Surviving the Third degree

Nicholas Kenyon is still fighting five years after taking over Radio 3. He tells David Walker why; while, right, leading listeners rate his regime
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The Independent Culture
If Nicholas Kenyon's tenure of high culture's hot seat - controlling Radio 3 - were a symphony, he would have to be said to have stuck with a single theme played sostenuto. It's one that echoes round other Broadcasting House suites: how to retain loyalty to the network brand while "refreshing" the audience.

Since he became controller in March 1992, he has had his discordant passages - sacking Tony Scotland and other old-guard announcers, dropping Music Weekly. There have been questions in the House, and the wrath of Bamber Gascoigne and other self-appointed custodians of the national treasure. Last year dulcet Paul Gambaccini walked the plank amid catcalls; the sharks would gladly rend the soft Sunday-morning flesh of Brian Kay.

But lately the sailing has been plainer. Classic FM's problems with its listener numbers have proved a welcome distraction, even though there never was much of an overlap between its audience and Three's. A month ago Kenyon had his contract renewed indefinitely. At 46, he gives every sign of becoming one of Radio 3's longest-serving and most powerful controllers. He is bouncy, enthusiastic, and so confident of the long term that he is already deep into planning the Proms for the summer of the year 2000.

When he was appointed, doubts were expressed about the adaptability of a music journalist to BBC corridors. But Kenyon has become an accomplished BBC bureaucrat; he seems also to have hardened his skin against the claws of the critics (most of whom could not run a broadcasting schedule to save their lives).

What he has not lost, as the friend and biographer of Sir Simon Rattle, is his eager willingness to embrace difficult sounds. He may be a former editor of Early Music, but he is a champion of the modern, a battler for Berio and a booster of Boulez. Kenyon's advocacy of "advanced" music gives him the winning hand in any argument about alleged dumbing down at Three.

He has thrown the network behind the huge Sounding the Century project, a three-year festival of music since 1900 (with the emphasis on the post-war), embracing talks and drama as well as concerts. The intention, Kenyon says modestly, is "a better appreciation of the full range of 20th-century music"

He does not quite say that the mission is to propagandise for the avant- garde, but his zeal is unmistakable: Radio 3 listeners are going to be hearing quite a bit of Ligeti and Part, and, the subtext seems to be, if they keep their ears open and their minds alive, they will enjoy them.

What Kenyon actually says is, "I want to make a difference." An educator's intent is wrapped in a desire to offer a musical experience at some deep level of consciousness. "It's the pleasure you can get from a concert programme that works. It's that incredible state of attention of 5,000 people in the Albert Hall. My mission? To deliver the great experiences in as efficient, unwasteful and sensible a way as possible."

The latter phrase is impeccably Birtian - a lot has been learnt by the man who is said at his interview for the controllership to have offered almost pleadingly to be sent on a management course. But you sense that producer choice matters far less to him than the numbers game.

The heat felt by the controllers of Radios 1, 2 and 3 in the years leading up to renewal of the BBC's Charter and licence has been reduced. What the occupant of Kenyon's seat has to worry about is the task of keeping older listeners on board while insinuating changes into the format in order to attract new and younger ones. "It's a balancing act: I'm attempting to move the high wire down a few feet."

Along the way he has to contend with vociferous and petulant critics in press and Parliament. His response is ucompromising: "I get extremely irritated by those who don't value what we do - far better to attack us for wanting it to be better." His audience is 2.5 million, which is the minimum that is politically permissible. If it dropped it would reignite arguments about the licence fee and elitism.

The art lies in scheduling: Puccini arias, Bruch and Mozart in the morning, with Boulez's "...explosante/fixe" at 7.30 in the evening. Broadly speaking, the music gets more difficult (more modern?) as the day progresses. You won't hear Peter Hobday (the user-friendly Gambaccini replacement) playing Birtwistle at 9am, but you might just about hear Maconchy or Judith Weir a couple of hours later in Musical Encounters. The official phrase is "continuous companionship", but as Kenyon says, "the big question is how much diversity can you face during the day" (translate "diverse" as "more demanding and difficult").

Matters are complicated by the effort he needs to make to think "collegially" about the rest of the BBC. Can he help aggregate BBC figures by scooping up some of the audience that fellow controller James Boyle loses from Radio 4 at 9am as the Today programme ends?

Kenyon is no more able than anyone else to understand the fragmentation of the music public, why it is that purchasers of classical CDs are not usually the same people as go to concerts, who in their turn are different from listeners to Three. The network is making a greater effort to mix and match - for example, through branding concerts with its logo and developing more printed publicity for its strands and themes.

Kenyon is a great integrationist. He wants the summer season of Prom concerts to be roped into Radio 3's corral, linking its composer and artist of the week with the Proms offering, and trying to keep the Prom audience as regular listeners. Kenyon's finest moment at the BBC so far was probably 1995's Fairest Isle celebration, linking British music with Purcell commemoration, drama and features.

This is clearly how the future of the "spoken word" is shaping up on Three. For the record, Kenyon affirms his commitment to speech and drama, lauding one-offs such as Sir Peter Hall's production of Man and Superman, and a celebrated King Lear with Sir John Gielgud in 1994.

"Let's be absolutely clear, " he says."There is still a place for high- quality speech." Speech gets 14 per cent of air time , well down on the old Radio 3, but a figure that is likely to remain constant. It is hard not to avoid the sense that the Third Programme, with its dons and scientists and high-toned talk, was historically specific: there was an audience for them from the mid-1940s till the end of the 1950s. But in the millennium Radio 3 will be essentially a music station, assuming it can maintain its integrity in the brave new world when technology allows so much more breaking up and compartmentalisation of output.

You can almost feel Nicholas Kenyon's shoulders sagging with the weight of cultural responsibility he carries. What can Radio 3 do in an age of, that code word again, diversity? "There has been a breakdown of belief in various institutions - politics, the monarchy. There is no longer a consensus about what a quality newspaper is. We lived for a long time with an inherited conviction that we knew what high culture was."

So in this pluralist world, what are his fixed points of reference? "It's audience response, that indefinable thing - a concert, a Prom that works. We launched Sounding the Century with a Boulez concert and it simply struck a chord. Sometimes we can measure response by the numbers, rude letters, anecdotes. Everybody here needs to develop a feeling for the audience. There is nobody else to have faith in except the audience."