Radio 3: Where Bach and Bongo Man meet

As the incomparable Radio 3 turns 60, its controller tells Ian Burrell why a commitment to wildly diverse sounds is the key to prosperity
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The Independent Online

It is 5.30am on the borders of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, the sun has just started to rise, and Roger Wright, this morning like every other morning, is already wide awake and sitting on a stool before his 1902 Bechstein concert grand piano.

He reaches for some sheet music and welcomes the new day to the sound of Johann Sebastian Bach. "I don't think I'm alone in doing that," says the controller of BBC Radio 3. "I think there are an awful lot of people who treat it a bit like a cold shower, it's very good and cleansing. I tend to have a whole pile of music by the piano and pick up what's there. I don't religiously go through the Bach 48 preludes and fugues."

Next month marks the 60th anniversary of the BBC Third Programme, a British institution variously described as "the envy of the world" and "the greatest educative and civilising force England has known since the 16th century". The station, which changed its name to Radio 3 in 1970, has given a crucial platform to Samuel Beckett, Dylan Thomas, John Betjeman and Laurence Olivier. But it is music, and especially Western classical music, that is its heartbeat.

It is difficult to imagine someone more apposite for the role of BBC3 controller than Roger Wright. He played the piano as a pupil at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester and later - when studying for his music degree at the University of London - he would accompany a choir of student singers every Friday of term. He is a chorister, who grew up in the church as the son of a sub-dean at Manchester Cathedral. His brother, Simon Wright, has recently retired as the organist at Ampleforth Abbey.

When Wright was nine years old and other young Mancunians of his vintage were obsessing over Denis Law, or Colin Bell, or The Hollies, he was phoning up Radio 3 and requesting the Delius Piano Concerto.

"All the things I listened to are very much the sorts of thing I listen to now. Things like Test Match Special and Radio 3 were absolutely important," he says of his childhood listening habits. "I can remember as a teenager hearing discussions [on Radio 3] and thinking, 'I don't know much about Hungarian macrobiology but this sounds like the sort of thing I should be interested in, and what a pleasure it is to be listening in'."

He consistently works a 14-hour day, speed-reading the daily newspapers on board the Bedpan (Bedford to St Pancras) line, then striding to Broadcasting House while listening to Radio 3 on his portable digital radio, arriving at 7am. He gets invited to so many concerts, operas, plays and openings that he could be out every night. "I'm incredibly fortunate but just as I'm living a hobby it is also true that you never ever get away from work. At home the radio will be on all the time. But, my goodness, what a privileged position that is."

With that privilege comes a responsibility to preserve the values of a station that from its outset was intended for "persons of taste, of intelligence, and of education". There can be few more demanding audiences in the world than Radio 3's. One particularly vociferous group, Friends of Radio 3, has a website on which correspondents pour out their "distress", "anguish" and "suffering" at the perceived dumbing down and decline in standards. "Keep putting the people who are running R3 into the ground under as much pressure as possible," urges Michael Owen of Bristol. "Can any listener think of any one person in world history with greater opportunities to enhance musical and artistic cultural life than the controller of Radio 3?" asks Nick Zelle of Malta.

If the controller is feeling harassed he's not showing it. Tanned and relaxed, Roger Wright, 49, is dressed in a floral patterned shirt and three-quarter-length trousers. And flip -lops. He is in a Berkshire field where the Womad festival is taking place and from which Radio 3 is broadcasting, no doubt to the disgust of some Third Programme traditionalists.

"Of course there's responsibility and one's asking questions all the time, and at any one moment there are thousands of other things we could be doing but there's little point in torturing yourself about that," says Wright, who has been in post for seven and a half years and has attempted to move the station with the times.

"The core attitudes of fiftysomethings, who are absolutely our core audience, are not the same as the fiftysomethings of 20 years ago. To put people in boxes... to put Pat Metheny over here and Hildegard of Bingen over there and Frank Zappa over there and Bach over there... it's all just part of the same experience," he says of the increasingly diverse tastes of his listeners.

So Wright has encouraged shows such as the eclectic Late Junction and the world music coverage of Andy Kershaw, who happens to be sat near the outside-broadcast studio to which we have retired. Listening to the station, Wright believes, should be a journey of discovery. "Radio 3 is at its best when the "education" has a small "e" and when it's not just banging a lecture table. To be lightly introduced to areas which then open worlds up to you, that's what I think Radio 3 still uniquely does."

The more traditionalist listeners should be aware that, when Wright listens to his station's world music or jazz shows he too is exploring unfamiliar territory. "I know really nothing about jazz and world music. People might think because of the profile that it's one of my great passions but I'm learning along with everybody else."

Wright goes to some lengths to emphasise the pre-eminence in the Radio 3 schedule of Western classical music, in its many and various guises. Womad, for example, is a "tiny part of what we do" and is "absolutely dwarfed" by Radio 3's coverage of the Proms.

Radio 3 commissions work from 50 composers annually and Wright is immensely proud of being able to give a platform to talent such as John Rutter and James Dillon. "Through one of those shifts in society we are probably at a period now where we have as rich a set of British classical composers as maybe ever before in our history," he says. "They struggle to survive and so helping by increasing the number of commissions we can give them is a significant step and one which helps us get lots of great new music, broadcast for the first time on air."

Wright is also delighted that the BBC has managed to sustain five orchestras and the only full-time professional choir in the country, the BBC Singers. He notes that one in 60 of the entire BBC workforce is a member of one of these performing groups, which together represent an annual investment of £28m, a quarter of which is paid for out of the Radio 3 budget.

He probably appreciates this national asset all the more for having spent nine years out of the country, in America as the artistic administrator of the respected Cleveland Orchestra, and in Germany as a vice-president of the famed classical music record company Deutsche Grammophon. He came back to Britain and became the BBC's head of classical music. When he was appointed controller of Radio 3 he beat off competition from Roger Lewis, who subsequently headed up the rival commercial operation Classic FM.

Wright sees the differences between his station and Classic as further evidence he is not given to the cynical chasing of listeners. "Colleagues at Classic would probably say there is clearer water between us as two radio stations now than there has ever been," he says. "They operate a very tight playlist, as a commercial station has to operate, and they have some very loyal listeners. It's a CD playlist and couldn't be more different from Radio 3."

Rajar figures released last week showed Radio 3 had suffered a slight fall, not unexpected for the quarter, to 1.8 million listeners. Its share remained stable at 1.1 per cent. "The figure hovers around two million, sometimes it's 2.2 and sometimes it's 1.9. The trend-line is absolutely stable at two million which, if you think of the period and what has come into the market, is pretty remarkable," says Wright.

The Radio 3 listenership is, in terms of profile, if not in size, "very much like the Radio 4 audience", he says. "Mid-fifties is the average age, there's a London and south-east bias, it's ABC1-biased, and slightly male skewed. Average listening is as high as it's been for a long time at between six and a half and seven hours a week. As a Mancunian I would love a broader and more even spread of UK listening, although we have a broader range of voices on the station. Our target is people of an open mind and they can be of all ages, frankly." He is not unduly concerned that his mature audience hinders him in taking advantage of opportunities online. Radio 3 enjoyed great success by enabling 1.4 million listeners to download the Beethoven symphonies, transforming the relationship between classical music and the internet.

The station has also raised its profile by broadcasting the complete works of both Beethoven and Bach. "What we did was to put our heads far above the parapet. People have said it was a huge success but forget what a risk it was to clear a whole week - or in the case of Bach 10 days - for nothing but the work of one composer and play their complete works. This is in a world of sound-bites, in which people talk about attention spans being only a few seconds. To say, 'come and spend nine or 10 days with us', or put on Wagner's entire Ring Cycle of 14 hours and 45 minutes in one day, that I think is staying true to what we do."

Listeners are anxious for more of the same but, not for the first time, Wright is willing to stand up to them. "It would be the simplest thing in the world just to carry on doing it and it then becomes a tired formula. We are not giving the audience what they want in that area but I'm sure we were absolutely right not to do Mozart in that way."

The station has always provoked a sense of ownership among its audience. In the Fifties there was a Radio 3 Defence Society, formed to protect the station from cuts, and including Olivier, Albert Camus and TS Eliot among its members. Wright says: "Nobody running R3 could be unaware of the heritage. So many listeners have grown up with the station and talk about it being their musical and cultural education. To have a set of listeners like that who are so passionate and who listen so carefully, we are incredibly fortunate."

It is because he has a lifelong relationship with Radio 3 that Wright is confident that he can test his fellow listeners with a schedule that has room for Harrison Birtwistle and Kanda Bongo Man, for chamber music and challenging drama, and for discussions with Gilbert and George. "We are offering a very broad canvas and our unwritten contract with our listener is that, if you don't like something then that's fine, we don't expect you to like everything, but we trust you will come back and enjoy something later today or tomorrow. It's a million miles from the radio industry idea that you can't lose your listener at any cost. It's about mutual trust."

Radio 3 will mark its 60th anniversary on 29 September with an evening of programmes, 'Sixty Years On'

Third way

1946: The BBC Third Programme starts its life as a forum for debate, drama, opera, and classical music.

1967: The name of the channel is changed to Radio 3, as Radio 1 and two other national radio channels are also numerated. Radio 3 acquires as a service known as Network Three, which played more accessible music than The Third Programme, and which contained far less speech. The newly-named channel also scoops up 'Study Session' and 'Sports Service', a Saturday afternoon sports programme. The Third Programme, however, maintains a separate programming output for another three years.

1970: All of The Third Programme is subsumed by Radio 3.

1978: Radio 3 moves to a poor-quality medium wave frequency, where it broadcasts, among other things, Test Match cricket.

1992 Radio 3 leaves MW for good, and retains an FM frequency. The cricket moves to Radio 4 long wave.

2006 Radio 3 trials a music download service as part of The Beethoven Experience.