Seventy years ago, Thomas Beecham thought `the wireless' would kill classical music. Now the same fear exists about digital broadcasting. Should music lovers expect the worst? Nicholas Kenyon, controller of BBC Radio 3, believes passionately that they shohould not
Our concert halls will soon be empty. The economic pressures on concert-giving are becoming unsustainable. People have too many easy alternatives; they no longer want to make long, tiring journeys to hear hour-long symphonies in cold, unwelcoming halls when they can sit and hear short, snappy numbers in the comfort of their own homes. And music itself is being overtaken by other forms of entertainment which make far fewer demands and offer far more immediate satisfaction.

This is now familiar stuff: you recognise the prophet-of-doom tone of voice from jeremiahs with weekly columns in the press. But as we look through the encircling gloom of current economic problems at the future of music and broadcasting in this new world, it's worth reminding ourselves that it has all been said before. And the time it was said most forcibly was when broadcasting began in the 1920s.

"There has been committed against the unfortunate art of music every imaginable sin of commission and omission, but all previous crimes and stupidities pale before the latest attack on its fair name: broadcasting it by means of wireless ... Music on the wireless is the most abominable row that ever stunned and cursed the human ear". So ranted Thomas Beecham, but it didn't turn out to be the case that broadcasting damaged the cause of live music. In fact it is arguable that the advent of broadcasting, dominated as it was by music, had the greatest single beneficial effect on the progress of good music as anything this century. The birth of broadcasting was one seismic change for our profession; the digital age which we are now entering is another. But radio survived the coming of television, and BBC Radio has flourished in the age of commercial radio. And just when we think that cultural fragmentation is overcoming us, 20 million people in this country watch the same television programme, and Del Boy unites the nation.

What is going to happen to music in the digital age of broadcasting? And what do musicians need to do about it? The basic fact about digital broadcasting is that because of the new technology we can offer more: new delivery systems will enable us to offer better-quality sound and pictures, with a potentially huge range of extra material on new channels. There will be competing delivery systems - terrestrial, satellite, cable and telecoms - but the BBC will ensure that its programmes are available on all the main distribution outlets. So there will be major advantages: classical music and opera stand to benefit hugely from the enhanced sound quality and exposure that digital radio and TV will provide.

Think too of the creative possibilities. We are just beginning to understand them. Radio 3 has already broadcast Anthony Pitts's prize-winning programme Facing the Radio, which enabled listeners to contribute to the making of music on the radio via the Internet. For composers, digital technology and the Internet are new resources of great latent power.

What is certain is that in the field of music broadcasting the BBC will be a pioneer in the digital age just as it has been in broadcasting. Last year's charter renewal and the licence fee settlement announced just before Christmas enable us to invest in the digital age for the benefit of every licence fee payer. The BBC has already been a leader in digital radio. It is the BBC's technical expertise, in collaboration with its European public service radio partners, that has brought digital audio broadcasting to the state where it is piloting services, and will aim to launch sets to the public at the IFA Electronics Fair in Berlin later this year.

Digital radio brings you three things: better sound, extended services, and text support for broadcasts. We have all experienced the unsatisfactory aspects of FM reception; DAB, from the experience of the sets currently installed in cars, is spectacular and reliable. The BBC is experimenting with extra digital broadcasts which grow out of and complement its existing networks: more sports coverage, extended coverage of parliament. Music accounts for more than 80 per cent of radio listening, and we have recently been piloting add-on specialist music services: alongside BBC Jazz and BBC Country has been BBC Opera.

All this will depend on what the audience expresses interest in and enthusiasm for. Yes, you will have to buy new radios to experience this new world. So it also depends vitally on the manufacturers, who need to bring down the price of digital radios so that we will all be encouraged to swap our battered trannies within a generation. The BBC benchmark of success is that digital radio should be in 40 per cent of homes by 2007.

In digital television, the BBC will be exploring two complementary paths. The first will be free: to provide digital versions of present services, BBC1 and BBC2 in widescreen, and to add to that extra public-service material which can be accessed instead of, or in addition to normal programming. That might be extra text or an additional TV programme or it might even be radio.

The second way forward will raise even more opportunities for the musical profession. That is to finalise a deal with a commercial partner to provide a range of jointly funded channels for which the audience will pay, using existing BBC output and new output. Among the new channels currently being discussed is a music and arts channel with the working title Arena. This could include performance, documentaries, archive and currently underexplored areas such as theatre recorded live.

To make the most of this new world, we must examine the methods by which we provide this programming. We are all working on this across the new BBC structure. My colleagues in TV production are looking at radically new ways of filming concerts with fewer, lightweight cameras in natural light. That will not replace the full-scale filming of concerts and operas, but it could well complement it on the new services. Broadcasters will want to make musicians' work available to as wide as possible a range of the audience who want to see and hear it.

The hard fact is that while our orchestras are in tremendous form artistically, contractually they live too much in the past. The complexity of their agreements with their musicians is antiquated and inhibiting. We need new collaborations, new flexibility, and some radical thinking, if musicians in general and orchestras in particular are to be enabled to play a full part in the new broadcasting age. It's not a question of getting something for nothing, it's a question of being absolutely realistic about the likely rewards.

There is one final question: as choice becomes ever greater, what is going to make us as consumers decide what to consume? The answer, I am sure, will be quality, And that is why the BBC will be needed more than ever. If the BBC can continue to guarantee quality, editorial independence, and to invest in the things that are worthwhile - live music, adventurous repertory, developing new talent - then it will earn its place at the centre of the new broadcasting environment

This article is adapted from Nicholas Kenyon's address to the annual conference of the Association of British Orchestras in Manchester