Media: Overture to a classical confrontation: Come September, Radio 3 will have a rival. Steve Clarke reports as battle commences for the refined listener

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The Independent Online
'THE BBC has been doing it so well for so long that they can't imagine anyone else doing it differently,' declares a petulant Michael Bukht, programme controller of Classic FM. As the countdown to the September launch of Britain's first national commercial radio station draws closer, and Radio 3 and Classic FM finalise their battle plans, both sides are looking increasingly nervous.

Mr Bukht, known to many under a pseudonym as Michael Barry, the television chef of BBC2's Food and Drink programme, was referring to an attack by Nicholas Kenyon, the new head of Radio 3, who had expressed doubts over the fledgeling station's ability to accommodate a string quartet, let alone a full symphony orchestra at its north London studios, for live broadcasts.

BBC Radio is clearly rattled at the prospect of a commercial classical music station further eroding its share of audiences. The launch of Classic FM, which, with 22 transmitters, is the biggest commercial radio launch Britain has seen, has forced Mr Kenyon to revamp Radio 3's schedules. He wants to make Britain's most upmarket station more accessible to people who buy classical music on CD, but who so far have not considered listening to Radio 3.

Classic FM's headquarters, in a nondescript Camden Town office block, are no match for the Art Deco charm of Broadcasting House. But Classic FM will not be judged by its studios, or even its live music policy, but on whether the station can find a big enough audience for advertisers.

Classic FM's backers include GWR, a Bristol-based group of commercial radio stations, Time Warner, the US media giant, and Associated Newspapers. They are convinced there is a growing appetite for classical music and, by extension, a popular classical radio station. They highlight the growth in sales of classical recordings (up 43 per cent between 1989 and 1990), the opera boom and the popularity of Nigel Kennedy, the violinist. 'One in five CDs sold is classical music,' says Mr Bukht.

Research following test transmissions in Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham, Bath and Kingston upon Thames has apparently reinforced this belief and demonstrated that the under-35s want to hear classical music on radio, presented in a more listener-friendly way than on Radio 3.

Mr Bukht, the original programme controller of London's Capital Radio, says: 'We discovered a vast audience for popular - not light - classical music among younger people who are Radio 1 rather than Radio 3 listeners. We also found that Radio 2 and Radio 4 listeners, as well as those from classic gold stations (specialising in 'golden oldies') would listen to us.' In fact the station expects to draw 37 per cent of its listeners from Radio 4; 24 per cent from Radios 1 and 3, and 16 per cent from Radio 2.

Mr Bukht adds: 'I think the comparison with Radio 3 is becoming tedious. We're not interested in Radio 3. We're a mainline radio station competing with Radios 1, 2 and 4, and big independent stations such as Capital and Clyde.'

But if it is not Classic FM's intention to park its tanks on Radio 3's lawn, and instead lure listeners from more entertainment-based rivals, just how populist will Classic FM be? If it cannot initially secure an audience, will Mantovani join Mozart and Mendelssohn on the playlist? The station has the full support of David Mellor, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, who made it possible by amending legislation to prevent all three new national commercial licences going to pop outlets. Presumably he would not take kindly to Classic FM becoming another Radio 2 or Melody - the successful London middle-of-the-road station.

Mr Bukht bridles at the suggestion that Classic FM will ever be devoted to 'light' classical music. 'We will not provide 'Mozartsak', or wall-to-wall Vivaldi. The music will range from Palestrina to Walton. We're going to be playing the pop music of the past 300 years. You're as likely to hear Benjamin Britten at breakfast time as you are Mozart. There will be music full of emotional and intellectual complexity, but only if it has points of accessibility for people who are not specialists. Classic FM will be top quality, but it will not pretend to be elitist or exclusive.'

With regular news, weather and travel information, 'it'll sound more like Radio 1 or Capital at their best,' says Mr Bakht. 'But there won't be any dilution of our music policy. You won't find classical jazz fusion or the London Pops playing the Beatles' songbook.'

Much of the programming mix will be given over to shortish pieces, movements rather than symphonies. Classic FM's breakfast shows, pencilled in to run from 6am to 10am, will consist of pieces of no longer than seven minutes - although three and a half minutes is likely to be the favoured length.

Listeners are unlikely to encounter anything as long as a complete concerto until the early afternoon, when listening levels dip before late afternoon 'drive time' from 4pm to 6pm. The aim is to spice up the 'rolling music format' throughout the day with various feature and magazine-style shows together with an hour's live music a night.

Late night programming will include repeats of the day's highlights and some phone-ins. In any one hour, a minimum of 30 minutes will be occupied by music and Classic FM says it will be 'sensitive' over interrupting, say, a Mozart symphony with a plug for washing-up liquid.

Not a Reithian agenda, perhaps, but Classic FM will need to show a return for its shareholders if it is to survive. The station's chairman is John Spearman, a Radio 3 listener who, when he ran the advertising agency Collett, Dickenson, Pearce, helped to sell Hovis bread and Hamlet cigars with Dvorak and Bach.

He says: 'There are a small and quite vociferous minority who are violently opposed to advertising. The vast majority of people recognise the realities of this thing, which is a commercial station. We have an obligation to make a profit for our shareholders. If in the process we manage to provide people with wonderful music they enjoy listening to . . .'

With an annual budget of pounds 49m, Radio 3 attracts around 3 million listeners a week. Classic FM is aiming for a similar sized audience, albeit at a fraction of the cost; the station's initial investment is around pounds 6.5m and Mr Bukht estimates that his programme budget is one-thirtieth that of Nicholas Kenyon.

Mr Spearman predicts Classic FM will be in profit by year five at the latest. He says: 'There is a huge, growing interest in classical music. Radio 3 is esoteric and is not what people want to satisfy that requirement. They are infuriated by it.'

(Photographs omitted)