The land of the Three: Inside Roger Wright's radio culture club

As Roger Wright, the controller of Radio 3, takes charge of his second great British cultural institution, the new director of the Proms tells Ian Burrell of how he manages the fragile ecology of his radio network and tries to hold on to his listeners

Monday 21 July 2008 00:00

When the bass-baritone of Bryn Terfel, in conjunction with the voices of a host of promenaders, some of them in evening dress and others in T-shirts, brings to a conclusion the BBC Proms 2008 on the night of 13 September, the bunting will no doubt be fluttering in wild admiration as usual.

That is certainly the hope of Roger Wright, the controller of Radio 3 and, for the first time this year, the director of the Proms. It is an event he describes as being tied like an "umbilical chord" to his network. Yet, in spite of Wright's naturally unflappable demeanour, he can hardly afford to be complacent.

His critics, whether members of the famously outspoken and change-resistant Radio 3 listenership or media observers who tend to judge the performance of a broadcaster by the crude measure of audience scale, have raised the volume of their dissent to a new high. As audience share dips below 1 per cent for the first time, the response recalls not so much the appreciative show of Union flags but the waving of panuelos blancos, the white handkerchiefs waved by angry Spanish sports audiences when they want the boss to get the chop.

"He is clearly unfit to be a channel controller," complained listener Albert Beale in a recent letter to The Guardian. In an article in The Independent, Sarah Spilsbury blamed the audience demise on Wright's schedule changes. She spoke of "butchery" and showed that, though she might be 'Co-ordinator of Friends of Radio 3', she is not necessarily a bosom buddy of the genial Mancunian cricket obsessive with a mop of grey hair who has run the network for the past decade.

None of which will have caused Wright to lose too much sleep before rising at 5.30am – as he does each morning – to attack the day by running his fingers over the keys of his 1902 Bechstein concert grand piano.

The fall to 0.9 per cent audience share between January and March, with a weekly audience of 1.79 million (a 7.9 per cent fall in listeners from the previous quarter), drew attention partly because it was thrown into stark relief by the comparative successes of other BBC national networks, which once again trounced the commercial radio sector.

"We had a slight dip this first quarter but our trend line is pretty flat. If you go back to 1999, it's a pretty flat line, it's dipped a bit below two million but it's in that area," says the 51-year-old, determinedly holding his ground and pointing out that commercial station Classic FM "has dropped to a much greater degree over the last three or four years".

But given that Radio 3's core, like the more low-brow Classic FM's, is Western classical music does Wright not feel that he is conducting an inevitable albeit dignified retreat in the face of changing popular tastes? "It doesn't feel like managing decline," he counters. "People talk about small audiences but this is a huge audience for what we offer. Think about how many performances of a play or concert you would have to put on in order to reach the Radio 3 audiences; in the order of two million people listening when we are broadcasting a (Karlheinz) Stockhausen day or a David Hare play or a (Harrison) Birtwistle evening."

Wright's sense of security is based on the knowledge that Radio 3 exists not to deliver the BBC a good news story in the quarterly audience Rajar figures but to underpin the cultural heritage of the nation. It is the key broadcasting outlet for the five orchestras supported by the BBC and the only full-time professional choir in the country, the BBC Singers.

The network's unique status is enshrined in its service licence and the arrival of a new BBC head of radio Tim Davie, with his strong marketing background, will not change that. "[Audience] is absolutely not how we're judged nor should it be how we're judged. I accept it is one measure but it simply can't be the sole measure of our success nor frankly should it be the sole measure of the other [BBC radio] services either. If you look at our audience approval [rating] it's very high," says Wright.

He cites the success of devoting a weekend in May to the music of Chopin as an example of the network making a profound impression. "The number of people who said after our Chopin weekend, 'The piano has been sat in the corner or the room and I've gone back to it for the first time in 30 years.' To be able to engage listeners in that way."

Much of the criticism of Wright's recent management of Radio 3 has concerned his controversial decision to switch the network's evening concert show Performance on 3 to the earlier time of 7pm, spoiling the experience for some listeners by broadcasting pre-recorded material. Wright accepts that there was a "certain hullabaloo" over the change but says it was based on the misunderstanding that concerts would be replaced by discs. "We are now covering more in live and specially recorded output. Our recorded output was 51 per cent and it's now 55 per cent. So there has been an increase in what we can cover."

Some listeners won't be satisfied by this, arguing that even a specially-recorded concert is not the same as hearing the event in real time. Wright suggests that expectations are not always realistic, pointing out that during live broadcasts it is sometimes necessary for a presenter to "fill" because nothing is happening on stage except for a piano being slowly moved into place.

More criticism ("a certain amount of noise") came in the wake of Wright's decision in February to switch the 80-year-old Choral Evensong from Wednesday to Sunday afternoons. Wright says he is involved in "constant, constant juggling" as he tries to keep happy various parties. "There are certain lobby groups, fan bases let's say, for organ music or guitar music or British music." Some classical music enthusiasts remain infuriated by the network's determination to accommodate genres including jazz and world music (Radio 3 will be broadcasting the Womad festival next weekend from the Wiltshire countryside).

The station also offers full-length plays and heavyweight pieces of talk radio such as The Essay, which last week featured four discourses on Virgil from Seamus Heaney and various Classics professors. Wright will add more such programming with tweaks to the schedule in the autumn.

At the back of his mind are big plans for 2009, when he is planning a year-long celebration of "four wonderful composers" – Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Mendelsohn – who all have anniversaries of some kind next year. "It's ironic that three of them are not British composers but the role that they had in British musical life was really important."

Wright was disconcerted by the empty seats at last year's Proms when Sir Roger Norrington conducted Haydn's The Seasons. "There's nowhere that looks half empty like the Albert Hall does when it's half full," complains the controller. "Haydn wrote 104 symphonies with hardly a dud. I'm not going to suggest that all the Haydn operas are masterpieces but when you look at the symphonies, the string quartets, the piano sonatas, the piano trios, it's wonderful, life-enhancing music. There's a wonderful opportunity here and if we can use an anniversary then fantastic."

Wright's schedule for the 2008 Proms, which opened on Friday, also takes advantage of anniversaries this year for four featured composers: Ralph Vaughan Williams (who died 50 years ago), Olivier Messiaen and Elliot Carter (centenaries) and Stockhausen (who would have been 80 this year).

The Proms are the showpiece of Radio 3's year, although sections of the public associate the event more with BBC2. Wright does not gripe. "The fact that BBC2 is regularly there in prime time on Saturday nights is fantastic. BBC4 is there on Sundays and Mondays and you have a choice of going to the Albert Hall itself, listening to the radio live, going to the BBC's iPlayer or radioplayer," he points out. "Those famous words from Land of Hope and Glory – 'Wider still and wider' – are in many ways a very good description of what's happened to the Proms since 1895."

Wright does not wish to see the day when broadcasting is replaced by narrowcasting and we all compile our own radio schedules, strictly to our own tastes and timetables. "Linear radio listening will be around for a long time," he says. "It is important to have a sense of a radio station feeling alive and following you through the day. If we lost the serendipity of radio I think we would be much the poorer in terms of suddenly being exposed to things we didn't know, whether it be news or music or ideas."

Over the coming weeks Radio 3 presenters will introduce some of the Proms concerts from the stage, a process which "immediately raises the profile of our presenters but also breaks down some formality". Nonetheless, Wright is cautious about growing the network through high-profile presenting talent, noting that "our core audience has in the past been rather star resistant, shall we say". His biggest names tend to have strong backgrounds in the genre they cover, such as Aled Jones (choral), Iain Burnside (piano) and Claire Martin (jazz).

Wright says he doesn't really lose his temper and even the dilemma of his Proms first night soprano soloist Karita Mattila being struck down with bronchitis is swiftly resolved. "We've just found a replacement this morning, Christine Brewer will fly in from Chicago tomorrow."

But he is a little irked by the lack of recognition of Radio 3's contribution to Britain's cultural life. "I'm not a person who really gets angry or frustrated but what I am keen to do is make certain that the message about Radio 3 is out and that we are not taken for granted," he says.

His first Proms directorship includes "stones thrown into the pool" in the scheduling, including a Dr Who Prom in recognition of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which composed the famous theme tune, and including a filmed scene with actor David Tennant. Wright realises that change brings the risk of criticism but says: "We can be quite forgetful about what really was where and when. There's this assumption that Last Night of the Proms has been there since 1895 and it is complete nonsense. 1954 was the time when you got the sequence of pieces that you traditionally expect on the last night."

Equally he is aware of the dangers of being "formulaic" and turning the innovations of Sir William Glock, who transformed the Proms in the Sixties, into the "clichés of the noughties". So in his stewardship of both the Proms and Radio 3 Wright will attempt to "keep that sense of refreshing and renewing whilst being absolutely true to the heritage" and he will be prepared for the brickbats.

"You want people to care. You want loyal and committed audiences who want to engage with you," says this great cultural curator. "Do I look forward to receiving negative correspondence or personal abuse? Well, nobody does. However, it's a pretty small price to pay for being in effect a public servant."

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