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!

 

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links