Radio 3 is a surprise winner as Britons switch on and tune in

The station's listeners are up by a remarkable 11 per cent. Matthew Bell talks to its controller
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The Independent Online

If it was surprising to learn last week that, in the age of iTunes and Spotify, more Britons are listening to the radio than ever before, even more astonishing is how many are tuning in to Radio 3.

The axing of The South Bank Show after 31 years may have blown a cool breeze through arts broadcasting, but over at Broadcasting House, the small team at the BBC's Third Programme – as it was until 1967 – couldn't be in better shape. In the past year, Radio 3 has gained 200,000 listeners, up 11 per cent to just under two million, while Classic FM has seen its audience fall by 3.7 per cent.

With such a fillip you might expect Roger Wright, the controller of Radio 3, to be feeling smug, but for him, the quarterly Rajar figures are only one part of a wider picture. "If listening figures were the sole measure of our success, you would have a very different radio station on your hands," he says. "We would play Pachelbel's Canon or Albinoni's Adagio in a prime evening slot instead of a high-quality, thought-provoking speech programme such as Night Waves. Putting it on then allows us to say this is the sort of the station we are and it has an element of aspiration about it."

Wright is keen to bring in new listeners but remains committed to new music and "difficult" composers, which he sees as an essential part of the station's public-service DNA. "We could say 'let's not commission Birtwistle or Stockhausen, because a majority of the audience doesn't really like it', but there is so much value in it we're still going to do it." He is also acutely aware of the need to give value for money to the licence-fee payer.

Radio 3 is one of the most expensive BBC operations, but as Wright points out, it is more than just a radio station. It is the single greatest commissioner of new music in the world, and maintains six performing groups, including a symphony orchestra in Wales and the BBC Singers, the only full-time professional choir in Britain. "There isn't any competition for what Radio 3 offers. It's just that we do something that nobody else does. The competition we have is for the listeners' time. There is an increasing choice as to how people spend it, with iPods and bespoke music selections." He doesn't consider Classic FM a competitor. "Over 55 per cent of our output is live music – we're two entirely complementary services."

When Wright was appointed 11 years ago, he was considered a safe pair of hands for a station beloved of its possessive core audience. Despite that, there has been a feeling among some listeners that the station has deteriorated in quality, vocalised by a group known as the Friends of Radio 3. Common complaints are that presenters are too informal and the drive-time programmes too bitty. But Wright sees criticism as an inevitable part of the job. "I had a meeting with six members of Friends of Radio 3. One didn't like jazz, another one did. You can't please everyone."

Among Wright's innovations has been the promotion of world music. Within months of his appointment in 1998, he launched Late Junction, the hugely popular evening show famed for its eclectic playlist. In 2001 he recruited Andy Kershaw and the following year launched the World Music Awards. Only Late Junction remains, as Kershaw's programme was suspended following some highly publicised personal problems, and the World Music Awards were axed earlier this year despite their popularity, which drew some criticism. "In 2002 there was a feeling that world music needed to have its profile raised," he says. "We've done that. We're now in a different place, so other people can do awards. We could spend a lot of time talking about world music or jazz but they still account for less than 10 per cent of our output. The fact is we've been doing it for over 40 years – Jazz Record Requests was first recorded in the Sixties." Would he like to bring Kershaw back? "I'm still in touch with Andy and the door is not closed."

Aged only 52, Wright has impressive energy. He commutes from Bedfordshire to be at his desk by 7 every morning and his mantra is that Radio 3's formula should be constantly refreshed. Last year, the station attracted much publicity when the entire works of Beethoven were played over a week. This was followed by a Bach-only Christmas and The Ring in a Day, when Wagner's 18-hour Ring cycle was played. This year, the station commemorates Handel, Haydn, Purcell and Mendelssohn, with this weekend devoted to the latter. But he is wary of allowing such projects to become routine. "Like all radio stations, you try to keep core listeners happy, you try to encourage lighter listeners to listen for longer, and you try to get new listeners to sample the station. That's one of the hardest things for a station like Radio 3, it doesn't say in its name what it is. The perceptions of people who have never heard it probably lag 15 years behind."

As a musician himself – he plays the piano every morning – his enthusiasm is infectious. "If you're passionate about something," he says, "you want to share it."