Controller's changes blamed as listeners switch off Radio 3

It has long been the bastion of classical music in the UK, but listening figures suggest that schedule changes at BBC Radio 3 are causing the audience to switch off.

The figures, published by the radio industry body Rajar, coincide with a survey by the listeners' group Friends of Radio 3 showing that fans are tuning in for fewer hours each week.

In the first three months of the year, the number of people listening to Radio 3 each week fell to 1.79 million, a 7.9 per cent drop compared to the previous quarter and close to the station's lowest-ever weekly audience of 1.78 million in the second quarter of last year.

For the first time ever, the BBC station's share of the overall radio audience dropped below the 1 per cent marker to 0.9 per cent.

In the past year, classical music radio has struggled in general, with Classic FM losing 400,000 listeners a week compared to the first quarter of 2007, although its listening figures were up slightly quarter on quarter.

Sarah Spilsbury, the co-ordinator of Friends of Radio 3, blamed the decline in listening on the February 2007 changes brought in by controller Roger Wright. Almost two-thirds ofrespondents to the group's online survey said they listen to Radio 3 less than they did before the changes.

The survey, which is being submitted to the BBC Trust, showed the most controversial move was replacing the live evening concert with a recorded concert presented from a studio. Ms Spilsbury said the station had "butchered" it.

"People said it's absolutely dead, it's got no atmosphere. It's not like being taken out to a concert, it's like any CD programme: a presenter saying here's a piece of music," she added.

Other changes that have gone down badly with FoR3 have been the axeing of lighter music at 4pm, trails, and making the breakfast programme more interactive. Despite his detractors, Roger Wright, who took over as director of the BBC Proms this year, has gained the respect of many critics. The Independent's radio reviewer Robert Hanks said: "Roger Wright has a seriousness, an intelligence and an integrity about the way he runs Radio 3 that some predecessors didn't have."

A spokesman for Radio 3 said people were listening on demand, which Rajar figures do not cover, and that "BBC Radio 3 remains a great bastion of arts and culture. Listening figures are not the only measure".

Overall, BBC radio surged ahead of rivals with a record audience share of 56.8 per cent between January and March. Radio 2 hit a record weekly audience of 13.63 million. At Radio 1, Chris Moyles also gained his highest weekly figures of 7.72 million.