Radio 3: a big mistake

The most outspoken critic of the new "welcoming" Radio 3, Tom Lubbock argues that, with the arrival of Paul Gambaccini, it's time for the decision-makers to explain themselves
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Going a week now, Paul Gambaccini's new Radio 3 show, The Morning Collections, is a good thing in one respect It's made things clear. It's clear that other recent changes in the station's programmes weren't just piecemeal tinkering or subliminal evolution. It's clear too what their purpose has been. The watchword is "welcoming". The slogan goes: "If Radio 3 is to survive, it must expand its audience."

Nine o'clock in the morning has been identified as a time when listeners are floating. The long-standing occupant of the 9am slot, This Week's Composer, has been shunted on to noon - out of earshot of all who go out in the day - because it seemed too single-minded, too recherche to catch the floaters. In its place, a popular presenter (transferred from Classic FM) playing largely a selection of popular classics is at hand to welcome in the widest possible audience.

But what is welcoming to some is unwelcoming and unwelcome to others. Gambaccini's programme has been useful also in focusing the rumble of objections from Radio 3's regulars to what's been happening since Nicholas Kenyon became station controller in 1992. The big complaints, which I share, are these:

1 Too much light-, pop- and not-really-classical-at-all music (a recent example: theme music from Zorba the Greek).

2 A predominance of bite-sized, single movement pieces. Unlike Classic FM, Radio 3 has kept its "no snippets" rule; but the pay-off is that shorter works are preferred.

3 Medley-programming: musical sequences devised on no principle except "Here's another one you may enjoy" (or "Here's one I particularly enjoy" - a remark that invariably presages something really crummy).

4 Foregrounding of personality of presenters; upping of inter-music talk, coupled with

5 General insipidity of presenters' personalities; irrelevance and banality of the talk; listener addressed as someone with a rug over their knees.

All of the mornings (6am-noon) and the early evenings (5-7.30pm) have gone this way. The afternoons too, though more structured, are saliently presented . The message, surveyed through both programming and presentation, is plain: this won't hurt.

That, by contrast, tells what was good about Radio 3 as it once, mostly, stood. It didn't feel the need to assure you that classical music didn't hurt. The listener's interest in and appetite for the music was assumed. Certainly not all listeners were happy all the time (too much early music, too much modern; too recondite, too mainstream). But the basic assumption that you could take it, that you wanted to hear, that there wasn't a problem, prevailed. No doubt this assumption will never be shared by all that many listeners. But that such a station should exist is, prima facie, a good thing.

As for presentation: though it was pertinent, it certainly used to have a horse-drawn, very class-based tone. I feel no special nostalgia for the ancestral voices of Patricia Hughes or Cormac Rigby. Their stuffiness, though, wasn't more stifling than today's prevailing simper. Evidently it's the hardest thing to talk about classical music in a straight, sensible, grown-up way; not to sound like a precieuse or a flunky, a district nurse or the man from the Pru.

What's odd about Gambaccini is that when he's on Kaleidoscope talking about films, he's perfectly sane and intelligent. But when he gets near classical music - on Classic FM or here - he puts on a sonorous hush, betokening deep greatness. It's the voice of someone making an exclusive offer of luxury goods hand-tooled by craftsmen in real Kidron. It's another wrong way to do it. Personally, I'd be happy if presentation was very minimal and functional. If it must be more than that, then finding voices that sound sensible - and then letting them say sensible things - should be a priority.

The priority at the moment is quite different. It looks like damage limitation, a deal struck. Working on the principle that "If Radio 3 is to survive, it must expand its audience", Kenyon seems to be giving over the day to welcoming, audience-raising activities - so as to preserve the evenings and weekends for what now counts as the difficult stuff. Whether or not this policy will raise audiences, hold on to the floaters it catches, is one question. Whether, either way, the empire of the welcoming committee won't grow irresistibly to the exclusion of everything else is another. But it would be good to have this double-dealing policy spelt out.

What is this "must", though? It's not a law of nature or the market place. It's somebody's decision. Someone has decided that if the audience doesn't go up, the station will be abolished. So, who? (Birt? Parliament? Not Kenyon, presumably.) We need to know where arguments should be directed.

Whoever made the decision, it is absolutely irrational. Radio 3 isn't a commercial operation. It doesn't need large audiences. The channel remains "defensible in the current climate" so long as someone is prepared to defend it. The existence and success of Classic FM should not inspire emulation. If Radio 3 ever felt bad about popular classics fans, this is not the moment to feel it. Classic FM was, if anything, an opportunity to make programming more intensive, not more diffuse.

I do see another argument, which asks: why should this particular musical taste be so well served? Surely other minority tastes deserve the favour - and don't the classical diehards need to have their minds stretched a little, too? But remember, this is quite different from popularisation, which actually narrows the musical range; and Zorba stretches no-one. (Also, nobody suggests that Radio 1 needs more Haydn.) Still, there may be a case for turning Radio 3 into a musical Channel 4, a forum for minority musics generally. It would be a more drastic change than any so far. I'd regret it, though I see its equity. But the case is not yet being made. Now more than ever Radio 3, as was, has its justification.

n Nicholas Kenyon explains the changes to Radio 3 on tomorrow's Media pages