Radio 3 - 'Every listener won't like every editorial decision'

Independent readers have been critical of Radio 3's treatment of Mozart and Handel. Its controller, Roger Wright, answers them and outlines his plans for live broadcasts
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The Independent Culture

With audience figures up, the overwhelming success of our Mozart festival, Radio 3 has a real spring in its step. Now we are making a bold announcement about our concert coverage, and ready for more exciting programming. However, reading the occasional letters devoted to Radio 3 in the pages of this newspaper, you'd not be surprised to see bemused looks on the faces of my colleagues who run the station. "Once again the tyrants of Radio 3 are to subject its audience to an unbroken period of a single composer...", and "...this suggests that the station is being run as a kind of hobby by those leading it. The listener is no longer a customer; but someone who has to tolerate the self-indulgent behaviour of the station's management".

It may be considered extraordinary that there is this range of personal connection that Radio 3 listeners feel with the station. Of course, not every editorial decision will please every listener, but I do understand and welcome that strong sense of belonging and ownership that our listeners have towards the station – or their station, as they regard it. Radio 3 is the BBC's home of classical music, but it is also much more than just a radio station. It is nothing less than an essential part of the UK's music and arts ecology – and the cultural scene is richer and more vibrant for the presence of Radio 3 in the classical-music market.

Radio 3 remains a high-quality and distinctive station – as some have it, "the envy of the world" – and to be the current caretaker of this jewel in the BBC's crown is a real privilege. It was fascinating – but perhaps not a surprise – to learn from the BBC Trust that there had been 11,000 submissions about Radio 3 to its recent review of the station. Many companies tell us that they would give much for that level of engagement with their customers.

"I think you may have an anti-Handel policy," wrote one listener. "Please reply so I know where I stand." It is a hard accusation to support, not least when we have recently broadcast every Handel opera (more than 40 of them) and lots of his other works. Again though, that sense of a personal service shines through. What we choose to broadcast, how and when, are important decisions for our millions of listeners, as many of them set their clocks by the station and treat it as the background to their lives.

Setting and moulding agendas, not following them, has always been the Radio 3 way. Six years ago, we made broadcasting history by scheduling nothing but the complete works of Beethoven for a week. Since then we have offered Bach, Webern, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky in this way. Most recently, Mozart was the composer we celebrated, with a 12-day feast. Inevitably there were some listeners who didn't like the idea, but the overall response shocked even those of us in the station who thought that we might touch a particular nerve over the festive period. By a count of around 100 to one, the positive response outweighed any other kind of feedback.

Some other letters on these pages have referred to concerns about the station's breakfast programming. It was with some amusement that I received one complaint that Radio 3 Breakfast was too, well, er, breakfast-y. Why should we not want the station to be welcoming, and reflect in our morning programmes that listening habits and needs vary at different times of day?

In its report, the BBC Trust endorses this strategy and finds no evidence to suggest that Radio 3 is a service without distinctiveness and quality at its core. We are still the most significant commissioner of new music in the world, a regular home for full-length UK radio-drama, and the exclusive broadcaster of all the BBC Proms.

A decade ago doomsday merchants were predicting the death of chamber music and song recitals – how then would they explain the success of Wigmore Hall (and, within the hall's programming, the quality of the Radio 3 Monday lunchtime concerts)? Look at the record-breaking success of the BBC Proms and you realise that classical music is thriving in concert halls and on Radio 3 – with the station's evening concert figures up 10 per cent.

At a time of real concern about public funding for the arts, it is even more important that we exude confidence about the value of classical music and share our passion for it, rather than just count its cost. If you have a passion, it is a natural instinct to want to share it with others – offering high quality and a warm friendly tone are not mutually exclusive.

With our listening at an all-time high for the last quarter of the year, it may be that, after the Proms success, we have attracted new listeners for the station, something that anyone interested in arts and culture should welcome. While welcoming these new listeners, we continue to move confidently through this year and will increase our live broadcasts in the evening to a level never before heard on the station.

One element of the station's distinctiveness is that more than half of Radio 3's music output is not from disc – in other words it is from concerts, operas, recitals and other performances. Now, in an unprecedented move, from May we are going to be offering our millions of listeners the chance to occupy the best seat in the house by having live broadcasts, with the exception of a few weeks a year, every weekday evening.

There'll be more changes later in the year as we build on our recent success – but we have no current plans to do another big composer focus, although listeners are keen to know who the next one might be.

So when listener demand becomes too great, and we do have another composer celebration, I'll be ready to welcome new listeners and expect the brickbats too, but, in the meantime, I'll enjoy the last remaining traditional Austrian chocolate Mozart-balls!

Roger Wright is controller of BBC Radio 3 and director of the BBC Proms