Assisted by yesterday's figures from Rajar (Radio Joint Audience Research, funded by the BBC and commercial radio) showing its audience increasing to 4.7 million with a sharp rise in ABC1 listening hours, the 16-month-old station has imperial ambitions. Its press conference next week will be in Amsterdam, where it has been awarded one of the first commercial FM licences in the Netherlands.
The format will be similar to that in the UK, with many of the same programmes in English and the news, weather and adverts in Dutch. There will also be jazz in the evenings. But this is not just cultural colonisation. Dutch radio advertising has been growing steadily and is predicted to produce pounds 74m next year. Classic FM has just moved into profit for the first time with advertising revenues bringing in pounds 1m a month and accounting for 80 per cent of income with sponsorship 20 per cent, a ratio that was 50- 50 for much of its first year. With a European base, the cash could really start to flow.
Small wonder that for Sir Peter Michael, the electronics supremo who is Classic FM's chairman, the Netherlands is merely the entry point into Europe. 'Our long-term objective is to build a European network for the station,' he says. 'We've all been slightly startled by the scale of the success, and it makes you wonder if there might not be a similar potential audience that is unsatisfied across Europe.
'Many of the broadcasting rationales in Europe stem from BBC models. The Netherlands has its own Radio 3. But now all the European countries that have previously guarded their national broadcasters as sacrosanct are going to deregulate. We're looking across Scandinavia, Germany and northern Europe at the moment. We get 4.7 million per week listening in Britain. We see that doubling in the next four to five years by going into Europe.'
As Classic FM trades on its undoubted success, it is a good moment to ask just what effect that success has had. Certainly it has found a large new audience for classical music, at least classical music in bite-sized chunks; a movement rather than a whole symphony, an interview, a chat, a racing tip, a weekly chart countdown. Yes, the evening schedules allow for more full-length works than the daytime programmes, and the Sunday afternoon education programme Masterclass, with its pounds 2.2m sponsorship by Nestle, has had hundreds of schools subscribe for tapes and notes and increased its audience fourfold in its first four months.
But in the main the joy of Classic FM remains its largely popular repertoire from the 20,000 tracks on its playlist chosen by Robin Ray, the former host of Face the Music, who has inconspicuously become one of the most powerful arbiters of musical taste in Britain. The excerpts from each musical work are usually short and the presentation chatty and friendly.
The natural assumption is that finding several million new listeners for classical music would have had an equally positive effect on musical life in Britain. Record sales and concert attendances should have soared. But the surprising result is that the reverse is true. Both have gone down in the first year of Classic FM. The station is indeed altering tastes, but perhaps in a way no one expected.
Jeremy Eckstein, editor of the Policy Studies Institute's Cultural Trends, was one of those who was shocked to discover these effects. 'There is a negative correlation between Classic FM's success and classical album sales,' he says. 'When I asked record companies if their sales had gone up because of Classic FM, they said no way. They say that now you can get first-class quality music free on the air in bite- size chunks, why bother to go out and buy it? There are isolated phenomena such as Gorecki (the contemporary minimalist Polish composer whom Classic FM got to the top of the classical charts) and a small effect from the Saturday morning chart countdown, but generally there's little positive effect.'
Classical album sales were 16.7 million in 1990, 13.5 million in 1992, falling to 12.8 million in 1993, Classic FM's first year of operation. Attendances at classical music concerts over the past year are harder to come by, but the Royal Festival Hall says it has been at best static.
However, for one genre sales have been going through the roof. Look for the word 'essential', the classical equivalent of pop's greatest hits. It features in many of the top 10 classic albums. And when they are not essential they are usually still compilations, classic romance or classic weepies. In the current classical top 10 there are seven compilations including Classic Weepies, The World of Classical Romance, Essential Opera 2 and The World of Classical Favourites. Andrea Turner, product manager for Classical Music with WH Smith, which sponsors the Classic FM chart and displays the top 10, says record companies are bringing out more compilations as Classic FM's influence grows.
And at the top of the current chart is not a compilation but a piece of contemporary music, Michael Nyman's score for the film The Piano, which is played repeatedly on the station. The message is clear. Classic FM does not just play the best-selling music on a weekly basis; it creates that music, or at least the way it is compiled and marketed. EMI even brought out The Sound of Classic FM and sold 100,000 copies, and sales of the company's Callas and Domingo compilations leapt after it bought airtime on the station.
But while Classic FM has succeeded in getting listeners to buy the popular music in compilations that they hear on the station, has it encouraged its 4.7 million listeners to widen their classical horizons? When I asked people in the field, I found the first reservations in their general acclaim.
Roger Lewis, director of the Classical Division at EMI, says: 'Classic FM is a wonderful, never-ending sampler to classical music, but it's a sampler and there's another classical experience beyond Classic FM. It has certainly helped to break down some of the more intimidatory aspects of the genre with its friendly, welcoming style, but it doesn't make people rush out and buy classical music.
'That is a result of the presentational style that will not emphasise unduly a particular work. They play a movement of a Haydn symphony and let the music speak for itself. The listener might go into a shop to buy some Haydn, but won't know which work it was, let alone that it was Simon Rattle conducting.'
Judy Grahame, co-founder of CD Direct, a direct mail classical CD company, and spokeswoman for The Philharmonia Orchestra, is a fan of the station but acknowledges that getting an artist on to Classic FM does not translate into ticket sales at a concert in the way that an interview with a conductor or soloist in a newspaper invariably does.
It is an anxiety echoed by Graham Sheffield, director of music at the South Bank Centre, which contains the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth halls. 'Classic FM encourages the soundbite culture, the compilation CD culture,' he says, 'and that's the main negative point about a station I'm generally in favour of. I would like to see them encouraging curiosity in their audience with more live concerts.'
Classic FM is now causing those who present classical concerts to wonder about their traditions and conventions in the same way it caused the record companies to put out more compilations. Chris Lawrence, managing director of the London Philharmonic orchestra, says: 'We haven't cracked how to get the Classic FM audience into concerts yet and we have to ask if concert halls are welcoming places.'
Meanwhile Classic FM is responding to these concerns. It played only 120 hours of live concerts in its first year, but relayed 11 full concerts over the two-week Christmas period. Significantly, it has now decided to give the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra pounds 500,000 a year sponsorship, pounds 200,000 more than the RPO's public subsidy. This is bound to ensure more live music on the station. Classic FM is, in other words, moving directly into Radio 3 territory.