Hold on to your batons ...

It's Radio 3's turn on the programming rollercoaster. In a bid to lure the masses, controller Nicholas Kenyon wants easier listening. But, asks David Benedict, will this mean yet more radio gaga?
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The Independent Online
Never underestimate your audience. The suggestion that the excellent, long-standing Woman's Hour might be past its sell-by date met with concerted opposition from Radio 4 listeners of both sexes. BBC management would never admit it, but a full-scale assault from the listenership finally forced them to evict unpopular presenter Gerry Anderson from The Afternoon Shift. Last week's leaks about the supposed "dumbing down" of the station provoked the beginning of what threatens to be another battle as listeners loyal to such touchstones of the nation's sensibilities as Yesterday in Parliament, the Today programme and The Archers worked themselves into a lather of angry anticipation.

The truth behind controller James Boyle's proposals will be revealed at a meeting on Thursday. Three weeks earlier, however, an identical meeting took place outlining a similarly contentious future for Radio 3. Senior management may be convinced, but their swingeing proposals for change spread terror through the corridors of Broadcasting House. According to sources within and without, listeners are in for a shock.

To anyone concerned with the welfare of classical music in this country, Radio 3's 80-page guide to commissions for 1998/9 makes profoundly depressing reading. Objectives such as "to provide listeners with an experience in classical music which cannot be duplicated elsewhere" sit uneasily beside the complaint of "difficult music being included in most programmes", which is one of the reasons why listeners choose Radio 3 over Classic FM in the current output. Producers are being instructed to "tell better stories (personal, human interest, social, historical)" and "avoid experts talking to experts". Presenters should "avoid the use of technical terms". There is a unequivocally expressed "need to move away from specialised presentation for specialised audiences."

Although never intended as a "Mission Statement", the all-consuming concern to be "user-friendly", the stress on "strategic proposals", "target markets" and far greater emphasis during the day on "core repertoire" and "entry point programmes" (ie easy lisening to seduce the casual listener) at the expense of a clearly articulated vision is startling.The fact that it is written almost exclusively in "management speak" comes as no surprise when you consider its genesis.

Last year, following John Birt's directive, the BBC divorced commissioning from programme-making and introduced a new tier of management. Radio 3 controller Nicholas Kenyon moved Brian Barfield to managing editor and commissioning editor for speech programmes which account for 15 per cent of the output and look secure; Martyn Westerman moved from the contracts department to commission live music and jazz; Hilary Boulding came from TV and radio at BBC Wales to run music policy; and Cathy Wearing arrived as head of presentation. Less than a year later, this is their blueprint.

Most of their edicts would be both sensible and necessary were Radio 3 a commercial station in the business of chasing ratings. We are, however, talking about a public service broadcaster with an historical educative role which last year alone nabbed six Sony Gold awards for adventurous, inventive and innovative programmes, not to mention the coveted Prix Italia. It occupies an unrivalled cultural niche in the market with an audience reach of 2.5 million. Classic FM, its closest competitor, pulls twice that number but has consciously slid downmarket in order to deliver that audience to its all-important advertisers and Radio 3 has not suffered. Classic FM's listenership has come largely from Radios 2 and 4.

Nicholas Kenyon is a staunch defender of the proposals which he sees as the logical extension of changes he instigated upon his arrival. "We are going about this in a very different way from the splash I deliberately made five years ago which was designed to show that Radio 3 was capable of changing. There are certain things we need to do much better. One of those things is to talk to a broader audience in a way they can relate to." He refutes the charge that this could be construed as "dumbing down". "I am not saying we want people who do not know their subject. What we are looking at are enthusiasts, evangelicals, people who can put that across to the broader audience. I want those programmes to be enjoyed by anyone who tunes in to the network so they can learn a little bit more."

Intriguingly, the verb "to learn" appears twice in the strategy document, both times in relation to jazz. Jazz audiences, it appears, are allowed to increase their knowledge, presumably from specialists. What about those tuning in to build upon an existing knowledge of, say, opera or chamber music? Record Review is one of the few remaining slots where individual works are still systematically analysed is also one of the network's most popular strands. Why cut it from five hours to two?

The other major concern surrounds the use of independents. The air is thick with the sound of producers rubbing their hands with glee as sections of prime-time are opened up to tenders from outside. A good thing, says Kenyon. Not only have independents produced excellent programmes, "the programme offers we have got from in-house music departments have become much better focused and more aware." If in-house proposals were seen to lacking in vigour, is this not an indictment of management? What this is actually about is Producer Choice, a concept that has few supporters among the rank and file. BBC drama, for example, has sold off the family silver, short-sightedly decimating its famed skill-base in pursuit of lower bottom-line costs. It's a one-way street. You can slim down the music department and thus smarten up the balance sheet but you'll never be able to afford to rebuild it. Confusingly, Kenyon is proud that many of the independents already producing for Radio 3 are staffed by ex-BBC people. He believes they have found it more liberating working from the outside.

Radio 3 cannot afford to stagnate. Some of the changes already implemented have enlivened both staid programming and anachronistic presentation. Classical music audiences grow ever more diverse and the network has to move with the times but selling the station's soul in the search for a wider audience means you could end up with Radio 2 and a half. Kenyon insists this will not happen: "Light casual listeners are being very well served elsewhere, but we cannot serve our core audience alone." He sees it as a question of balance: holding on to the existing audience while attracting new listeners.

So who exactly are these new listeners? Kenyon seems to imagine thre is a huge untapped source of regular concert-goers and serious CD collectors who are not tuning in. Are there really any such people out there? Supposing there are, wouldn't improving advertising and marketing be a far better way to reach them, rather than watering down the existing product? If Radio 3 opts for the latter, they had better prepare themselves for a barrage of hate-mail from the station's devoted listeners.

Kenyon claims the network remains "devoted to serious classical music and cultural programming. We are all enthusiasts and missionaries and we are investing an awful lot of licence-fee money into Radio 3 and we would like people to listen longer. We believe they would get more out of it."

Unfortunately, these fine words are not borne out by the nitty-gritty of the strategy document. There is a dangerous disparity between his introduction and the words of his commissioning editors who are the ones who wield the power on a daily basis.

Radio is not sexy. Radio 3, despite its cultural cachet, its prizes and range of demographics, will never be a hot media option. A cynic might wonder whether this new management tier, almost none of whom has a strong background in classical music production, is simply justifying its existence. After all, the meeting was held at TV centre. Are they going for the ultimate challenge? Grabbing a new audience, boosting profiles and preparing for careers with radio's more glamorous sister, television?n

Further reading from Virgin Net


The BBC Online: full Radio 3 schedules for the week.


Classic FM: listen to the station as you surf the Internet.


Classical Net's Music Mailing List: discuss, debate and argue with other enthusiasts.


Classic Web Music Jobs: the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra wants a contrabassoon player. Interested?


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