Radio 3 - Low-brow, lightweight and losing its way?

What's happened to Radio 3? It seems to fear treating classical music seriously, says regular listener Nicholas de Jongh
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The Independent Culture

The spate of recent letters in The Independent about Radio 3 betray an anxiety about the state of the station.

It strikes me – a reasonably average listener without any practical expertise but a desire to learn more about the history of classical music, its developments and transformations – that the ethos of Radio 3, with its mission to offer serious enjoyment, to enlighten and educate, has been increasingly ignored over the past decade. Of course Radio 3 has had to change and be different to attract new, young audiences. But the station would better cater to the intelligent young by becoming more controversial and provocative, more iconoclastic and witty, less conventional. Instead, too often, its tone, beyond the sound of Nightwaves, is of relentless, feel-good jollity – as if it were serving up health food and miracle, weight-reducing programmes, not music.

The station used to be based upon a compelling format of single, discrete programmes. First and foremost there was the attraction of live concerts of orchestral, chamber or solo music from far and wide. Others were recorded in studios, some with audiences, some not. The BBC's regional orchestras, as well as the symphony orchestra took pride of place. There was a characteristic sense that each programme was animated by an idea, a theme, an intention. These days Radio 3 sometimes sounds as if intent on transforming itself into a superior version of Classic FM. The wretchedly low-brow three hours' a night of listeners' requests during The Genius of Mozart festival sounds for the first time as if the station were seriously dress-rehearsing to slip down-market. I do not deny there are programmes new and old of obvious quality and value: The Early Music Show, CD Review with its Building a Library and New Releases, Music Matters, Words and Music, the Thursday afternoon opera, Composer of the Week and the word-bound nightly Essay all strike bright, fascinating notes.

There are, though, not that many actual programmes left. The excitement of the live concert is mainly over. The evening concert will usually be one recorded last week, last month, last year and the five-hour Through the Night sequence seems to specialise in music recorded years ago by far-away esoteric orchestras. More damagingly, Radio 3 has surrendered to lazy programming. It is primarily arranged as long sequences or strands, hours of aimless, inconsequential playing of discs or records, not infrequently mere extracts, with old recordings from concerts all round the world. An average Radio 3 day begins with three hours of Breakfast discs from 7am to 10am, followed by two more hours of discs – the prime difference being that this sequence is named the Classical Collection. The hour-long relief of a chamber concert is followed by three more hours of discs and recordings, inventively entitled Afternoon on 3.

It is true that lip service is paid to the idea that these latter sequences enjoy a unifying theme. "My theme this week is dance music" or "the Berlin Philharmonic" the presenter will say – but little is said, explained or argued to dispel the impression that the "theme" is an excuse to play a miscellany of music. In Afternoon on 3 recently, the so-called theme, described as "the influence Mahler had on some of his contemporaries and the repertoire he conducted while in New York" had little to say for itself. But then Radio 3's announcers, presumably because of some governing edict, have largely dispensed with the business of talking about the music we are about to hear. The announcer is allowed to talk to a soloist or conductor. It is as if the station has become frightened of boring us by being serious about music.