Twenty years of Brahms & Liszt: Meet the Classic FM DJs who have made fugues funky

For decades, classical music was considered fusty and exclusive. One broadcaster has changed all that.

Margherita Taylor was in a cab the other day. After a few minutes of chitchat, the driver suddenly recognised her voice. "He told me he listened to the station all the time," she says. "His name was Stan; he was a huge Brahms fan."

This wasn't, adds the Classic FM presenter, an isolated incident. "It happens all the time. I had this other driver recently, Bernard. Loved the station, adored Brahms."

When one considers the likely demographic of a station which, as its managing director Darren Henley readily admits, "basically plays music by a lot of dead guys", one might not expect it to include the drivers of taxis. But, insists Taylor, there is a certain logic to it: what better way to let off steam while negotiating endless traffic jams than with the German composer's Symphony Number 2?

"I used to do a lot of driving myself a few years ago, between London and Birmingham," she says. "Two or three hours on the motorway if you're lucky, four to five if there was traffic. That's when I started really getting into classical music again" – she had played classical guitar as a child, before gravitating to pop, and, as an adult, a job as a DJ on the k London pop station Capital. "I just needed something to help me unwind, and Classic FM was a breath of fresh air, a kind of 'ahh' moment. I'm not surprised taxi drivers listen; every driver should."

The AA would likely concur. A report published recently linked the kind of music drivers listened to and the manner in which they drove. Those who listened to heavy metal, it found, tended towards leaden-foot syndrome and consequently had more crashes, while those who favoured classical were far less likely to be involved in accidents.

And it's not just drivers listening: five million of us tune in every day, making the station – which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary – twice as popular as rival Radio 3.

Late December on a weekday afternoon, and presenter Jamie Crick is halfway through his daily request show. Though he has spent 18 years at the station, there is still something of the youthful scamp to Crick as he paces the studio floor – he presents standing up – and repeatedly encourages callers, particularly first-timers, to call in and ask for a tune. "OK, so perhaps you don't want to call," he begins in his mellifluous presenting tone, a good octave deeper than his speaking voice off air. "Well, you can email instead! Or text! Come on, don't be shy. I'm waiting."

His panto badgering works, and the requests come flooding in. Wendy from Sussex wants something with "a nice descant" for her husband, who is busy fitting a new kitchen for their son and daughter-in-law. Roger from Canterbury (a taxi driver?) requests "anything by Brahms", while Robbie, a decorator from Tyneside, requests the full nine-minute version of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and gets it.

Crick's lively manner is typical of the station's ethos: unabashedly welcoming, eminently inclusive. "You'll find no snobbery here," he promises. "We believe that classical music is for everyone, whatever their level of interest." What this means is that when somebody emails in wanting "that song off the Lloyds Bank ad", that is just what they get, without an accompanying lecture explaining that Sleepers, Wake – as Bach titled it – is one of the composer's more refined works of genius.

And this, says Henley, is what has sustained the station's success. He calls it "the democratisation of classical music. When I first started out here in 1992 [as an overnight newsreader], there was a perceived idea of how classical broadcasting should work – a certain stuffiness. But we believed otherwise. We believed there was, in fact, a huge market out there that we could take classical music into, and encourage listeners to join us on a journey of discovery."

Nick Bailey, a veteran broadcaster who started out on Radio Caroline in the 1960s, was the very first voice to be heard on Classic FM. "At the time, classical music had become unexpectedly mainstream," he notes. "We'd just had the World Cup, and everybody was obsessed with two things: Paul Gascoigne, and Pavarotti's Nessun Dorma. What this suggested was that there was a very broad appetite for it that wasn't yet being catered for."

By 1992, BBC Radio 3 had been broadcasting classical music to the nation for decades, but its attitude back then, Henley suggests, was that this remained a rarefied genre meant to be appreciated only by people of a certain class and deportment. Classic FM wanted, rather brashly, to bring the popular classics at least to Pavarotti's football fans. And it did. Within three months of going on air, it was pulling in more than four million regular listeners.

"The man who used to run Coca-Cola would say that he wished you could turn on any tap in the world and have Coca-Cola flow out of it instead of water," Henley continues, beaming. "Well, that's how we think of classical music. It can, and should, be part of everybody's daily listening repertoire. Just because you favour, say, hip-hop, doesn't mean you can't tune into some classical as well, does it?"

And increasingly, it seems, all sorts do. Though the average listener is in their early fifties – which perhaps explains a current advert on the station instructing how to spot early-onset dementia – Bailey tells me his overnight show fields a very broad spectrum of requests, "from 13-year-olds to 90-year-olds, night workers, insomniacs, the lot". And between January and June every year, the station is flooded with requests from students. "They are obviously listening to us on their headphones in libraries as they cram for exams," Crick says. "They say it helps them concentrate."

The rest of us tend to turn to the "dead guys" to soundtrack the more momentous times in our lives. When we get married, we most frequently walk down the aisle to something baroque and string-assisted; likewise when we are laid to rest. Antenatal classes regularly recommend that pregnant mothers listen to it, and insist that their recently born children will settle far quicker to, say, a Beethoven sonata than they would a nursery rhyme.

"I don't subscribe to the point of view that you have to be a certain kind of person from a certain kind of background in order to fully engage with classical music," says Henley. "That is," and here, his voice drops to a whisper, "bollocks."

And so Classic FM endeavours to engage its audience not just via its constantly replenished playlist (playing as many new composers as old), but by staging concerts around the country, and publishing both coffee-table books on the subject and unashamedly mainstream CDs stuffed with the kind of pieces many of us would recognise less from k their true origins than their modern-day adaptations – as soundtracks to bread, car insurance or aftershave ads, say.

Henley discusses all this with the garrulous enthusiasm of a man whose job is also his passion, eyebrows to his hairline. It's rather difficult not to be infected by it. "That's what unites us all here!" he cries. "Enthusiasm! Take a look around. A lot of our presenters are younger than you'd perhaps expect, and they're all vibrant and determinedly not stuffy. You won't find a grey beard or pipe smoker among us."

Though they do not boast the calculated zest of the presenters of Capital or XFM, with whom they share a building in London's Leicester Square, Classic's DJs are indeed unstuffy. As I arrive, former newsreader John Suchet is coming to the end of his his mid-morning slot. Suavely elegant, Suchet is the station's Beethoven expert (he is currently penning his sixth book on the composer), and has a voice of such Ovaltine creaminess it would be unwise to operate heavy machinery while listening to him. Taylor, meanwhile, radiates a natural ebullience, and if she reins it in somewhat for her Smooth Classics nighttime show, it is only in deference to the music. She's not the only one. Even Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and, joining the station yesterday, Alan Titchmarsh dial down their personalities in order to give the arias precedence.

"I definitely don't want there to be too much of me," Titchmarsh tells me, "at least initially. I want the music I play to be exhilarating, to lift the listeners. I'm aware I'm broadcasting to an already very loyal audience, and I'm also aware I might take a bit of getting used to..."

Late Sunday night finds former MP David Mellor at the helm, when he is permitted to veer off the playlist in favour of rarities and oddities. Henley describes him as "our very own John Peel", and though it may sound cruel to suggest that Mellor is better on the radio than he ever was on television, it is nevertheless true.

Then there is Alex James, sometime Blur bassist and currently Britain's go-to cheese expert. James arrived at the station in 2008, his late-blooming fascination with the genre perhaps typical of so many people of a certain age. His lovely explanation of precisely how he fell for classical music is now used by the station in a video clip to help draw advertisers in. "I started off liking the Beatles, and I listened to them all the time," he says. "Then I discovered that the Beatles were inspired by Roy Orbison, so I started to listen to him. The man's a tenor, an operatic tenor. He's singing opera, and it makes you cry. And once you've got to Roy Orbison, well, you're not that far away from Verdi, and you don't really need to go anywhere else [after that].

"There's something about great music that goes beyond time," he continues. "It has resonances beyond anything everyday, and exists in some place that you can only get to by listening to it. It's the most powerful magic there is."

All well and good, but the station's purported "democratisation" of everyone from Allegri to Vivaldi hasn't exactly occurred without incurring the wrath of the purists. Recently, the art critic Brian Sewell bemoaned BBC Radio 3's apparent aping of Classic FM's style on its breakfast show, calling Auntie's attempts, "bland and urbane, largely uninvolved, indifferent and dull to the point of infuriating", accusing the station of becoming populist with its phone-ins, competitions and chatter. Classic FM has always been full of phone-ins, competitions and chatter.

And what of the wider classical community? Kimon Daltas, deputy editor of Classical Music Magazine, salutes the station's success – but he does so hesitantly. "It's a valuable contribution, certainly," he says, "and it's accessible and easy and nice. But I think the idea of it democratising anything is slightly irrelevant. What it's done is find a niche in the market. Giving it a virtuous sheen isn't what it's really about. What it's about is making money. And that's fine." Comparisons with Radio 3, he adds, are redundant. "I'd argue that it doesn't have to compete with it at all, simply because Radio 3 has always catered more to connoisseurs."

But don't words like connoisseur return the composers back to their caskets, and reassert the genre's general whiff of stuffiness? "Perhaps," he concedes, "but classical music, to many, is seen very much as an art, and as such will always have a narrower field. It is something certain people care an awful lot about, and they don't want it misrepresented."

Henley is untroubled by this perception. "Being accused of dumbing down doesn't bother me in the slightest," he says. "Look, we live in a society today which is all about instantaneous fulfilment, and classical music now has to operate in that world. We try to give our listeners what they want and, unless I'm mistaken, we are."

Back in the studio, it's almost three o'clock, and Crick is still fielding an army of first-time callers. A woman has just left a message saying, between disarming gulps and yelps, that she would like to hear something soothing, and quick. It becomes evident that she is in labour, but, from the sounds of it, not for much longer. Crick wishes her all the best, then fades in a little Puccini. As the strings swell, he switches off the mic, stands back, and grins. "Never underestimate the power of a classical composer," he says.

Classic FM broadcasts on 100-102FM. For more about its 20th anniversary celebrations, visit classicfm.co.uk

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