Media: Radio 3's new agenda

Listeners and critics are wrong in thinking there was a golden age
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The Independent Culture
AT THE First Night of the Proms last week, I was reminded that Radio 3 is the only radio station in the world capable of mounting such a huge and popular music festival. The Proms comprises 72 concerts of the highest quality every summer, imaginatively planned and superbly executed, with a Last Night that has entered the popular consciousness at home and abroad in a way that no other classical concert has. It's not only that the tickets represent such good value - a quarter of a million are sold each year - but also that Radio 3 broadcasts all the concerts live, allowing those who can't get to the Royal Albert Hall, to experience every note as it actually happens. Not for nothing has it been deemed the world's greatest music festival.

But it's not just responsibility for the Proms that has given Radio 3 the status of being the most important high quality classical music and cultural network in the world. No other broadcasting organisation is responsible for maintaining five orchestras and a group of professional singers dedicated to supporting the distinctive programming and artistic integrity of Radio 3. No other network is responsible for commissioning a new piece of music every two weeks, and fostering the creative talent that forms the wellspring of British music.

Radio 3 is unlike any other radio network. It does not run according to set formulas - blocks of programming of the tried, tested and overly familiar. It reflects the UK's live music-making and moulds the country's cultural agenda.

Listeners and critics alike are prone to refer back to times past, when they imagined the network to be a greater bastion of high culture than it is today - often a nostalgic perception of a golden age. I hope that they will enjoy, for example, Composer of the Week reverting to its original time at 9am. But I'd urge them not to dwell on the past - rather they should listen to our new programmes, our documentaries, our dramas, as we continue to set new trends and standards for the future.

People have frequently mentioned to me that drama is Radio 3's best kept secret and I'm determined that this should no longer be the case. Last week saw the launch of our new Shakespeare season. What other radio network could offer 17 new productions of Shakespeare's greatest plays over the next four years, starring a roll-call of the greatest names in British theatre today? Last week I was joined at our launch by a raft of the country's leading actors, many of whom are taking part in the Shakespeare season this autumn, and who all joined me in celebrating our commitment to classic productions and new writing. In the next few months alone we mount new productions of Goethe's massive work, Ironhand; Sylvia Plath's The Three Women; an important new play, Dianeira, by Timberlake Wertenbaker; and we devote weekends to the cultural worlds of Weimar and Barcelona, and a week to Samuel Beckett.

Radio 3 is part of the lifeblood of the nation's creative community. In our new autumn schedule I am putting creative and performing artists firmly at the centre of what we do. One radio critic joked at the weekend that Night Waves, our live arts discussion programme, didn't really exist as no nameable person had ever heard it. I'm extending it, scheduling it earlier and putting it on every weekday evening, directly following our evening concert; I'm also bringing our nightly 20-minute crafted speech feature to the heart of the evening's schedule in the interval of the concert; and we can now offer listeners a regular insight into the heart of the creative process with a new five-minute daily strand called Work in Progress, in which one artist each week talks about the project on which they are currently working. The names in the first few weeks alone include Maggi Hambling, Edward Bond and Tom Paulin.

One of the most exciting parts of my role as Controller is the constant contact with live music. An evening concert on Radio 3 isn't just a sequence of compact discs. We can offer the listeners the best seats in the concert hall or opera house - a nightly chance to hear some of the world's greatest performers playing live some of the world's most exciting music. And this is why I've programmed a new live music strand, Morning Performance, every morning from 11.30am, bringing live music firmly into the mornings on the network.

Education to me for this network means getting over to our listeners, however young or old, the excitement and thrill of discovery present in everything we do. Whether we are offering a journey through the different versions available of great works delivered with quiet but passionate authority (CD Review), an authoritative but always approachable focus on one composer (Composer of the Week), or new developments in our online services, education underpins everything we do - lightly worn, deeply important.

The joy of discovering the unexpected is the focus of our new late evening programme, Late Junction, hosted by Verity Sharp and Fiona Talkington. It is my response to people's real wish to discover the unknown and to push back the boundaries of music. This will be music for late night listening, from chant to world music, from Taverner to Tavener - a journey into the delights of the less familiar.

There is a case for music as background, and despite the quality of Radio 3's output - which always repays dedicated and quality listening - it is of course also possible for people to experience our service in this way. But Radio 3's distinctive - indeed unique - offering rests on the fact that it's more than just a pile of CDs, more than just the music, more than just the Proms, more than just a radio network. It's a priceless treasure trove of artistic and cultural discovery - quality and adventure for everyone.

Roger Wright is Controller of Radio 3