New image for Radio 3

Radio Review; Hear and Now (R3)

This Tuesday lunchtime, Radio 3 was playing My Fair Lady. On the previous night, the week's high spot for aspiring classical performers came with the final of the Young Musician 1995 competition - on Radio 2. You just wanted reliable broadcasts of full-length pieces? Try the private sector: Classic FM delivers them every afternoon and evening.

It's a confusing world out there among the airwaves, and currently there is no tradition in music journalism of keeping a critical ear fixed on it all. Yet every so often it crashes into the spotlight, with grand plans to reform the BBC or to allow new stations. We need more day-to-day debate so that the set-piece presentations of policy can have a proper context. How good is the quality control? Are minority and specialist audiences getting a fair deal? Do licence payers hear the music they need - or is public radio, like the Lottery, open to attack for taxing the poor to pleasure the comfortable?

A column like this has to set its sights wide. Radio 3 is bound to loom large, because it offers the most for the fewest, and the few themselves are nowadays a whole spread of interest groups. Let's start with a couple of them. The new music business is one of the highest profiled, a major source of patronage and controversy. A central part of its provision has just been revamped under a late-night Friday umbrella called Hear and Now, which is currently a two-hour chunk of airtime. On last week's showing, though, it is one large ghetto in place of two smaller ones. In a parody contest for sure-fire switch-offs, which would you choose: a three-part series on Fifties modernism in Darmstadt, or "highlights" (!) from an electro-acoustic festival in Bourges?

Never mind that the Fifties are neither here nor now, the problem is that too much content like this - and the Darmstadt documentary was pretty heavy-going - makes the slot look like a dumping ground. It was redeemed by its last half hour, Adrian Jack's Chromatic Fantasy, which made a sort of aural gothic horror movie by collaging music with prominent chromatic scales and harmonies - intriguingly, the spooky power seemed to come from tritones and a relentless flow as much as the ostensible subject. Otherwise, live relays and recordings away from the ghetto were a better bet, with new concertos by Richard Rodney Bennett and Oliver Knussen taking prime positions.

What exactly makes a better bet, of course, begs some more general questions about the scope of contemporary music-making on Radio 3. This goes further than the famous resistance to what really is new - serialism two generations ago, minimalism last decade, women composers in the Nineties, you name it. Take the 4.30pm slot on Friday afternoons, usually about music from outside the Western classical tradition. Often, it comes down to an illustrated lecture in ethnomusicology, overseen by an English curator: last time it included brief samples of soundtrack from Malaysian ritual. This stance, which does not trust the music to define its own nature in its own time, is an extraordinary survival. Classic FM doesn't fade out music in mid- piece, and neither should Radio 3.

Let the Radio Times's Unintended Joke of the Week reinforce the point. At 4.30pm on Monday, "Russell Davies unravels the complex relationship between black and white jazz musicians." At 5pm on Monday. "The Music Machine: This week Tommy Pearson investigates the links between music and colour." No, this wasn't themed programming. The strains of Bliss's Colour Symphony soon made it clear that they weren't on about the same thing at all. Jazz programmes, it seems, can deal in a lively, unselfconscious way with an absorbing musical and social issue, while the classical world still regards it as a hot potato.

Elsewhere the network has been swapping its old, clubby image for a new, clubby image. Lots of people complain about the amount of chat, but it's the way they chat that really grates. The updated Radio 3 voice comes in slightly furtive, eager huddles, like public schoolboys in the dormitory talking about something they shouldn't. One of this week's pleasures has been the morning series of Offenbach operettas with classic French casts - a treasury of style and sheer fun. Every time the music stopped, however, there was the arch, nudging link to remind you it was naughty and Parisian. Whatever happened to robust directness?

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