Darren Henley: The radio boss with a plan to drag classical music into the digital era

Classic FM has much to learn from hip-hop and R&B stations, the former newsreader who rose to become its chief tells Ian Burrell

Darren Henley, the mastermind behind Classic FM, began his radio career by crashing out overnight every Sunday on the chief executive's sofa without permission, before getting the morning train to Hull, where he was studying for a degree in politics. In those days in 1992, he was a weekend newsreader on the fledgling station with nowhere to sleep. Months after graduating, he joined the staff and today he is managing director of the most successful commercial classical music station in the world.

At 39, he has built a weekly audience of 5.5 million and reinvented classical music's reputation with the British public. The current Classic schedule combines movie scores with pieces made popular in adverts and the cosy tones of television personalities such as Alan Titchmarsh and former newsreader John Suchet. It has become a station for students to revise to and pregnant women to give birth to, a source of calm to counter the stresses of a prolonged recession.

Henley is an evangelist for classical music in all its forms and is constantly looking for fresh converts. The sound of philharmonic orchestras is piped into the Classic FM toilets. He has just written the latest of more than 20 books, to mark the station's 20th anniversary and to serve as "a bit of a manifesto". Rather than a lofty tome addressing the purists who frequent the Barbican and Royal Opera House, it is aimed at beginners and has the cheesy title: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Classical Music But Were Too Afraid to Ask.

"I'm lucky to have been here for the whole 20 years we've been on air and I see myself as a custodian of something precious," he says. "We have got to a stage now where we are part of national life." His mission is to make the Classic FM website the "world's go-to destination for classical music", responding to a surge in interest in classical downloads. "We are at a tipping point now in digital consumption versus physical product. In the next 12 months, we will see digital really ramp up."

So Henley has axed Classic FM Magazine in favour of equipping the website with a team of journalists who upload classical music news, album reviews and video footage. A free app was launched last week for those who might want to listen on an iPad.

Henley is a bear of a man, with a big smile and pink socks. His interest in classical music began when his parents took him to an outdoor concert at Leeds Castle in Kent. "I was wowed by the fireworks and real cannons that blasted out during the finale performance of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and I went home and bought a cassette of it."

Although he has been a constant in Classic FM's history, the station's working environment changed four years ago when it became part of Ashley Tabor's vast Global Radio empire when it acquired the Capital group. As a consequence, Henley has some unlikely colleagues. He sits alongside staff from the rock station Xfm and the urban music network Choice FM "playing their hip-hop and R&B". Capital Radio and Heart FM are on the floors upstairs in Global's headquarters in a corner of Leicester Square. "It's really good because we hear what they are doing in the lift and the canteen and you think, 'There are ways we can do that'," he says. "I want to make sure we understand all the techniques people are using in pop music radio."

Though he claims the move to Global has given Classic FM technological and financial advantages that it would not have had as a stand-alone entity, Henley remains concerned by the danger of unfair competition from his publicly funded BBC rival, Radio 3, with which Classic shares around 800,000 listeners.

"There's a school of thought that Radio 3 has attempted to popularise what it does by taking some of the techniques and programming styles that Classic FM has pioneered over the years and that is something that – were they to go headlong into doing that – would cause us a lot of concern," he says. Henley is referring to the use of classical charts, request shows and the playing of popular pieces, rather than full works, at key times in the schedule. "They have a huge amount of public money to enable them to do things we simply couldn't afford to do and that's what that public money is there for. For example, we have to be more selective about the number of live concerts we can afford to broadcast."

On Friday, the 20th anniversary of the network, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – one of Classic FM's six partner orchestras – will play a special concert. Its choir has recorded a version of "Happy Birthday" for the station. Despite Classic's popular approach, Henley wants listeners to go out and support musicians. The station has its own "composer-in-residence", Howard Goodall, to show "they're not some strange sub-species".

Suchet is an expert on Beethoven and has written half a dozen books on the composer. "What's great about him is there is integrity and expertise but he shares it with listeners in a way that is engaging and unthreatening."

Henley hired Titchmarsh after the pair met at a Classic FM event at Highgrove House and the gardener revealed that he listened to the station in his shed. "He has been a listener for years and years," says Henley. "[Titchmarsh and Suchet] are both people with big personal brand values from outside the classical music world but people our audiences very much relate to, they are intelligent and extremely passionate about the music we play."

The station's listeners will soon have the chance to hear Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James talking to Nick Ferrari about classical music references in her racy literature, which has driven up sales of Thomas Tallis's choral piece Spem in Alium. At 6am on Friday, coming out of the news, Classic FM will return to the first music it played, Handel's Zadok the Priest. Henley describes it as "one of those really quiet build-up big anthemic pieces".

He is an everyman, a Gillingham FC season ticket holder whose stated intention in his new book is to "make the classical world not only accessible, but also disarmingly simple and utterly engrossing". Having given his working life to Classic FM, he hopes to be at the station in another 20 years. "There are so many more people we can turn on to classical music and we have this amazing tool to do it."

Calling the tune: Henley on music

What was the last CD/vinyl record you bought?

It's been years since I bought anything on CD. I've been 100 per cent digital downloads for quite a long time now.

What was the last recording you downloaded?

A hauntingly beautiful recording of Rachmaninov's Cello Sonata by Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood on the Signum label.

What was the last gig you went to?

I went along to see Classic FM presenter Alex James performing with Blur in Hyde Park on the last night of the Olympics.

What is the most overplayed piece of classical music?

Any piece that a listener doesn't like. If it's something that you love, then it's unlikely you'll feel you can hear it too often.

Who is the most underrated composer?

The French composer Jean Françaix.

What other radio stations do you listen to?

The vast majority of my listening is to Classic FM. I also like to keep an ear on Heart when I'm at home in Kent. When I was in New York last year, I developed a fascination for a station that only played Christmas songs recorded by country music stars. I'm not sure it would work here though!


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