Mediocrity beckons R3

Classical: On The Air
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The Independent Culture
DID YOU know that Radio 3 is "underperforming" on Saturday and Sunday afternoons? Or so Matthew Bannister, director of BBC Radio, told his assembled programme-makers a couple of months back. Nor did he mean that the producers were failing to come up with bright ideas, or that the BBC Symphony Orchestra was not playing loudly enough. He meant simply that, per unit cost, too few listeners during those periods were leaving their radios switched on.

No recognition from Bannister of the probability that a significant proportion of those who do choose to switch on - despite the alternative weekend attractions of shopping, football or mowing the lawn - might be all the more committed to the programmes on offer. No acknowledgement of how, for instance, the Sunday lunch time magazine Music Matters, intelligently presented by Ivan Hewett, has helped to focus national debate on such issues as music education and Arts Council funding. No praise for Sunday afternoon's Spirit of the Age, that flagship of the early music movement.

For to commend such achievements would be to raise the fraught issue of quality of listening (fraught because difficult to quantify) as opposed to the (alleged) demand from the majority of listeners for a mere stream of pleasant classical background music. Or fraught, at least, for a BBC management which at present prefers to hide behind focus-group prejudice and the findings of "lifestyle" audience research. Accordingly, Spirit of the Age is being demoted from its weekly hour-long format to just 10 editions a year, and Music Matters will disappear altogether next April, its concerns supposedly subsumed into the often ill-focused Night Waves.

As for Saturday afternoons: these are to be given over to yet another gramophone miscellany in the form of yet another listeners' request programme, plus a youth slot to replace the weekday Music Machine, which is being rewarded for its inventive production style by being dropped. And with the money saved, Bannister will be able to buy in a snazzier disc jockey or two for Radio 1.

Whether or not planned with malice aforethought , last Monday's Prom interval feature threw a mordant light on the whole matter. Fronted by Mark Russell, co-presenter of Mixing It, and entitled Handel in the Strand, Vivaldi on the Phone, this purported to be a look at the history of Baroque music. But from the moment the station-master at Cambridge (on whose platform much of the programme was recorded) owned up to piping jolly music every time he had to announce a delay or cancellation, the real topic turned on why so much background music is Baroque.

It's cheaper than commissioned new music, was one answer; helps to deter such riff-raff as drug-pushers from shopping malls, was another. Brian Eno, who has perpetrated the odd naughtiness on Pachelbel's Canon, suggested it was because the style was formulaic. It fell to Christopher Hogwood, frequent Cambridge passenger and loudspeaker-sabotaging member of Pipedown, to rave against the aural pollution which we are powerless to close our ears to. But nothing could deter the bland assurance of the man from the Muzak Corporation about "creating experiences for our clients" and how a "classical ambience adds value". As for Baroque music, its "constant texture and tempo are more effective in a business environment".

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