Music on Radio: Spice it up

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The Independent Culture
Happy Birthday, Radio 3? In his Radio Review in this paper on Monday, Robert Hanks complained, "Essentially, it's concerned with perpetuating one quite narrow musical tradition, with little sense of the contexts that make this tradition important - that makes it more than a matter of taste." With all due respect, this, in turn, seems a rather narrow description of a network that actually strives to encompass the entire surviving repertoire of Western music over the past 1,000-odd years from vernacular medieval dance to five-hour Romantic music-drama, together with a range of contemporary activity both notated and, sometimes, improvised (Hear and Now), a fair sampling of Jazz (Jazz Notes, Impressions, Jazz Record Requests), a weekly selection of more esoteric developments in Pop (Mixing It) and fitfully, but occasionally in concentrated bursts, at least some note of the classical musics of India, Africa, Latin America, the Far East and so on (for instance, in the Traditional Music series presented this month by Brian Eno). One might well argue over the relative amounts of time Radio 3 devotes to each of these vast musical areas. Yet one will hear precious little of any of them on Radio 1.

All the same, Hanks's broader implication is only too true; that a network initially dedicated to the whole of high culture is now largely hogged by music. No doubt the neat demarcation between Third Programme highbrows, Home Service middlebrows and Light Programme lowbrows upon which post- war BBC broadcasting was reconstructed now seems hopelessly naive from our culturally fragmented standpoint; still more so, the pious hope of the BBC's wartime director general, Sir William Haley - as heard in an archival clip during last Sunday's 50th anniversary celebrations - that listeners might be drawn culturally upward from one network to another. But at least it meant that light classics and a fair amount of the standard repertoire were regularly heard by listeners to the Home Service, amid its new programmes, plays and quizzes; just as features, readings and discussions of an excellence that still sometimes marks the best of the Home Service's successor, Radio 4, were programmed from the start on the Third. Then came the (ultimately market-driven) fad for generic broadcasting in the 1960s, with the new Music Programme gradually appropriating the Home Service's musical output and, in 1970, absorbing the Third Programme itself into Radio 3. At a time when so much less was available on disc than now and Classic FM undreamt of, the extending of the Music Programme could be promoted as a progressive move, but its end-result has been the kind of melange we are now offered from 6am to midday every weekday - the blandness of which has finally been brought home by, of all things, the last exit of Paul Gambaccini.

No one at Radio 3 ever pretended they wanted him for his mind. It was his body, or rather his person, they were after as a hopeful lure to the groundlings. Now that Morning Collection is fronted by Catriona Young, a poised presenter but no household name, it emerges more obviously than ever as virtually identical in musical formula to the three hours of On Air that precede it, and the two of Musical Encounters that follow. Not that choice of works in any of these programmes lacks substance or variety; Musical Encounters is often quite adventurous. Rather, it is the failure of nerve one senses in the background that, if the flow of morning music were interrupted by anything in the way of music talks or features, let alone programmes about literature, science or the discussion of ideas, listeners would begin switching off in their thousands. How, after 25 years of generic broadcasting, can the Radio 3 planners be so sure? Come to that, how could the Radio 4 planners be so certain that the introduction, say, of a short 3pm concert each weekday by one of the BBC orchestras would not bring the thousands disaffected by the asinine Afternoon Shift flocking back?

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