtape in which assorted tracks are played back to back without being interrupted by speech. This latest baffling invention, just a few weeks old, partly replaces the daily evening repeat of Donald Macleod's admirable Composer of the Week, once required listening at the supper table here in Burswell House. In total, that makes up a full eight hours of free-flowing (I almost said stream of consciousness) programming during the daytime.

I don't want to be misunderstood here. Radio 3 presenters are a splendid group of people: interesting, personable, articulate, urbane, amusing, skilled and musically intelligent. I've interacted with many of them on social media and had many a thoughtful or witty reply that has made me feel that we Radio 3 listeners belong to one of the best clubs in the country. And apart from a few exceptions, it's not a case of "dumbing down" the high art for which Radio 3 is justly renowned. I think we may be hearing more of Bizet's Pearl Fishers duet, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (first movement only) and Pachelbel's Canon than we used to, but on the whole, the musical range is as extensive and stimulating as ever. You only have to listen to Classic FM for a day to realise that the stations are very different from each other in that respect.

But pot-pourri programming inevitably falls back on the well-tried formulae of popular radio. This means above all having an easy conversational style ("as if they were sitting in my own kitchen"), a relentlessly upbeat tone, and maintaining as much musical variety as possible by playing single movements or excerpts from longer works. These days you don't often hear a complete symphony, chamber work or song cycle outside the official "concert slots" in the afternoons or evenings. Is it unkind to hint at "easy-listening" here, easy in the sense of not demanding too much of the listener whose attention spans are presumed not to exceed a few minutes? Or does cost come into it? It's not that there isn't a place for this kind of broadcasting. But there's too much of it. We still need the properly constructed programmes whose shape and grammar are dictated by more serious aims and content than entertaining an audience and keeping it going cheerfully through the day.

"Retirement is making him grumpy" I hear you say. I hope not. I'm not giving up on Radio 3. It's one of my oldest friends. But I do admit to turning aside from it more than I used to (how horrified my late mother would be!), switching the tuner to AUX and finding other means of playing serious music. This morning, when I got back from taking the early service in church, I played four Bach cantatas one after another on YouTube where I've learned you can find almost anything you want musically speaking. I'm not suggesting Radio 3 could or should have done that (though to broadcast the day's Bach cantata on the morning of every Sunday of the year might be an idea to run with....).

I'm simply saying that I looked for something a bit more intentional than the Sunday Morning offer from 0900 to midday ("music ranging from Gluck to Debussy by way of Schubert" announced the website). But as I gratefully streamed from the ever obliging internet, I also realised that making my own choices is not the same as live radio. When I choose to play music, I tend to stay within my own musical experience, my comfort zone if you like. Radio's gift is to take me beyond my well-honed musical preferences and prejudices, and challenge me to discover the new, the different, the surprising, the hard and even the alien. It invites me into a community of listeners, and there's something about enjoying music in the company of a worldwide audience that strikes me as precious and important, and a necessary antidote to individualism, so much a tendency of our age.

If someone in the BBC picks this up, maybe there could be a good conversation about the aims and style of Radio 3's scheduling. The world has moved on since my childhood. It's right that Radio 3 responds to change. In particular, widening access to great music and art must always be among its priorities. And yes, pleasing an audience involves compromises. It's not a case of elitism - God forbid! But maybe - maybe - there's scope for looking again at the daily schedules and asking whether the balance is quite right any more, whether there's been a decline of seriousness, or a loss of confidence in the well-tested mission of this wonderful radio station. I'm saying: don't weaken a strong brand. Please. "Discuss."

I hope it's clear that this blog is written out of affection and gratitude. I really don't want to be grumpy. Better to say it openly and see what happens.


  1. Exactly what I've been thinking for a long time. Is there anyone at the Beeb who understands what's been lost?

  2. Jonathan Jennings26 October 2017 at 08:22

    ... but you've answered the question in your own piece; ' ... on YouTube ...'where I've learned you can find almost anything you want musically speaking.'

    And who says that the Radio 3 brand you favour is the strong one? In the 50s, 60s and 70s Radio 3 and its predecessors had no competition except the gramophone or the concert hall. To listen to classical music at all away from either meant listening to Radio 3 and what the BBC felt you should be listening to. Now there is almost infinite choice and the programme controllers know that their best hope of survival - especially during the day - is in a more mixed economy. Like the church, the BBC is asking where its traditional adherents have gone; and are developing strategies to develop new adherence options. Because they need the broader potential audience becoming an actual audience, the balance shifts in favour of more easily accessible formats (not necessarily easily accessible works) and that means 'broad taster' rather than highly specialised and harder to access content.

    And be honest; did you seek out youtube because you were turned away from Radio 3, or did your curiosity lead you there earlier?

  3. Not the BBC, sadly, but: "We still need the properly constructed programmes whose shape and grammar are dictated by more serious aims and content than entertaining an audience and keeping it going cheerfully through the day."


    "When I choose to play music, I tend to stay within my own musical experience, my comfort zone if you like. Radio's gift is to take me beyond my well-honed musical preferences and prejudices, and challenge me to discover the new, the different, the surprising, the hard and even the alien."

    Thank you for a very thoughtful piece. Hasn't the previous poster missed the point about finding "almost anything you want"? The point about Radio 3 was that it gave people what they didn't know they wanted.

    1. Jonathan Jennings27 October 2017 at 17:12

      Indeed, but even the best patrician model of broadcasting is only sustainable as long as a baseline viable audience is there to accept it. Given all of its other disadvantages, a Radio 3 service which is not listened to is fruit of the political and fiscal kind which hangs far too low to have much chance of survival. The BBC can hardly be blamed for tumbling to the reality that the art of building a viable audience is not so much in the content as in the curating of it ...

    2. Radio 3 has as big a 'baseline' audience as many comparable stations in other countries. It has a bigger audience than BBC Radio 1Xtra (twice as many), the Asian Network (3 times as many), the World Service, the Welsh and Gaelic Services … Without such services the BBC's MOR music stations would be churning out pop music all day. If people want easy listening classical music, they have Classic FM. It's a good station if they want that kind of listening.

  4. Thanks for comments.

    Yesterday on "Essential Classics", the "What to play next" feature took Bach's Violin Concerto in E. Ah, I thought, that's short enough for us to be played the whole of it. Not so. We had just the first movement of that exquisite work. For me that was the last straw. I lost the will to live with this relentless upbeat anthologising of great music's best bits. I turned off and opened a Premium Spotify account so that I could play full works to my heart's content. Noon with Donald MacLeod is when I shall re-enter Radio 3 each day from now on.

    I don't recognise the word "elite". To me, part of the Radio 3 brand should include the presumption that listeners do not simply want to drop in on great music or use it as wallpaper, but that it is an essential part of their lives. Each station has its audience and while we want to grow the Radio 3 community, it shouldn't be at the cost of values that have been fought for for decades. We don't look for easy listening and do not want it. Classic FM does that far better than Radio 3 ever could. And if I want that (eg in the car as an alternative to the Second Viennese School), that's one good place to go. Let's admire consistency in sticking to core values when we see (or hear it.

    I'm not against all "Essential Classics"-type broadcasting (though the title of the programme grates). It's just that there is now so much of it. Please, BBC, get it back into proportion and give us mornings of properly designed programmes that have shape, structure and direction!