One man's Three for all

Purists may hate the new R3, but Nicholas Kenyon has no regrets. Sue Gaisford meets the man who signed Gambo
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The Independent Culture
NICK KENYON curls up on his sofa, his fingers playing arpeggios on the venetian blinds behind him. It is a newish, maroon sofa, its care instructions still swinging triangularly from a corner, but he has covered it with a lumpy strawberry-bedecked rug: the serious concealed by the comfy. On his notice-board is the on/off switch from a radio, posted to Kenyon by an irate listener with no further use for it. In the outer office, on the other hand, a jug of greenish water sustains flowers sent by an appreciative fan: they are rather horrible flowers, actually, like giant puce and magenta pine cones, with sinister white trailing fronds and one weary fern, but they were clearly well-intentioned.

Kenyon, Controller of Radio 3 since March 1992, cheerfully ignores these esoteric symbols of rage and delight. He is eagerly explaining his new scheduling for the station. In his black suit and tie-less white shirt, with his polished head neatly fringed by thick dark hair, he seems almost like a tonsured abbot, in charge of an abbey full of wayward and talented monks. His mission is clear: he wants to sustain his flock with a diet of the music they love at the same time as introducing them to more varied fare and, of course, bringing in converts.

To this end, he has introduced a new missionary and a new liturgy. He laughs long and loud at the idea that Paul Gambaccini, who started on Monday, is the Chris Evans of Radio 3, summoned to revive gloomy ratings and to attract another audience. Gambo, he says, is a lot less expensive than Evans, but he doesn't deny that the idea is the same. At nine every morning there is a perceived moment of dither among radio listeners. The Today programme has filled their heads with current disasters, or Terry Wogan is running out of steam, or Henry Kelly is about to aggravate them. Where can they go when they're sick of news and looking for some good music to help them get on with the day?

In the old days, Radio 3 would have offered them This Week's Composer. Had the composer in question been Mozart, many would have stayed; had it been Berio, they'd have left. Now the composer waits for lunchtime and it's up to Gambo to go out and grab the punters.

They'll hate it, of course, many of them, as Kenyon's audience hates any change: it is like moving their toothbrushes in the bathroom, he says. Some of them may well send him a piece of their minds, or of their radios, but he is braced for that. Besides, he likes messing around with timetables. His mother told him the other day that when he was very small he would spread out back numbers of the Radio Times to compare the schedules, week by week. A year or two later he was singing Byrd and Tallis in the Catholic church choir, and the female Gilbert and Sullivan leads at school, in Manchester. When a choir trip to London took in Jacqueline du Pre rehearsing the Elgar cello concerto in the Albert Hall, there was no going back. Seeing what was happening, his thoughtful mother took up evening classes in musical appreciation; young Nick took up the cello.

From such seeds grew the Radio 3 Controller. We discuss words like "elite" and "populist". He is comfortable with both. It is, he maintains, vital to keep up the high standards of an elite music station, but never to allow that elite to become closed or exclusive. And the man who once gave a pretty performance singing the lead in Patience is the one who happily admits a programme about football songs to his precious airwaves. He has no problems with that - after all, football occupies the attention of many residents of this fairest isle. His father, however, though a Blackburn Rovers supporter, thought it deeply inappropriate.

And here is a major problem: what exactly is appropriate for Radio 3? It absorbs pounds 50m of licence fee a year and reaches two and a half million people a week. Isn't that a trifle disproportionate? "Look," says Kenyon, shifting on his strawberry rug and exuding reasonableness, as he sets off on what is clearly a well-practised speech. "The figures are not falling, but anyway, Radio 3 is never going to be measured by listening figures alone, or the Third Programme would never have survived." What he wants to stress is the superb value for money that his network offers: pounds 30m goes directly to performers, musicians, actors, writers and composers, offering wonderful patronage to the cultural life of the country. "My fundamental feeling is that times change - not that we have different values, but that we have to reinterpret them, recreate ourselves for each generation. And besides, compared with anything at all on tele-vision, our costs are tiny and our contribution enormous."

And what about speech? Is there a case for leaving speech programmes to Radios 4 and 5 and devoting 3 entirely to music? Kenyon is certain that would be wrong. There must be room, he says, for the kind of plays, features and talks that the network currently broadcasts, if it is to safeguard the holistic cultural approach he so values. It is this dimension that has so strengthened such successes as the Polish season last year and, of course, the current "Fairest Isle" extravaganza.

Mention Classic FM, however, and a certain wariness develops. There is much more overlap, he says, between R3 and R4 than between R3 and CFM, but that is not really the point. Their audience is larger than his, their signal clearer, and they have just signed Richard Baker, the archetypal professional music broadcaster. Kenyon is sad to see him go, but, choosing his words carefully, he adds: "I have great admiration for what they have done at CFM, but it's a bit topsy-turvy now that they are ending up with such traditional figures, rather than carving out a new path. I think the more we remain distinct, the better - but that has as much to do with them not coming into areas which nobody feels they do well." Like this summer's live broadcasts from the Lucerne Festival? Yes. Did he hear them? No, he says shortly, he was at the Proms.

The reception problem derives, apparently, from the fact that CFM, like R1, uses only a small band of dynamics compared with R3. In other words, R3 has quieter soft passages, noisier loud ones, giving more variety and satisfaction - if you can hear it. This will all be solved soon by the arrival of digital broadcasting. But, meanwhile, he worries that CFM might not be paying its artists enough, as so much is done through sponsorship and advertising: "If performing organisations think it's a good idea to do work for less than its full worth, then that is something I shall have to consider, but I'd rather pay artists properly."

So the balancing act continues. Using public money responsibly, commissioning new works, keeping one part of his audience happy with traditional music, delighting others with challenges, getting rid of the disruption caused by schools broadcasts, working towards a 24-hour schedule - and, from next year, taking over from John Drummond the responsibility for the Proms, Radio 3's most popular endeavour of all, the grand Kenyon will have his work cut out.

He is buoyant. The evening after our interview, he hosted a large party to introduce the last part of the "Fairest Isle" season. Purcell's birthday will be celebrated by an enormous concert in Westminster Abbey in November. And he is planning a major retrospective season of 20th-century music that will put such controversial composers as Harrison Birtwistle into context. The very thought of it makes his eyes sparkle and his rhetoric flourish. As long as he is in charge, Radio 3 is here to stay. And when he goes, he hopes to leave it with a newly coherent style which will please both a new audience and a faithful one - "but I wouldn't pretend that we're there yet".

On the notice-board back in his office, near the angry little plastic knob, is a drawing by Birtwistle's son, Adam. It depicts a little boat sailing calmly through stormy seas. Its title underlines the Kenyon philosophy: it is called Disregard of Misfortune. !

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