Serendipity knocks

radio 3 round-up

So Radio 3 is gaining an extra half-hour each night from 1 April to take over Jazz Notes from Radio 2. And on 4 May, the network becomes a 24-hour service with the advent of Through the Night from 1am to 6am under the editorship of Donald Macleod. Since the BBC management is not, as far as one can discover, offering any substantial extra funds for this operation, it is doubtless fortunate that Radio 3's Controller, Nicholas Kenyon, will be able to draw upon "the wealth of material from our colleagues in the European Broadcasting Union". Accordingly, Saturday nights will kick off with 1am Euro Concerts, followed by chamber music; Sundays will feature operas plus a 3am Early Music slot; there will be further orchestral concerts on most week-nights with a special Friday emphasis on choral works, and so on. Finally, most nights will wind down between 5am and 6am with a "serendipitous sequence of music which will mix all the genres".

Before more cynical listeners are tempted to retort that there are already quite enough serendipitous sequences on Radio 3 - what with those more or less continuous record selections from 6am to midday and that ramshackle early-evening formula In Tune, which really does deserve consigning to outer darkness - it is worth considering the advantages of the new extension. As Macleod suggests, it will "offer more airtime for particular areas of enthusiasm which we know that the audience has for parts of the daytime schedule: early music, world music, organ music and jazz, for instance."

More bizarrely, after 17 June, schools programmes are finally being banished from their early-afternoon patch to the small hours - which, if it makes for yet more serendipity in an extended Midweek Choice, will also allow for longer Friday editions of the often revelatory Mining the Archives. Meanwhile, the late-evening repeat of Composer of the Week, one of the more serious casualties of the rejiggings of recent years, is being reinstated.

Yet these modest gains remain contingent upon the more mysterious questions of "Why?" And "For Whom?" One presumes that Radio 3's audience research has disclosed a real need, though demands for a night service could hardly be said to have dominated the latest outcries over the direction of the network. Maybe those musical insomniacs who most yearn for such an extension have felt too exhausted by day to phone or write in. Maybe the demand comes rather from night workers finally driven crazy by the easy-listening gobbets and infantile adverts of Classic FM.

In any case, it is difficult to imagine more than modest audiences for serious concerts in the middle of the night (unless that reflects a prejudice of listeners, like this one, whom nothing short of Election Special can keep awake much beyond 11.30pm). Could it be, for all the recent talk of "accessibility" and "user friendliness" - and the sometimes insultingly silly ways in which these precepts have been put into presentational practice - that Radio 3 has allowed itself to fall back unequivocally upon the old ideal that great music ought to be made available, no matter what the ratings!

If so, it is none too soon. Under the pressure of its commercial paymasters, Classic FM seems to be steadily shedding its more exploratory slots, such as Contemporary Classics - long gone - and Classic Verdict, soon to go, while plugging the same old bits of Vivaldi and Orff ever more relentlessly. Of course, that is what a lot of people want - just as they want Van Gogh's Sunflowers on their table-mats. But it ought to remain a major function of Radio 3 to suggest what they might want if they got a chance to hear it, and that, in turn, ought to remain as much a function of the established daytime schedule as of the new night-time one.

Take Composer of the Week, whose removal from its old morning slot has not, one gathers, bumped up the 9am ratings. If Radio 3 really considers this a "flagship" programme - as it certainly should after last week's superb series on Guillaume de Machaut - then it ought to be going out in prime time. Not at midday, when most of the working population is unable to hear it, or at 11.30pm, when many of the same listeners will be too tired to take it in, but surely in a slot such as 6.30 to 7.30pm in place of the utterly dispensable In Tune.

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