The wide world of Radio 3

Once seen as the bastion of quality classical broadcasting, Radio 3 is now helping to promote world music
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On Saturday night Roger Wright, the ebullient controller of Radio 3, was exactly where you might expect to find him: listening to Britten's Spring Symphony at the Proms, the series of classical concerts that lies at the heart of his summer schedule.

But only hours before, he had been seen at the Womad festival of world music in Reading, raving about Oliver Mtukudzi, the Zimbabwean bandleader whose set Radio 3 was about to broadcast live. Henna tattoos and ethnic print skirts may not be the usual image of a Radio 3 audience, but it was the reality at Womad, where the station was the media sponsor, broadcasting throughout the three-day event.

The station is now an important ingredient in the realm of world music. That was not Roger Wright speaking, but an array of music promoters and the contemporary music man from the Arts Council, who were found chatting this weekend amid the Cuban trumpeters and African drumming.

The genre was squeezed to the margins, one promoter said, when Nicholas Kenyon, Wright's predecessor, was battling to fend off the impact of Classic FM. When Wright took over in 1998, he began to carve a station that was, like himself, enthusiastic about many kinds of music and keen to include them in the schedules.

For Wright, this is not just about reflecting contemporary culture, but also about encouraging it. Radio 3's new addition to coverage is the inauguration of the first World Music Awards, which is due to take place next January in the trendy new music venue Ocean in Hackney, east London. "The bottom line is to try to raise the profile of world music," he says. "There isn't another radio outlet for it."

But out in the Reading sunshine, most of the Womad audience was still very hazy about Radio 3's involvement. The real fan may know that Andy Kershaw moved his world-music expertise to Radio 3 after he was axed from Radio 1, and that an eclectic programme called Late Junction discovers unusual sounds from around the globe. But to most, Radio 3 has always been a classical music station, and still is.

Wright denies this categorisation. In the past, he says, what is now known as world music was included on the station under the more academic-sounding banner of ethno-musicology. Other genres, such as jazz, have a strong Radio 3 tradition stretching back to at least the 1960s.

Jazz, like world music, is an increasingly important part of the mix – the station co-hosts the British Jazz Awards with Radio 2 at the Royal Festival Hall, London tonight, and is also the new media partner for the London Jazz Festival in November. Radio 3, says Wright, is the natural home of cutting-edge culture – whether that be in world music, jazz, drama or debate.

So while observers describe him as "re-positioning" the station, he sees himself as clarifyingits message. Still, he is surprised that his innovations have not prompted more listener outrage. "If I'd said two years ago that I was going to employ Andy Kershaw and put world music on at Saturday lunchtime, the balloon might have gone up," he smiles. But he has also increased the amount of live classical music in the schedules and made Radio 3 the UK's biggest commissioner of new classical music –which may explain why criticisms from purists have been muted.

He believes there is now a large audience with diverse musical tastes. "In the 21st century, the public is happy to bop around to Cuban music and to listen to Brahms's second symphony. We don't have to put things into boxes."

As the smallest of the BBC's national networks and with just a third of Classic FM's audience, critics might suggest that if such an audience exists, it does not exist in big enough numbers to justify the investment. But certainly Claire Whitaker, a director of Serious, the international music producers behind the London Jazz Festival, thinks he is right.

"Our audiences are interested in quality and a diversity of music genres," she says. "Instead of trying to redefine a vision of classical music that might have led to dumbing down, he has widened the scope of very high-quality music at the station." And at Womad, he certainly made it look like fun.