Radio 3 'goes live' to win listeners in battle with classical rival: Nick Kenyon defends the much-criticised changes he has made to the BBC's drama and music station. David Lister reports

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The Independent Online
IN HIS OFFICE at Radio 3, Nick Kenyon has an on-off switch. It was ripped from a radio and sent in by a disgruntled listener who accused him of 'disabling' his radio set.

Mr Kenyon keeps it, along with vitriolic attacks on him by the Spectator, the weekly political magazine, with the memorable headline 'Diminished Third', and the Times Literary Supplement, in case he should ever be fooled into thinking the Establishment loves him.

Six months into his job as controller of the station, the former music critic of the Observer newspaper has ruffled a lot of feathers with changes perceived as taking the classical music and drama station downmarket. But he is unabashed and determined to make further changes to increase the number of listeners and rid the station of its exclusive tag.

On the image front he has taken on Judy Grahame, former London Philharmonic Orchestra marketing director, to advise on strategy, and taken on Saatchi and Saatchi, the advertising agency, to design posters.

These show a range of social groups - Jaguar drivers to van drivers - transported by the new Kenyon-style Drive Time programme. Others show gravestones of the great composers with no date of death to illustrate that Radio 3 is playing increasing amounts of live music.

For Mr Kenyon it shows how much the BBC orchestras are used by the station, at a time when senior management in the corporation has questioned the cost-effectiveness of them; and it emphasises a factor - live music - that Radio 3's new commercial rival, the expressly downmarket Classic FM, cannot provide.

Mr Kenyon said that the changes had not been made with Classic FM in mind. He believes there are enough listeners for both stations and does not think the new rival, with its snatches of symphonies and deliberately naff pronunciation, will take listeners from Radio 3.

'I still believe it's not going to be a threat to us. Indeed I think it has helped us internally to argue for changes. It helped us on the marketing front to move in a way we hadn't before. And it's created a lot of talk and ferment about what classical music should be.

'But it's aimed at the sampler market, the 12 tracks on the front of Classic CD magazine people, and the jovial misinformation that is purveyed is becoming a cult. They are basically finding different ways of playing records. They have to deliver people to the advertisers. In fact I'm disappointed their scheduling has shadowed ours, the opera slot on Saturday night, for example.'

Mr Kenyon still talks of increasing Radio 3's listenership. 'We cater for only 5 per cent of the population, even though research shows that 25 per cent listen to classical music. But 2.7 million people a week listen, half a million a day more than read most quality newspapers.

'I would like to increase our reach so that we're getting to a greater proportion of those classical lovers who go to things, slightly younger people.

'It took a little while for the liberal intelligentsia to get worked up. But I am committed to more accessibility. In the Spectator/TLS world, accessibility is a dirty word. But I don't see it as a problem as long as you're not sacrificing quality. The thing that irritated me was the feeling that the institution of Radio 3 was under threat, whereas in fact the opposite was the case. We weren't cutting back, we were simply doing things in a different way.'

His most marked and controversial change has been to change the morning slot from a whole concert to a more usual breakfast and drive-to-work easy-listening programme. 'A whole segment of the listening audience hated having their mornings tampered with. But I wanted to move from those long pieces in the morning concerts. The most successful change has been Brian Kay's Sunday morning programme, a friendly basic repertory, fundamentally unintimidating. You don't feel you need . . . a basic knowledge to listen to it. That's the style I want.'

But Kenyon the champion of accessibility seems to be forever battling with Kenyon the upholder of quality. His quickfire moves to emphasise one then the other can be disconcerting.

'In the last three weeks since the Proms ended, we've done so much high-level work - the opening concerts of the LPO, BBC concerts with Maxwell Davies and next week a Philip Glass opera from the Met; one live event after another. Our live relays don't get noticed enough, but I will be building them into series, a Scandinavian season, for example, and that will be noticed more. It is the live music that differentiates us from the competition. Axeing the orchestras is now off the agenda.'

Above all, Mr Kenyon, like Classic FM, believes there is a new audience to be won. 'What has changed is the nature of the classical music audience. There's a new audience, approaching it by a different lateral route, mainly from buying classical CDs, or listening to television ads and background music. For us the criteria are quality and live music. In that way we will win new audiences.'

(Photograph omitted)