RADIO / Ho hum for Classic FM

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The Independent Culture
CLASSIC FM was launched on Monday on to a sea of snobbery: the reactionary music world and Radio 3 brigade throwing their tweed-jacketed arms in the air at the thought of a station that would stoop so low as to follow the Faure Requiem with a Tropicana orange juice commercial. If the station has one thing going for it, it is that it defies that sort of thinking, bringing classical music into the real world. One of its successes is its IRN-based news service: efficient, urgent, and infinitely preferable to those somnolent Radio 3 readers.

That said, there is a lot wrong with the new station, and you have to worry in this economic climate for its future. It is Britain's first new national station in 25 years, and it feels flimsy and improvised. This isn't just a question of creaky mechanics, which may be attributed to first-week nerves (though the cock-up quota does seem high), but to the very concept of the station. Nobody seems to have worked out what it is for.

Take the presenters. It is not their manifest ignorance of classical music that causes concern - it gives them something in common with the listeners their bosses say they are after - but the bewildering diversity of their backgrounds. What recruitment policy unites Henry Kelly (game show host, professional Irishman), Susannah Simons (business and current affairs presenter), Margaret Howard (veteran Picker of the Week), and Adrian Love (radio nomad, equally associated with Radio 1, Radio 2, and Capital)? The answer, you have to suspect, is that they were available. The line-up is reminiscent of the Southampton football team of the early Eighties, packed with stars from other clubs and other times.

The oldsters perform creditably enough. Margaret Howard's Classic Reports (6pm-7pm weekdays) is pleasantly anodyne fare to tap your fingers on the dashboard to: short musical extracts and gently probing interviews on issues of the day such as fox-hunting. Adrian Love has an entertaining slot after 11pm, in which he talks to young music-makers performing in the studio.

Susannah Simons's shows (12am-2pm weekdays) feature more tortuous links than the East coast of Scotland - 'Now a complete change: the first opera I saw was Offenbach's Orfeo and Eurydice, and I was hooked ever since. In fact, this overture isn't from that opera . . .' But she comes into her own in her 1pm interview slot. Henry Kelly (9am-noon weekdays) is a love-him-or- loathe-him broadcaster. For me, a little of his blarney - 'I can never watch the left hand of a harpist without thinking of the lakes of Killarney' - goes a long way.

The best presenters, though, are the specialist musical broadcasters, and they offer a glimpse of what might have been if Classic FM had had the courage to go for a blend closer to American models. The Classic Opera Guide (7pm-8pm, Tuesday), presented by the mellow Hugh MacPherson, was informed and accessible. An interview with the tenor John Rawnsley offered a layman's guide to the operatic tongues: Welsh and Italian were easiest to sing, being 'round languages'; German was oblong; English sadly square. This is the sort of genial intelligence you wouldn't hear on Radio 3, and you don't hear enough on Classic FM.

Most of the programming is more sketchy. Booming Petroc Trelawny (3pm-6pm weekdays) promises 'a full service of sport and financial news': this amounts to a single hourly bulletin of each, containing three brief items. He also gives a run-down of the headlines of provincial newspapers: 'The Sunderland Evening Echo, their headline is 'City school's uniform fury'.' And so on, with the South Wales Evening Post and Norwich Evening News. Of what possible use is this to anyone?

At its best the station has an easy-listening charm that suggests that if it hits its stride it could become a formidable challenger to Radio 2. Right now, though, there is a ramshackle feel to the whole operation. Pieces are cued in to be met by only the clunk of a CD machine or the wrong record. There are gaps in transmission: I timed one at around 45 seconds. There is never an explanation or apology. Classic FM Polo Shirts were offered as prizes (are they expecting a big audience in Argentina?) but we were warned that they had not yet been manufactured. Teething problems, but it doesn't inspire confidence. Remember the classy swagger with which Channel 4 entered the fray 10 years ago.

The programme-makers are not chiefly to blame. Their confusion reflects that of the Government in ordaining three new national radio stations that nobody really wanted, and compounding their folly by insisting the prized FM wavelength should not be devoted to a more commercially viable pop station. The minister responsible for broadcasting, David Mellor, admitted to Susannah Simons on Wednesday that he had 'desperately wanted a classical music station'. Classic FM may be another unhappy consequence of the minister's unbridled passion.

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