Radio 3 prompts chorus of disapproval by dropping its commitment to classical

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The Independent Online

They are only nine words but to a key sector of the BBC Radio 3 audience they mean everything. "Classical music remains at the heart of the schedule," said the station's entry in the annual programme policy document last year.

They are only nine words but to a key sector of the BBC Radio 3 audience they mean everything. "Classical music remains at the heart of the schedule," said the station's entry in the annual programme policy document last year.

This time around the words were not there, replaced instead by a rather woollier commitment to a "broad spectrum" of listening pleasures that also included world music and jazz.

The influential listeners' group Friends of Radio 3 was alarmed, immediately promising to write to Roger Wright, the station's controller, demanding an explanation for the apparent lack of commitment to the form of music for which the station is traditionally known.

Sarah Spilsbury, a spokeswoman for the group, said: "They don't claim to be the classical music station any more and we feel sad about that. I think they desperately don't want that mantle."

Last year, Radio 3 made its pledge to put classical music at the "heart of the schedule" and promised programmes to mark the centenaries of Prokofiev, Berkeley and Mravinsky.

Ms Spilsbury said her group would be writing to Mr Wright to say: "What motivated you to remove it. What's the thinking behind not having it any more?" She said: "We have to clarify this. It looks very gloomy as far as we are concerned."

Classical music fans have become disconcerted that their shows have been pushed to what they consider to be the margins of the schedule. Before the policy statement was published, the Friends sent a document to the BBC expressing concern that the amount of classical music coverage was diminishing.

The document was signed by, among others, the composers Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Robin Holloway and Hugh Wood; the musicians Antony Hopkins and Christopher Robinson; the actors Prunella Scales and Timothy West; and the writers Anthony Sampson, Anthony Thwaite, Raymond Briggs, Jan Morris and Stanley Sadie.

The group said: "The position of FoR3 is that if Radio 3 is to have a broader remit, including a wide range of contemporary music and contemporary cultural issues, Radio 3 management should address the fact that, as a result, coverage of classic drama/poetry and the classical music repertoire must necessarily be eroded."

The statement went on to claim that what had been lost was not being offered elsewhere by the BBC despite the growth of digital broadcasting. The group complains that more than 40 per cent of the evening (7.30pm-midnight) music programming is now non-classical. It said: "Radio 3's long-standing audience for quality classic and classical broadcasting is now less well-catered than before."

According to Ms Spilsbury, unreasonable demands were being placed on Radio 3's classical music fans, who were being asked to broaden their horizons by listening to evening shows featuring world music and presented by DJs such as John Peel and Gilles Peterson.

She said: "Why Radio 3 listeners have to broaden their horizons rather than those of Radio 1, I don't know. Radio 1 targets a specific audience with specific tastes whereas Radio 3 has to be all things to all people."

This is not the first time that the Friends have complained. Last November the arrival on the Radio 3 schedule of a special programme on the rock musician Frank Zappa prompted unease. On that occasion, the station chose to include Zappa (who famously hated jazz) on the long-running programme Jazz File.

David Samuels, another member of the Friends of Radio 3, said: " Jazz File is one of Radio 3's standard programmes. If they are going to put Frank Zappa on, they are likely to start alienating the jazz fans the way they have the classical fans."

World music, as the Radio 3 policy statement makes clear, is "now established as part of [the station's] regular output". Radio 3 and the world music festival Womad jointly support an annual awards ceremony. Past winners have included the Mexican rock-salsa-cumbia hybrid Los de Abajo, the tango-influenced French group Gotan Project and the Senegalese hip hop trio Daara J.

The Friends believe that their campaigning has cut the amount of pop in Radio 3's music coverage. Radio 3 denied that it was reducing its commitment to classical music. In its statement of programme policy this year, Radio 3 said that more than 50 per cent of the network's music output would be "live or specially recorded concerts", although it did not specify classical music.

It pledged to broadcast more than 150 chamber music concerts and to commission 50 pieces of music in the year.

Mr Wright said yesterday: "We have recently announced our continuing and extensive partnerships with many of the summer music festivals ... so it seems odd for Radio 3 to be asked to defend our commitment to classical music."

A spokeswoman for the station said that more than 80 per cent of the schedule consisted of Western classical music. "If that is not putting it at the heart of the schedule, then I don't know what is," she said.