MUSIC on RADIO 3

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Imagine a radio network devoted to high culture in which individual programmes were allowed to run to optimum length and then scheduled with no fixed points such as news bulletins to get in the way, so that each day emerged differently. Such, in fact, was the original aim of the BBC Third Programme - though eroded long since precisely by news bulletins, programme series, and so on. Yet only since last summer has that long distant ideal been entirely replaced by the opposite principle of no unfixed points - a reversal known in BBC management-speak as "sharpening the schedules".

Apparently this reflects a panic that, unless Radio 3 bumps up its ratings, its FM frequency may ultimately be taken away, and that this can be staved off only by persuading even the most casual listeners to keep their sets switched on as long as possible. Accordingly, the network's schedules must be made so predictable that those out of reach of a Radio Times or halfway up the M1, will still be able to know, with a mere glance at their watches, what sort of noise is likely to be coming out. Hence the giving over of such daily sequences as On Air and In Tune to single presenters "in order to foster a sense of companionship and familiarity amongst the listeners", in the words of Radio 3's Head of Presentation, Cathy Wearing. And hence, one cannot help noticing, a conspicuous lurch of those programmes' chosen repertoires in the direction of Classic FM's "Hall of Fame."

Could this also be why the Radio Times itself seems to offer less and less information about On Air and In Time - thus compelling one to endure the lightsome tattle of their respective presenters for hours on end to find out if anything is coming that one actually wants to hear? At least that early Sunday morning sequence, Sacred and Profane, which came to an end last weekend after five, often fascinating years, continued to offer complete listings of its contents to the last - though perhaps an even greater wonder was that it managed to last for so long. For, as presented from the start by the gently authoritative Paul Guinery and latterly produced by the creative Antony Pitts, this was a subtly maverick programme, increasingly at odds with Radio 3 trends. Not only was the choice of religious music often stunningly esoteric - encompassing ancient liturgy from Iona to Coptic chanting in Kensington - but liable to find itself in the most unlikely juxtapositions with Bach cantatas, Bulgarian folk tunes, English idylls, obscure French tone-poems - last Sunday, La Cloche des Morts by Guy Ropartz - and even the occasional new commission from, for instance, our own Adrian Jack. One rarely came away from an edition without some curious discovery or surprising insight.

And next Sunday it is to be replaced by yet three more hours of On Air. All may not be lost, however, for the presenter is to be Humphrey Carpenter - not only the son of a bishop, after all, but, as historian of the Third network, well aware of the long-term broadcasting issues. Unlike the self conscious personae of too many Radio 3 presenters, he is also a broadcasting natural who manifestly loves to share his new musical discoveries. Ah, but will he and his producer Edwina Wolstencroft be allowed to follow their musical noses, as it should be, or required to put out some mood- categorised rota of religious favourites? Those who feel current Radio 3 policy is, in many respects, deeply misguided, will monitor the next few months of Sunday On Air with concern.

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