RADIO / Trouble with static: Is Radio 3 turning its stoutest defenders into an attacking army? Robert Hanks on a network under siege

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The Independent Culture
There was once a sketch on Not the Nine O'Clock News that began with a man sitting in a darkened room intoning 'Is there anybody there? Is there anybody there?' Then the camera tracked backwards to show that he was alone in a radio studio, while he pleaded into a microphone: 'This is Radio 3 - for God's sake, is there anybody there?'

Radio 3 has never enjoyed mass appeal. Its listening figures have stayed constant for the last decade or more: around 5 per cent of the radio audience and 2 per cent of the total population - that is, in any one week around one person in 50 will tune in at least once. But the station has never looked to 'bums on seats' as the justification for its existence (although, as one defender of the channel concedes, there is an argument for getting somebody to listen). Its strength has always lain in the quality of the programming it provides, and the quality of the audience it serves - musicians, academics, novelists, poets: intellectuals, in short; the kind of people whose views get published in the press.

Now, things are changing. Later this year Classic FM takes to the airwaves, a new nationwide commercial channel playing a mix of classical music that will inevitably bring it into competition with Radio 3 (though Classic FM denies this). In March, Nicholas Kenyon was appointed Controller of Radio 3, and in June he announced a series of changes to the network, some with the avowed intention of bringing in new listeners: like Classic FM, Mr Kenyon believes that there is a large audience for classical music which has so far found Radio 3 too forbidding.

The bulk of the planned new schedules will begin in September - after the Proms, which take up a huge slice of airtime over the summer. But the first batch of changes began four weeks ago, with new programming in the crucial 'drivetime' slots when Radio 3 gets its biggest audience. The two new weekday shows (On Air from 7am to 9am and In Tune from 5pm to 7.30pm) break from Radio 3 tradition by mixing the music with genial conversation, news, weather and traffic information. There is also a new, lighter weekend programme, Brian Kay's Sunday Morning.

Audience figures are not yet available, but when Natalie Wheen blurted a four- letter word on In Tune this week, unaware that her microphone was switched on, the outraged response from listeners was large enough, according to the Radio 3 press office, to suggest that the programme is very popular indeed. (On the other hand, nobody ever swore on its pre-recorded predecessor, Mainly for Pleasure, so comparison is difficult.) But even if Radio 3 does win new listeners, it stands in danger of alienating its traditional constituency. There is no radio network that remotely resembles it, in its mix of serious music, drama and closely argued documentary: listeners have a sense that there is nowhere else to go - the poet Peter Porter calls it 'the natural station for me' - and they are jealous of their territory.

A warning shot was fired in May, in a letter to the Times from Bamber Gascoigne and John Julius Norwich, expressing disquiet over the rumoured changes. Now, having listened to the new schedules for a few weeks, Bamber Gascoigne feels that the new morning programme is 'not at all satisfactory - far too much interruption with news in my view'. The biographer and critic Claire Tomalin echoes that, objecting to 'chat and conversation and news'; the actress Eleanor Bron worries that Radio 3 might lose its identity: 'I turn it on diffidently and with fear.' There have been letters to the Times Literary Supplement and the Independent, overwhelmingly against the changes.

These protests aren't simply an over-reaction of the chattering classes to having their cosy habits disrupted. There are undoubtedly many things wrong with the new-style programmes. The breathless news headlines are too brief to be useful - the old format, which included two five-minute bulletins, provided more information without taking up any more time. And the attempts to be conversational and welcoming have led to some embarrassing moments - on Wednesday's edition of On Air, a travel bulletin announcing that the Waterloo and City line had been reopened was followed by the remark 'so if you're travelling to the City, perhaps you'll have a ball': a dismal cue for 'The Ball', from Bizet's suite Jeux d'enfants.

There is confusion about the musical content, too. Wednesday's programme - including a movement from the Bartok Piano Sonata and Hindemith's Concerto for Orchestra - was impeccable from the purist's point of view: but yesterday's edition seemed to be aimed at an entirely separate audience, with numbers from The Sound of Music played by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

Still, these are early days. Perhaps in time, the programmes will be fine-tuned, the presenters will gain confidence, the listeners will get used to the new style. There are some who blame Nicholas Kenyon personally (the novelist Amanda Craig wrote to him in harsh terms: 'I said I was on the point of making a wax image of him and sticking pins into him I was so angry'). But he gained many admirers in his days as music critic of the Observer, and most speak warmly of him.

In fairness, he is being blamed for a number of things that are not his fault. The greatest single grievance among Radio 3 listeners is the appearance on Radio 3 FM this summer of ball-by-ball cricket commentary, elbowing out normal daytime schedules for days at a time. The decision was taken before Mr Kenyon took the job, however; and he is known to be opposed to the commentaries.

He is also the heir of deeper, older grievances. Many of those bemoaning the new look at Radio 3 hark back to the old Third Programme, the 'literary magazine of the air'. Marina Warner and others mention the demise of the Listener (a chilling parallel: from a small circulation base, surviving on BBC subsidy, it tried to popularise itself and failed dismally, finally folding at the beginning of last year). Some take the issue wider: Claire Tomalin and Gabriel Josipovici, critic and academic, both associate Radio 3's new look with the decline of public libraries.

Their worry seems to be that the BBC is abandoning the principles of public broadcasting it used to exemplify, and that Radio 3 will be forced to compete for audiences. Many outsiders assume that Mr Kenyon has made some kind of Faustian bargain - that a little superficial popularising is the price he has paid for retaining Radio 3's position as the country's supreme musical patron (an idea flatly contradicted by sources within the BBC). One senior musical figure summed up these suspicions when he said: 'What I'd be afraid of is that these reforms are the thin end of the wedge, because it's a well-known technique to muck around with an article to ruin its integrity . . . so that when you come to wreck Radio 3 there's no one left to defend it.'

There has always been a lot of hypocrisy about Radio 3. Peter Porter, remembering the 'Save the Third Programme' campaign of the Sixties, says: 'One thing I did notice was the treason of the clerks, the lack of support from our own people . . . They obviously thought it was a very good thing for other people, but they themselves were watching their televisions.' Mr Kenyon may feel that the fuss has been blown out of proportion - privately, he is reported to have said that the changes he has made so far are no more than cosmetic. But cosmetic changes matter: cosmetic changes are what happened to Michael Jackson. As Peter Porter remarks: 'At one time we were trying to save a ship, now we're trying to defend a raft.' How long can anyone feel passionately about a raft?

Letters, page 16