Power & Influence in the Arts / Classical Music: Changing Tastes: Michael Bukht, controller of Classic FM, has radically altered perceptions of classical music. Robert Maycock studies his recipe for success

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The Independent Culture
Now this', said Michael Bukht, 'is the bit I really like best.' He picked up a blunt wooden object and began to thump the material in front of him until it shattered into tiny pieces. 'Yeeagh - revenge is sweet.'

This was not, you understand, the head of Nicholas Kenyon, his opposite number at Radio 3, but the ingredients for a walnut and lemon tart. It is one of the many mould-breaking features of Classic FM that its programme controller is best known to his public as Michael Barry, the main performing act in BBC 2's Food and Drink. Even on his own station Bukht makes his personal appearances as the Crafty Cook. We all know the impact on a nation's culture that Delia Smith had, but whoever heard of a telly chef exercising real influence in the rarefied world of the arts?

The parallels are not so far-fetched. Like Delia Smith, Bukht has triggered an alarming flurry of snobbishness. Smith was despised by the Elizabeth David-reading classes for letting on to the hoi polloi that they too could dine with pleasure and imagination. The user-friendly Barry recipes attract a similar scorn; but it's the nerve touched by his radio work that is really interesting.

When Classic FM launched in September 1992, reactions in the musical world fell almost too neatly into three sorts. For big names the launch seemed horribly fascinating ('there are dangers': Peter Donohoe; 'worse than I thought': Judith Weir). Newspaper critics were sniffy, dismissive or satirical. The most generous, or realistic, welcomes came from administrators and rank-and-file musicians. Meanwhile the listening figures soared: 4.4 million a week by spring 1993, 4.7 million now. It's the same old divide, crippling good taste versus an unsatisfied hunger, that has plagued the arts in England for years, and here was somebody daring to bludgeon his way through it.

Bukht, the outsider in classical music, is the complete professional in radio terms. Trained by the BBC, he made his reputation as programme controller for the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation in the late 1960s, and brought it back to London as founding programme controller of Capital Radio from 1972 to 1976. For five years he was principal of the National Broadcasting School, and then returned to radio at Invicta and GWR before taking up his present post four months ahead of the launch. He goes in for sailing as well as cooking, and he does have interests in music and dance, though they are at the edges of the Classic FM spectrum - particularly the early music end.

This is not radio in Bukht's image. The choosing, classifying and computerising of the station's mainstream repertoire is down to Robin Ray, who had it well under way before Bukht even joined. Bukht has often called Classic FM 'a rock'n'roll station that plays classical music', and as a business it has modelled itself on the success of Capital. His own creative touch comes with taking the material, moulding it into forms that make the difference between aimless sequences and broadcasts that are going somewhere, and knowing when to go outside the formula - which happens a lot more than random daytime listeners know. Then there's the tone and presentation, relentlessly middle-class but open rather than clubby. Tony Scotland notwithstanding, Classic FM has poached more from Radio 4 than Radio 3, with Margaret Howard and Henry Kelly there at the start and the Gardeners' Question Time team joining next month.

Insiders say he has an intuitive feel for programming; 'an animal instinct', says one. He also possesses a talent for happening to hear the programmes that go wrong, and pouncing immediately. Tightness, pace, a lively impact, are watchwords. But there can be a light hand. He wasn't happy with the Friday evening programme about new recordings, Classic Verdict, until the format had settled, but he doen't interfere in the musical content: the choice is entirely up to the presenters, Keith Shadwick and Robert Cowan, and if they argue about it on air (as happened last week), so much the better.

Evening shows are quite different from daytime ones. Personal enthusiasm takes over, and the repertoire opens up. Some of it is clearly for buffs as well as uncommitted listeners. Michael Mappin's Contemporary Classics on Sundays doesn't baulk at the tougher stuff alongside the Philip Glass and the early 20th-century favourites. Last year it even brought off a sponsorship deal with the Society for the Promotion of New Music, which wanted to celebrate its 50th anniversary by showing the world it was more than a recruiting body for the old contemporary-music establishment. Bukht has made noises about wanting this slot to focus more on easy-listening pieces but, if that happens, a harder- edged hour may pop up at another time to balance it - one such is under discussion at the moment.

The sum total of this output still does not begin to match the musical expertise and accumulated wisdom that Radio 3 can effortlessly draw on. These qualities persist without much trouble in the face of changes in presentation style and the ravages of Producer Choice. How, in comparison, can an upstart station claim to be a major cultural force? Well, it doesn't claim to be, and Bukht is happy to leave the 'cultural heritage' baggage with the BBC. And that is its strength.

If Classic FM succeeds in its aims it will have brought about a full-scale shift in the perception of European classical music. Having surpassed its projected listening figures by more than 50 per cent, it is now setting up in the Netherlands, advertising for broadcasters who have an interest in jazz too. After that, they have their sights on the rest of the continent. They haven't pinched Radio 3's audience (which has slightly increased over the period). Instead, they have enabled a new range of listeners to feel that the music is theirs, instead of being a manifestation of culture descending from on high to which they are allowed access on its own terms.

The fact that it is being done by a commercially motivated business does not, it seems to me, make one bit of difference to the phenomenon. Without intending to, the Classic FM project could well bring about a massively expanded, Europe-wide sense of shared identification with a central feature of European culture - the sense that has made musicians and music-lovers feel part of the continent ahead of most of these islands' inhabitants.

If that happens, the 'dangers' that high-minded critics saw in Classic FM would be as nothing. Admirers of Classic FM see its ability to 'spread the gospel' as one of its great assets. So far the station's content is classical in the narrowest terms. An enquiry about when it broadcasts classical Indian music brought the reply 'only in travel programmes'. Too exclusive a focus could feed cultural xenophobia: it would be ironic indeed if the once famously rearguard Radio 3 became the true musical voice of a multicultural Britain, but at the moment the BBC has the edge on pushing away at the borders.

Still, it is early days. Bukht's station is still exploring new ground; Bukht is not the man to let it rest on its laurels. Those who feared danger for the music they loved have not seen it brutalised or trivialised any more than it has been by the reforms at Radio 3. All that has happened is that more people have been let in on the secrets - a recipe for alarm only to those who want to keep the best things in life for themselves.

(Photograph omitted)