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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 September 2007, 07:39 GMT 08:39 UK
Radio 3 shrugs off falling ratings
By Kevin Young
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

When the Third Programme was rebranded as BBC Radio 3, its controller promised "programmes that matter enormously to certain significant minorities".

But now, exactly 40 years later, listening figures are at their lowest ever. So is there a need for Radio 3 to broaden its appeal?

"Let's get it in perspective. The audience isn't low."

Roger Wright
Mr Wright presented on Radios 3 and 4 before becoming controller
Roger Wright, Radio 3's controller for the past nine years, is keen to stress that ratings are not his sole means of judging success.

"This is not a commercial radio station where the measurement is only about listening figures.

"We know how to get our listing figures up - what we would do is to make the station less distinctive."

His network - heard by 1.78 million people a week - has a bigger budget than pop rival Radio 1 but a sixth of the audience.

But he argues that the 34 million allocated to Radio 3 this year is essential to a network which tailors its music output, rather than broadcasting a rotating playlist.

You can absolutely see that what was there in the Third Programme and in those first days of Radio 3 are absolutely the seeds of what we now have
Roger Wright
Controller, Radio 3

"In our music output, more than 50% of what we do is not on CD - in other words, taking live and specially-recorded performances, reinventing the classical canon.

"Radio 1 and Radio 2 have a huge commitment to live music too, but that's still a tiny percentage of their overall output."

Mr Wright calls Radio 3 "the most significant commissioner of new music in the world", and hails his station for broadcasting "full-length plays, often by contemporary writers", plus daily arts discussion programme Night Waves.

"To have around two million people a week listening to that is actually a huge number of people."

Lack of belief

Radio 3 and Classic FM - which turned 15 this month and now has 5.7 million listeners per week - can be entirely complimentary services with minimal overlap, Mr Wright believes.

Vincent Duggleby and Angus MacKay from Radio 3's Sports Report in 1969
0804 Record Review
0904 La Clemenza di Tito
1014 Ravel's Piano Music
1046 La Clemenza di Tito
1200 Jazz Record Requests
1230 Sports Parade
1700 Sports Report (pictured)
1800 Bach
1855 An Idea and its Icons
1910 Folk Music of Czechoslovakia
2000 BBC Symphony Orchestra in Berlin
2205 Abraham Cowley
2235 Mozart
2300 News and Closedown
Source: Radio Times

And that view is shared by Ralph Bernard, chief executive of GCap Media, which runs Classic FM.

"There is absolutely sufficient room for an excellent station like Radio 3 to run the sort of programming it does, and for Classic FM as well."

But he recalls struggling in the early 1990s to raise money to launch the station.

"I found it extraordinary that we went around the City, and there wasn't a single [interested] institution out of over 100 presentations or information memorandums that we sent out.

"Not one backed the idea, because they said Radio 3 played classical music and there wasn't a market for it."

"What convinced me was that the BBC chose Luciano Pavarotti to sing Nessun Dorma for its World Cup coverage in 1990. Clearly it was popular."

A classical music station need not offer "a lesson in why the composer wrote it in this particular way", he says.

And he believes "you don't have to hear a full symphony when you've only got time for a single movement".


Radio 3 is championed by senior figures in the arts world.

Marshall Marcus, head of music at London's Southbank Centre calls it "by far the most significant radio station that I've listened to over my life".

More and more I was finding programmes which didn't seem like what Radio 3 used to do
Sarah Spilsbury
Friends of Radio 3

During Mr Wright's time as controller, however, about 400 listeners have come together as the Friends of Radio 3, a campaigning body which claims the station is not as good as it used to be.

"They made a lot of changes when Roger Wright came in, and I was thinking, 'Oh, I don't like this - where's my programme? Where's something I want to listen to?'" explains Sarah Spilsbury, one of those involved in creating the organisation.

"More and more I was finding programmes which didn't seem like what Radio 3 used to do, sticking a bit of Broadway or light jazz music in the middle of classic programmes, and I didn't like it."

Ms Spilsbury says Radio 3 has become "too chatty and trivial" and would prefer it to be "more serious".

"Everything I know about classical music I've learned from Radio 3. I'm not an expert, but when I'm listening, I want to sit down and I want to listen carefully to what they put on.

Flags are waved at the Last Night of the Proms in 2007
Mr Wright says Radio 3 has "the best seat in the house" at concerts
"If they're putting silly jokes on and reading out quizzes and e-mails, this grates much more than if you're doing the dusting or the ironing, and it's just going on in the background."

Radio 3 still has a lot to be proud of, she stresses, such as its commitment to the annual Proms concerts.

But she says the Friends of Radio 3 have no other radio station to turn to when they are "disappointed" with the BBC network as Classic FM is "catering for a different audience".

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Wright says it is "wonderful" when listeners - or ex-listeners - become "really passionate in their debate in terms of criticising this, that or the other".

"You want them to care, because if you do change something and the audience doesn't respond at all, you think, well, why are we bothering?"

But he is a staunch defender of the presenters he has recruited and their on-air styles, and compares his network with the station heard in 1967.

"You can absolutely see that what was there in the Third Programme, and in those first days of Radio 3, are absolutely the seeds of what we now have."


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