Mahler and all that jazz

Each Radio 3 listener costs the BBC eight times as much as a Radio 2 fan. Yet the highbrow station is being accused of lowbrow tactics. Louise Jury challenges its defiant controller, Roger Wright
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Of all the disputes about dumbing-down to have broken out over the years, the recent row concerning Radio 3 has to be one of the most strange. Gerald Kaufman, the permanently controversial chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, accused the station of "trivialisation". A website - The Friends of Radio 3 - gained publicity after it was established with the sole purpose of challenging "the assertion of BBC management that 'changing public tastes' justify the inclusion of pop, rock, light and easy-listening music on Radio 3".

Anyone who has never listened to the station might conclude that it had brought in Channel-4-type sex shows, Rolf Harris on art or - at the very least - Sara Cox.

Well, not quite. The outrages committed by the controller, Roger Wright, are rather more low key. To take two examples: he has introduced as presenters the jazz pianist Julian Joseph for a jazz programme and the former Radio 1 DJ Andy Kershaw for a world-music show. Nowadays, on Radio 3, you can hear Miles Davies and Siberian throat singing alongside Mozart.

As Wright - who celebrates his fifth anniversary as the station's controller this month - observes, none of that would qualify as conventional ratings-chasing, which is the implied criticism. "These are not things you do to build an audience," he says wryly. Very little of it is exactly easy listening. And core classical repertoire remains the backbone of the station.

But Wright insists that Radio 3 has always been more than just a classical-music station anyway, even in the days of its predecessor, The Third Programme. High-quality theatre - which these days attracts stars such as Fiona Shaw, Iain Glen and Brendan Fraser - and cultural debate were always part of the mix.

"The only full-length drama that you will hear on radio is on Radio 3, but if you'd rather have a concert than a complete Shakespeare play, then you won't think much of it," Wright says. Similarly, there are classical-music fans for whom the basics - Bach, Beethoven, anything before the 20th century - are more than enough. "But the idea that there's nothing new to be said in any art form is completely bogus. There are some people who want their music to stay the same and find modern classical music not appealing. But Radio 3 did not invent Schoenberg. What we're doing is reflecting what's going on."

Wright also faces critics from the other side. If Radio 3 is not too populist, maybe it is too elitist?

Look at the figures: in an average week, five times as many people tune into Radio 2 than listen to Radio 3. It has just 1.1 per cent of the national radio listenership. Given that Radio 3 spends around £30m a year, each listener "costs" Wright's network about eight times as much as the listeners to Radio 2, which plays CDs instead of employing orchestras. (Radio 3 commissions more modern classical music than anybody in Britain.)

Yet despite the knocking, Wright is celebrating. The most recent audience figures reveal a record high weekly audience of 2.2 million people. It comes at a time when all other national BBC stations - and the previously high-flying Classic FM - have recorded a fall.

Neither was this attributable solely to the Proms, Radio 3's popular summer series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. The increases were across the board, in programmes as varied as In Tune, the music and arts news show, Jazz Record Requests and Morning on 3, the breakfast show which caused Composer of the Week to be moved to a later slot - one of the alleged outrages which was condemned roundly by traditionalists.

Furthermore, the demographics have broadened. Radio 3 has achieved a record reach in Scotland and some of its strongest ever figures in the north. More women have joined what is traditionally a male audience for an essentially classical station.

"It is very pleasing," he says. He hopes it is an indication that the station is sounding "much less male, middle-aged and South-east-biased" than it was in the past.

The more colloquial style of some presenters is one of the bugbears of his critics, but Roger Wright says: "It would have been absurd to have kept a tone and style to the network based on when broadcasters were still in dinner jackets."

He says: "The Sunday Telegraph carried a piece that said something like, 'Radio 3 replaces Mahler with rock music'. I felt very sorry for anybody who turned on that day expecting rock music."

In fact, anyone who had tuned in that day would have found the violinist Sarah Chang in the Sunday gala concert and a feature on Harrison Birtwistle. There was, if his memory serves him right, some Mahler.

"It was such nonsense," Wright says. "For people who don't know anything about Radio 3 it might be a surprise that we broadcast the range we do. However, core classical still dominates our schedule. It's just that the fact that we broadcast classical music isn't a story. I understand that."

Some of his budget goes towards running the five orchestras and the BBC Singers which also come under his control. A further £26m comes from central BBC budgets to fund the orchestras.

Some might argue that orchestras are an extravagance the BBC cannot afford, but Wright defends them. The Proms, indisputably one of the jewels of British broadcasting, would be virtually impossible without the staff performers, partly because of the planning difficulties and expense of scheduling other orchestras for every concert and partly because they are adept at performing new commissions. Without BBC support, Wales would have no symphony orchestra and Ulster's orchestra probably could not survive.

"It's sustaining something that the market doesn't provide," he says. Besides, live performance is at the heart of Radio 3, but it comes at a cost. "Radio 3 could be a lot cheaper simply by taking a whole pile of CDs and broadcasting them," he admits. "But the minute you take live performance out [of classical music], the art form withers."

Wright is the first controller of Radio 3 to have a music degree and he formerly worked as the artistic administrator of the Cleveland Orchestra in America and as vice-president of the Deutsche Grammophon record label in Germany. His brother Simon is organist of Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, chorus master of the Leeds Festival Chorus and a conductor.

Wright insists that some of the changes seen as innovative at Radio 3, such as the world music, are certainly not his own enthusiasms being inflicted on the audience. "World music was never a personal musical love of mine, but I've become quite fascinated by it," he says. What he is passionate about - and knowledgeable to a degree that must terrify his staff - is classical music and he is keen for others to share that enthusiasm. "What Radio 3 stands for is very special," he says. "The whole business of a passion shared is incredibly important. If something is the most important thing in your life, after family, friends and faith, you want to share it with as many people as possible."