Archive of FoR3 news items from 2013
December 27 2013: Christmas Turkey
- It's a quid pro quo: we spend a lot of time signalling the best of Radio 3 so we should be allowed to flag up the worst, and this programme was so bad we feel it would be neglect of duty to let it pass without comment.
The Right Notes in the Wrong Order was intended, one supposes, as a bit of seasonal jollity for Christmas Day. The idea was to assemble five comedians: a chairman who put questions about the eminently Radio 3 topics of culture, the arts and opera to four panellists. The joke was that none of them knew anything about any of it but offered woefully unfunny answers. Every time they opened their mouths a studio audience (real or imaginary) burst into loud laughter in anticipation of a witty reply. Even after several rounds it hadn't dawned on them that there wouldn't be any witty replies, but they laughed anyway to oblige.
Who were these comedians? The listeners at home didn't seem to have heard of them. And where on earth did they dredge up the mirthful audience? BBC One's staff Christmas party?
We offer one explanation: Radio 2 commissioned the programme and decided it was so boring and unfunny they couldn't use it. Radio 3 snapped it up because it was free. Another Ross-Brand debacle where no one bothered to listen beforehand? It couldn't have been intentional, could it? Could it?
The programme's title was a clear reference to the legendary Morecambe and Wise show with Mr Preview. The first attempt at accessing the ‘show' on Listen Again urged this listener to try again later as ‘This content doesn't seem to be working'. As Eric would have said: ‘There's no answer to that.'
December 3 2013: Strange Beasts
- Online forums are indeed strange beasts. A community of strangers are attracted together for one reason or another. The members have strange names to protect themselves from identification. They make virtual friendships and virtual enemies – the irony being that in ‘real life’ they might get on with the enemies better than with the friends. On their messageboards they can express themselves without inhibitions. And there develops a real community of interest. The forums become an important part of life.
In the case of the BBC’s Radio 3 messageboards, it wasn’t just a question of discussing the radio programmes which were on offer: it was an opportunity for informal discussion on all sorts of topics, musical and non musical, with fellow enthusiasts. Back in the real world such opportunities didn’t always present themselves.
Last week the BBC announced that it was closing down all its Radio 3 messageboards. The timing was unexpected but the axe had been feared. Unfortunately only seven days’ notice was given and the dismay of this sparky, rebellious, wise, foolish, witty, unpleasant, lovable community was palpable. Goodbye, friends, goodbye, social interaction. The reason given, of course, was money – financial cuts after a savage government spending review.
Friends of Radio 3 have been pleased to be able to give a new home to the Radio 3 community and we are pleased that the launch of the new forum has met with such instant success; all interests covered by Radio 3 are catered for – from jazz and world music through to drama and Choral Evensong, and, of course, classical music of every stripe – and it has the unofficial blessing of Radio 3.
There will be praise for Radio 3, there will be criticisms (just like on the BBC boards); aficionados and novices will meet together, a vast amount of knowledge and expertise will be exchanged. It is a pity that the BBC no longer feels able to run these messageboards, but here’s to the success of the Radio 3 Forum. And here’s to Radio 3.
October 28 2013: Reading the Runes
- RAJAR day again – but ignore everything that’s being said elsewhere and remember one thing only, which applies invariably, every quarter:
in order to understand the significance of the latest figures, wait for the following quarter’s figures to be published.
The figures published today show that Radio 3 achieved a highly respectable average weekly reach of 2.145 million last quarter. The BBC Press Office emphasised that “BBC Radio 3 attracted nearly 300,000 additional listeners ...” They rightly mentioned that this had been during the very successful Proms season but did not point out that the amount of the increase was mainly accounted for by the abysmal figures the quarter before. What goes quietly down one quarter has a habit of rising triumphantly the next (and vice versa). We look to next quarter to see whether the improvement will be maintained.
This is a bit of a repeat of last year’s performance: in 2009, the Proms boosted weekly reach to 2.192 million. The only reason the rise was not so dramatic last year (171,000) was that the pre-Proms quarter was not so bad as this year.
So, Radio 3 was in spitting distance of last year’s Proms figure, but a little bit short of it. Listening hours, which have been taking a bit of a tumble recently, improved along with reach, but fell short by a rather larger margin on last year.
One other similarity this year compared with last was the resuscitation of the ‘Step into Our World’ marketing campaign on television over the summer, marked by the arrival on the messageboards of newcomers enquiring what music was being played. How big a part does publicity play? Well, it depends. Look at the example of 6 Music. A huge campaign to save a station which most people didn’t know existed. Result? The next quarter reach rose from the weekly average of just under 700,000 to over a million. They came, they listened – and they liked, presumably, since reach has now been maintained at over a million for the third quarter in a row. That was without making any changes to the 6 Music schedules.
Now look at the Radio 3 ‘Sound Spot’ campaign: it was all over television and radio last year, leading up to the Proms. Reach shot up. But when the circus left town, so did the listeners, with a ‘loss’ of more than 300,000. (You may be reading that here first.) Reach down by 317,000 compared with, this quarter, reach up by 287,000. How do their minds work on this? ‘They came, they listened – they went away again. What do we have to do to keep them listening?’
How about sifting through the Classic FM playlists? Pinching some of their ideas, like listener polls, charts, A-Zs of. Keeping the tracks short. Oh, you have been? Well, perhaps the new arrivals were too sophisticated to be taken in by that?
Oh, but you haven’t been doing that? Well, in response to the BBC Trust’s consultation on Radio 3, three organisations (RadioCentre, Voice of the Listener and Viewer and Friends of Radio 3) rather felt that you had.
October 27 2013: What 3 can do
- It lasts about four minutes - the average length of a pop song - but how many of us could stand up and conduct it from memory? The title of the video clip is, correctly, 'Jonathan conducting to the 4th movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony' (any thoughts on the real conductor?).
Jonathan, aged 3, is obviously a very musical child, but how much of that is to do with his early training and introduction to music through the Suzuki method? He has a good musical memory - knows exactly where the work is going and what will come next. But most glorious is his total involvement with the music and obvious enjoyment of the loud and the soft, the wild and the gentle, and the strongly marked rhythms.
We have Suzuki schools in this country, but very few have the opportunity to learn music this way, and they are likely to be the children of middle-class parents who themselves appreciate classical music. But if Suzuki tends to mean privilege, El Sistema means the opposite. The Venezuelans of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and its younger version, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra (heard on Radio 3 this month), have the same exuberant enjoyment of their music as little Jonathan.
Experiments like In Harmony are taking place in the UK and the results are, cautiously, very promising. Possibly miraculously so. Behind these experiments is the wish to do something to enhance these young lives and, ironically, in coming from deprived areas they are the lucky ones.
Encouragingly, there appears to be wide acceptance in these circles that introducing children to classical music through a symphony orchestra is especially good. With the spending cuts and the end in sight for the initial 3-year In Harmony project, will the social and educational benefits be enough to guarantee the continuance of the schemes in Liverpool, Norwich and Lambeth, and, better still, to extend the project to other areas?
What has this to do with Radio 3? These children will be the audiences of the future that aren't immediately put off by the sound of an orchestra or a string quartet. And how much better a way to educate a new audience than 'charts', chat and uninformed enthusiasm which Radio 3 feels is appropriate to initiate newcomers.
[Today's article by Tom Service makes the same point about the importance of music in schools: "Of course, promoters need to be alive to fresh ways of presenting events and attracting new audiences, but it isn't going to be the odd experiment with informality that changes classical music culture – it'll be education..". I wonder if he also agrees that Radio 3's efforts at informality are similarly not the answer?]
October 8 2013: Jazz Junctions
- The first part of Radio 2's new 10-part series, Jazz Junctions, has been getting praise from Radio 3's jazz fans. A series such as this has obviously been quite a while in the making, but it gives us some satisfaction that BBC thinking was apparently on the same lines as ours.
In our response to the Director-General's strategy review proposals earlier in the year we said:
[W]e believe that Radio 2 should provide jazz programmes which complement Radio 3’s serious and avant garde jazz offering. We feel the high quality of R3’s specialist provision may otherwise be jeopardised if Radio 3 seeks to cater for the audience which Radio 2 is failing.
In our response more recently to the Radio 3 service licence review, we said in the résumé:
Jazz listeners are underserved by BBC radio in general: wider coverage on the network stations would allow Radio 3 to concentrate on its specialist jazz programming.
And in the main response, where we were asked how well Radio 3 served its various audiences, we said:
Jazz enthusiasts look to Radio 3 to provide the best quality programming on BBC radio (especially since the loss of Humphrey Lyttelton’s Best of Jazz on Radio 2). In the earlier years of the decade an effort was made to promote jazz. Two hours of jazz were removed from the late night schedules and new programmes introduced to the daytime instead. In 2007 the general policy of raising the profile of non-classical music was abandoned and most of the new jazz programming returned to late night slots. Jazz was moved from the more favoured Friday night (start of the weekend) to a Monday night. One valued programme – Jazz File – was discontinued, this assumed to be the result of budget cuts. The 30 minutes of Jazz File was tacked on to an existing programme so that broadcasting hours were roughly the same, but variety and depth of coverage were lost. Jazz also suffers when there are schedule clashes with opera or special events and this causes regular complaints.
We consider that BBC radio as a whole underserves jazz listeners and there have also been complaints of some superficiality in the Radio 3 coverage. Both situations could be improved if a reliably good service for general listening was provided on Radio 2. This would compensate the Radio 3 jazz listeners who suffer from the vagaries of the Radio 3 schedules. It would also allow Radio 3 to focus on specialist jazz programming.
It should be clear from what we said that urging the BBC to improve its jazz coverage on, particularly, Radio 2 is not an attempt to get jazz cut on Radio 3. Our view on this has been unchanged from the start: jazz is an essential part of what Radio 3 does and we do not want to see it cut. But a jazz programme will get a much smaller audience on Radio 3 than on Radio 2, so Radio 3 can safely concentrate on high quality specialist programmes. There are ways in which Radio 3 jazz enthusiasts get a raw deal, for instance in the way that the schedules will favour classical music on certain occasions, such as an early start for the Saturday night opera. We consider this unavoidable, part of being on Radio 3.
So, to scheduling. RadioCentre, the organisation representing the commercial radio industry, felt that the jazz programming was a distinctive aspect (i.e. compared with Classic FM) of Radio 3's output and should feature during the 'peak periods' , meaning the daytime. They say in their response, "Although Radio 3 points extensively to its non-classical music broadcasting when discussing its output, it is worth noting that all of its jazz, speech and world music output is programmed at off-peak times of the schedule. These are periods where Radio 3 only attracts relatively small audiences [...] We believe that this is another example of the 'ratings by day, reputation by night' strategy, as practised by other BBC radio stations - most obviously Radio 1 and Radio 2." RadioCentre, of course, has a vested interest: when Radio 3 is not broadcasting classical music, hopefully its listeners will switch over to Classic FM and with a bit of luck will stay there.
One mention of jazz in the response from Voice of the Listener and Viewer: "We note that each genre is relegated to a specific slot so the listener will not chance upon and hear the unexpected genre. The two weekday drive time programmes and especially Late Junction often achieve an interesting mix." It also points out, however, that there is more jazz and world music than new music broadcast at 'popular times' (e.g. Saturday afternoons). True ...
It should be pointed out, however, that many listeners do not want to 'chance upon the unexpected' (Wagner opera at 5pm on a Saturday night?): they switch on to hear a chosen style of music and resent it when that is not what is served up. But regular slots in the daytime schedule for genres other than classical music are rather different and are not unprecedented. A quid pro quo of a couple of daytime slots for jazz, world or speech might be some late night chamber music for a change. A subject which, though controversial with some listeners, might be worth revisiting.
October 3 2013: Where next?
- The BBC Trust’s public consultation on Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio 7 closed at the end of August with more than 18,000 responses having been received. Given the relative audience sizes, Radio 4 probably attracted most attention and it is unlikely that any submissions - other than the one from Friends of Radio 3 - lingered very long over Radio 3.
However, two influential organisations expressed similar views on certain points. Voice of the Listener and Viewer (VLV), the consumer group, was broadly approving of what Radio 3 does but, in addition to a general plea for fewer trails, had this to say about presentation and presenters:
Our members have mixed views on the linked subjective areas of presentation style and presenters. Some welcome the informal approach, especially during the drive time programmes, in the hope it will attract a larger and younger audience. Others see no place on Radio 3 for invitations to send in text messages on often trivial subjects or votes for favourite arias [...]
If the RAJAR figures show that the change in style has resulted in an increase in listeners then the changes might be justified otherwise the more populist approach should be reconsidered. We consider that Radio 3 needs to be highly distinctive in comparison with Classic FM. At present the morning drive time is often indistinguishable from the commercial station. The BBC should originate not copy.
On this we would comment that there is no evidence that the change in style has resulted in an increase in listeners.
The second organisation is RadioCentre, the industry group which represents the commercial radio stations, including Classic FM. They had this to say:
[W]e are concerned that elements of the Radio 3 schedule point towards an increasing popularisation of the service. Programming elements, such as the A-Z of Opera, a classical music chart and the Nation’s Favourite Aria, borrow significantly from the commercial sector (the Classic FM Chart has been running since 1992; the Classic FM Hall of Fame listener poll since 1996 and the A to Z of Classic FM Music since 2008) […]
We are concerned that this marks a dilution of Radio 3’s core public service output. Perhaps more worryingly, this seems to be driven by an attempt to increase audience.
RadioCentre seems more concerned than VLV about the apparent aim to increase audience; but, then, it is Classic FM’s audience which is the most obvious target.
FoR3’s submission replied to a specific set of questions aimed at organisations and looked in much more detail at the schedule (we will post our full submission on the website soon). At a recent meeting with the Trust we were able put our views personally. Our response contained both approval and criticism: we hope that management will not bask in the praise that has come from several quarters and ignore the concerns. It will now be up to the Trust to decide where next for Radio 3.
August 12 2013: 'Radio Interactive'
- A thought triggered by a random dip into a Radio 3 programme (not actually, on this occasion, Breakfast).
An email was being read out by the presenter. Someone unknown was divulging a piece of personal information of - surely? - nil interest to 99% of the audience, though it did evoke the incredulous fascination of one half of a mobile conversation on a bus. The presenter had a fair shot at trying to make it sound interesting.
FoR3 carried out a survey in 2008. We tried to frame neutral questions on 'interactivity'.
'Do you enjoy this element?' No, 80%. Yes, 2%. No opinion 18%.
'Would you like more or less?' Less, 82% (38% specified 'None at all'). Depends how it's used, 2%. It's fine as it is, 3%. Neutral, no opinion, 12%.
Let's be honest: it's tedious to have to listen to people confiding, without elaboration, what they like or don't like or used to like and now don't or didn't like but now do, before being allowed to listen to the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth. This is frankly sub-Classic FM - it's local radio standard. (The foregoing, of course, at the risk of being dismissed as 'fatuous snobbery' ...)
HL Mencken wrote: "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." Radio 3 has been going down and down trying to attract the lowest common denominator and raise its ratings, and the more it fails the lower it goes. Please stop.
July 14 2013: The Impact of 3
- The Romans had SPQR - Senatus populusque romanus. The BBC has RQIV - Reach, Quality, Impact, Value for money.
Impact is ... perhaps ... 'how much people notice, remember and talk about it'. According to the BBC Annual Reports, Impact includes such tangibles as Sony radio awards (are they tangible, or do you just get the tangibility of a pat on the back and a nice dinner?). In May every year, the Radio Academy announces the winners of the enviable Golds, personalities, programmes and, topping them off, the UK Station of the Year award. Now that's Impact.
Last year, in May, according to our prediction though to the apparent surprise and disappointment of the media, Radio 3 won its first ever UK Station of the Year. It must surely have been the only major network station to have been going since before the awards began 28 years ago not to have won the title.
The BBC online news gave its usual coverage of the awards, its headline trumpeting, not Radio 3 scoops Station of the Year, but Evans in double radio awards win. Scroll down to the bottom of the story and the final sentence reads: 'For the first time, BBC Radio 3 was named the UK Station of the Year, winning over BBC Radio 1 and Classic FM.' Well, at least they bothered to mention it, even if there was no picture of Station of the Year presenter, Stephen Johnson, winner of a gold award for his feature on Vaughan Williams.
Yet Radio 3's defeated rival of 2009, Classic FM, made the impact in 2007: Classic FM tops Sony Radio Awards, with bold intro starting the story with the top news and a picture of Classic FM's Katie Derham. Chris Evans' double win that year wasn't mentioned until paragraph three.
True, in 2008, Radio 4's win didn't make the headline, where the honours went to Ross and Brand (photos of Ross, with Joan Collins, and Brand), but it did make the bold intro.
In 2010, Radio 5 live's win was eclipsed by 6 Music (photo of Jarvis Cocker) and the Asian Network, the subjects of recent big news stories, as Ross and Brand had been in 2008. But Radio 5 live did get its mention up-story in paragraph six.
We rest our case: the Sony Radio Awards love the high profile personalities. The whole thing is about publicity which boosts the radio industry. The winners are a combination of who's making the news, Buggins' turn and Who Hasn’t Been Given a Prize Yet?
But publicity isn't quite everything: there is also ... RQIV. Impact is one of the key measures of a station's performance. In the newly published BBC Annual Report 2010/20100, Radio 5 live gets its due credit (p2-16): Impact: BBC Radio won 54 Sony Radio Academy Awards including the UK Station of the Year for BBC Radio 5 live.
So, a quick flip back to the previous year, 2008/2009, Part 2 p 047 to see what the BBC said about Radio 3. What's this? Impact: Simon Mayo was the Broadcasting Press guild award’s Radio Broadcaster of the year, while Sony’s UK Station of the Year went to Radio 4. Uh, is that a typo, or did they intend the 2008 winner, rather than the 2009?
There you are, then, winning the top award didn't even make any impact on the BBC, still less the rest of the publicity-hungry media. And, to be honest, it probably made little impact on the Radio 3 audience, other than irritation at constant reminders of BBC Radio 3, UK Station of the Year, on air and on everything else.
July 2 2013: It's suicide!
- Prescience, coincidence - or marketing?
Commentators expressed surprise that Radio 3 listeners, ever a law unto themselves, declined to back World Cup favourite 'Nessun dorma' in the great poll for the Nation's Favourite Aria. Not for them the mundane but, apparently as part of the patriotic campaign to boost the morale of our boys in South Africa they snubbed the Italian masters and the Germans to give England a resounding win. An outside chance, the Englishman Henry Purcell, sole representative of his country to make it to the final, came from nowhere to win the accolade with the little known aria 'When I am laid in earth'. Yes, Dido's Lament stormed through to beat Mozart's effort 'Dove sono' and Wagner, in third place with 'Liebestod' from Tristan und Isolde.
Curiously - and perhaps this explains the surprise - no one seems to have noticed that 'When I am laid in earth' was also the aria chosen to feature in the Sony award-winning year-long promo campaign for Radio 3's Four Composers of the Year. 'Step into our world' played across Radio 2 and Radio 4 (as well as on television). When life at work was getting too much there was ... escape: the rich floaty voice of Janet Baker was there to soothe. Wrenched from its tragic context the words must have seemed very restful to our stressed-out businessman - 'No trou-ouble, no trou-ouble i-in my breast ...'. But, no, stay your hand, your wife and children need you!
But back to marketing: how many times did 'When I am laid in earth' get played on Radio 2 and Radio 4, along with the message to come and visit Radio 3 for the Purcell programmes? And then there was the publicity, pointing new listeners over to the Radio 3 website, to vote for the Nation's Favourite Aria, among which that wonderful restful suicide note 'When I am laid in earth'. Prescience, coincidence - or was the result a case of 'It pays to advertise'?
June 23 2013: R3's 20-20 vision
- The arrival on Radio 3 of the 'Specialist' Classical Charts is training the early morning listeners to the excitement of new entries, re-entries, in at number 17, up from number 9, still topping the charts and down this week to ... Those familiar with the pop charts won't turn a hair, though others find the repetitive brain-washing tiresome to the point of distraction. John Humphrys and the Today programme can seem almost alluring by comparison.
But, never mind the packaging of the charts, what about the music? The number one disc, guaranteed a spin on In Tune, has each week been André Rieu's Forever Vienna, a feast of sugary viennoiseries which stretches a couple of points to include 'Bolero' and Shostakovich's 'Second Waltz'. As Amazon informs us, 'Customers who bought this item also bought' - five other CDs of André Rieu. And 169 reviewers gave it an average of five stars and a swift rebuke to the handful of dissenters. 'What can I say?' asked one rhetorically, 'Number 1 on Classic FM for weeks.' Rieu is a long-haired showman whose concerts play to audiences of 20,000 and who has sold more than 25 million albums; for all that, many Radio 3 listeners would have been asking, 'Rieu? Who he?'
The charts are extending the Classic FM tier of performance to contemporary composition too. This week, in at number 16 came the piano concerto (2007) by Nigel Hess (the first movement only, of course: at 24 minutes the work is too long for Breakfast these days). 'Unashamedly post-Romantic,' said the presenter affably. Well, perhaps, but also conservative and easy enough on the ear to be played on Radio 2's Melodies for You and never out of the Classic FM playlist. Easy on the ear too are the recordings of Howard Goodall's Enchanted Voices, two of which are currently in the Top 20 (one of them for 58 weeks) and therefore now incorporated into the Radio 3 repertoire. Goodall, incidentally, pipped Hess to win the Classical Brit Composer of the Year award in 2009. But Classical Charts, Classical Brits, Classic FM - is this the same musical universe inhabited by Radio 3's New Generation Artists or Hear and Now?
If André Rieu's orchestra is worthy of a weekly slot on Radio 3, listen out for Katherine Jenkins singing 'Una voce poco fa'. Is it really elitist to point out that there's nothing remotely wrong with mass audience entertainment, but it isn't what Radio 3 is supposed to do? Why can't AlanTitchmarsh have the Top 20 on Melodies for You? If the idea is to increase CDs sales, that would be a far more effective platform.
June 2 2013: On with the new
- With the publication of this year's Statements of Programme Policy, 2010/2011, some matters which had seemed baffling over the years become clearer. Imagine, Radio 3's online home page now features the Classical Charts ('Highest entries this week', 'See the full Top 20'), just as Radio 1's features the Official UK Singles Charts ('See the Top 40'). In an echo of Radio 1's Big Weekend, Radio 3's Big Concert looms in a couple of weeks. As Classic FM featured its 'Aria from an Opera' poll last year, Radio 3 is now running a poll on 'The Nation's Favourite Aria'.
Breakfast is at the centre of the Charts feature and the Favourite Aria, with In Tune now featuring a run-down of the Top 10 every week.
The programme policy statement for Radio 3, year beginning April 2010, tells us that:
"Radio 3 will develop its breakfast and drivetime programmes as primary entry points for new listeners, with an engaging combination of music, topical information and audience interaction."
Well, that explains the Charts and the Favourite Aria poll, purloining ideas from popular music stations like Radio 1 and Classic FM. Spread the word about classical music - that's really great! But, hang on a moment: if the two programmes which have been attracting the biggest audiences are to be developed to cater for new listeners, what about the old listeners? What about the current listeners, average age 59 - isn't the Charts idea bit ... well ... young? What about those who have been listening to Radio 3 for twenty, thirty, forty or more years, and who have gradually picked up a useful bit of knowledge about classical music - isn't the idea of voting for a Favourite Aria a bit banal? What about the increasingly frequent practice of playing short extracts like Classic FM? Soliciting emails about this and that and then reading them out on air, like Simon Bates on Classic FM? Linking online playlist items to wiki articles is hardly providing reliable information, and new listeners are least equipped to spot the mistakes. And presenters who grab internet material, both free and copyright, for their programmes are offering a second rate service. Not that new listeners are in a position to notice.
We know - because it's on record as a response to a Parliamentary report - that back in 1999 the BBC decided to 'redefine' Radio 3's target audience. The two million listeners to the station were presumably not the right sort of listener. Eleven years later we're seeing another stage in the journey to push aside the section of the audience which the BBC appears to dismiss as 'elitist' - the core audience which has been most appreciative of the station in the past, many of whom have had no privileged musical education but have learned over the years from the expert, reliable output of Radio 3.
Is it really necessary to use the techniques of popular music stations in order attract people to classical music? Classical Star and Maestro may well fit the mass audience of BBC Two, but when the same trivialising popular style reaches Radio 3, where are serious listeners supposed to go?
May 14 2013: Radio interactive
- The gamut of reactions, from raised eyebrows to the hurling of bricks, has greeted the announcement of Radio 3's special contribution to the BBC's mega Operafest. As from May 17, [Advertisement here] Radio 3 listeners are invited to text or email the Breakfast programme with suggestions for 'The Nation's Favourite Aria'.
Is the purpose of this exercise:
- to turn the spotlight on opera and encourage new audiences to enjoy it (a good thing)
- to get more people and new audiences listening to Radio 3 and Breakfast as a result of BBC-wide publicity (it worked with last year's TV ads)
- something else?
If we make a criticism, we like to buttress it with reasons. So, do we like the idea? Not really, because:
- the idea of voting for 'The Nation's Favourite' has been done to death and gains no freshness by belatedly turning up on Radio 3 (Classic FM did it last May, so, as with the 'Children's Favourites' on Breakfast, Radio 3 is copying the competition's ideas: 'We do the same things but we do them better.').
- the discovery that the favourite is 'Nessun dorma' or 'Waft her, Angels, through the skies' is a matter of only mild, fleeting interest
- nothing against a BBC-wide celebration of opera but this looks a bit like the exploitation of opera, the usual BBC marketing overkill. Miss it if you can.
The continuation of Radio 3's Thursday afternoon opera slot will please the opera-lovers and is a serious contribution to the coverage of the genre (next week Catalani's La Wally, May 27, Rossini's Zelmira).
Perhaps it's only the marketing of the Nation's Favourite Aria and the A-Z that's unpromising, but they sound as if they should be on BBC Two or Radio 2. It has been our view that in order to attract new audiences to classical music the best strategy is, if possible, to take the content to the audience (as the ENO and the National Youth Orchestra went to Glastonbury) not try to drag people away from their familiar channels by creating special 'comfort zones' on BBC Four or Radio 3. To complement Radio 3's opera broadcasts opera-lovers could do with programming which is more critically-based than a letter of the alphabet or 'What I like'.
May 12 2013: Don't mention…
- this year's Sony Radio Awards. Last year was the glory year for Radio 3, carrying off the Sony UK Station of the Year award for the first time ever. So what does one make of the fact that this year it managed one Gold for Drama (The Wire production 'People Snogging in Public Places'); and one Bronze for the live coverage of the London Jazz Festival. Three other programmes were nominated but unplaced. And that was it.
There was a Bronze for the Composers of the Year promotional campaign on Radio 2 and Radio 4, but nothing for the broadcasts themselves, Radio 3's contribution. Never mind the programmes, admire the publicity ads.
So let's not imagine that these awards have any meaning in terms of achievement or relative excellence, just as long the awards get plenty of press coverage and everyone has a bit of encouragement now and again. If only the BBC wouldn't try to pretend otherwise when it wins.
May 9 2013: Time for change
- With the electoral ash still very far from settling, the politicians' plans (if any) for the BBC are unlikely to be clear for some while. Meanwhile, the consultation period for the Strategy Review proposals runs until May 25.
The general thrust of the review seemed constructive and welcome in many of its key themes. We have submitted our own response expressing our approval in those areas, while adding other points of our own.
The main points that we made were:
- a welcome for the recognition that the BBC, in pursuing younger audiences, has increasingly neglected older audiences (especially the 55+ age group); in particular, we supported the aim to maintain, or even raise, the average age of Radio 2 listeners
- a welcome for the proposal to 'change and improve' BBC Two by increasing the knowledge/education, arts and culture content; and for BBC Four to reduce the amount of entertainment and comedy in favour of archive material which we hope would include performance as well as documentary/factual programmes
- we queried the fact that the description of 'ambitious new drama' on television still seemed to hold out little hope for productions of any long-form classic plays, and quoted the artistic director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey, who told the BBC two years ago that it was 'time to start building the next generation of theatregoers'
- we welcomed the expression of confidence in the future of radio, and the intention to provide the resources to maintain the quality of services; we felt there should be more cross-service collaboration with, for example, Radio 2 providing jazz programming which complemented the serious and avant-garde jazz coverage on Radio 3
- we welcomed the BBC's intention to be independent of commercial pressures and influences, and criticised certain commercial behaviour such as over-enthusiastic trailing and the tactics which have the apparent intention of maximising viewing and listening rather than informing audiences of what is available
- we welcomed the intention to make the BBC 'the most open and responsive public institution in the UK', but were very sceptical given that the BBC appeared to think that over the past five years 'it has sought to comply with both the spirit and the letter of the Freedom of Information Act'; this is not our experience at all
- on the matter of public consultation, we expressed some concern that responding to the widest range of popular opinion could jeopardise specialist and minority services which can offer quality in their authoritativeness and expertise rather than general public satisfaction
- on BBC Three, the television service for the 15-34 age group, we expressed concern at the apparent lack of regular arts programming with an appropriate angle for younger audiences; documentaries were good but comedy and other entertainment seemed to leave no place for introducing a new, young audience to the arts - including classical music
- we gave our argument urging the BBC Trust to reject the proposal to close the radio service 6 Music, and hoping that it would develop it as a serious, specialist music station, comparable in aim with Radio 3
April 25 2013: Election looms
- Today's Observer carries a letter from a number of well-known people (some of whom appear to have signed up two or three times here - vote early, vote often?) in defence of the BBC. And a few of them seem to have done pretty well out of the BBC in recent years.
Friends of Radio 3, on the other hand, has no interests other than in a BBC which takes its public, cultural responsibilities seriously and earns its right to public funding, whether by means of a licence fee or out of public taxation. On the BBC, we express our 100% support for its continuance as a public service broadcaster, publicly funded and independent of government and commercial influences and interests, and will press our views on its output as 'the most important cultural organisation in Britain and an indispensable part of our society, admired and envied throughout the world'. This is what it should be. On such matters, we leave it to intelligent voters to decide whether or not this affects the way they will vote, or what questions they will put to the major parties in order to find out their intentions.
On the ideals which the BBC should aim for we are clear: that does leave it the freedom to make mistakes - awful mistakes - from time to time. But it is the mistakes which should be targeted, not the BBC.
April 22 2013: Arts for the young
- Last night FoR3 sent off the response to the BBC's Strategy Review. One point among the many we made was that the BBC's 'youth provision', such as BBC Three, seemed to exclude anything to do with the arts. There were some good documentaries but most of the rest seemed to be light entertainment. Why should it be assumed that a younger audience had - and could have - no interest in the arts?
We pointed out that the Glastonbury Festival organisers had booked both English National Opera (to play Wagner) and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, taking them to the audiences rather than expecting the audiences to seek them out. It was on a take-it-or-leave-it basis: if audiences weren't interested, they could move on to another stage. Television channels are much the same: if you don't like what's on, you zap through until you find something you do like.
On this basis, we thought BBC Three (and CBBC and CBeebies) could do more to introduce younger audiences to the arts. Well, the Proms 2010 programme was published today along with a press release which revealed:
"BBC Three joins the Proms for the first time to host the return of the spectacular Doctor Who Prom featuring new Doctor, Matt Smith."
We sent off an email complimenting the BBC on their ultra speedy response and the Director of the Proms replied, expressing his admiration at our influence and their prescience in having guessed our suggestion before we had made it.
Self-congratulation aside, we are pleased about what we hope will be a regular feature: the integrating of arts programming into the channels for children and younger adults.
March 21 2013: More strategy
- Friends of Radio 3 met in Manchester on 20 March to discuss, among other issues, the BBC Strategy Review and how to reply to it. There was agreement in favour of a broadly positive response, especially towards the general themes proposed which suggested a return to the emphasis on more serious content, especially on BBC Two. There seems to be a greater commitment - lip service at least - to 'knowledge, the arts and culture' and a move back from aggressive competition with commercial rivals.
It was noted that FoR3 had previously expressed the view that in recent years services for younger audiences had been expanded at the expense of new or existing services for older audiences. There was approval for proposals which would see any necessary cuts helping to redress that situation. Nevertheless, it was also felt that a general strategy needs to be formulated for interesting younger audiences in the arts, for instance such areas as theatre and classical music.
Another issue raised was the absence of any mention of long-form classic drama on television, in spite of a new commitment to 'ambitious drama': this appeared to be limited to contemporary work seen to be 'relevant' to the lives of audiences. No Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw (unless rewritten to make them 'relevant') ...?
The FoR3 response is now being drafted and supporters will be asked to suggest any additions or amendments. The BBC Strategy Review can be read here. Individuals can complete the shorter Online Survey.
It was agreed that points relating directly to Radio 3 would be better included in the response to the forthcoming Radio 3 review, at which time the BBC chairman has indicated that we will be contacted to arrange a meeting with the representatives of the Trust Unit. It will be important for us to have as much feedback at that time as possible, so supporters will be contacted in a news mailing once the Radio 3 review is announced.
March 7th 2013: The BBC promises
- The recently published BBC Strategy Review is an important document. It doesn’t matter – much – to us who leaked the details, or what pressures the BBC was under to produce it. It matters what the review is saying, or appears to be saying. It matters what they see as being the BBC’s role in the life of the nation, and Radio 3’s role in the cultural life.
We urge people to take the opportunity to participate in the current consultation, either by filling in the online survey or by posting or emailing an independent response, as Friends of Radio 3 will be doing. The closing date is 25 May 2010.
The BBC promises … what? It is promising to return BBC TWO to something more serious, closer to what it was originally, as a channel distinguished from the light entertainment remit of BBC ONE. If there are not more Proms concerts on TWO, perhaps at least they will be presented by someone with genuine musical credentials, rather than a TV celebrity. Perhaps The Culture Show will change its name and become less entertainment and more culture. More money, we know, is being pledged for drama: it is not clear whether long-form classic drama is still to be excluded from television. The commitment seems to be for contemporary ‘relevant’ drama, which in BBC-speak may well apply to Casualty and EastEnders. Why not treat viewers to at least one play by Shakespeare every year? And Chekhov? Plus European and American classics? The only place where you will have a fairly regular opportunity to hear these on BBC is on Radio 3’s Drama on 3, which only a small minority of people discover.
The proposed changes to BBC TWO will, it is envisaged, have an impact on BBC FOUR, which is described as ‘reaffirming its original commitment to support the arts, music, culture and knowledge’ (p 54).
And what plans for Radio 3? The proposed closure of the digital stations 6 Music and the Asian Network might result in an increase in the bit rate of the remaining stations offered on DAB, perhaps improving Radio 3’s audio quality and making it comparable to the best that European stations offer. The review is silent on this.
There is, however, a hint, just a hint, that the closure of 6 Music might result in a change in Radio 3’s coverage. The proposal seems to be that any programmes being retained will switch to Radio 1 or Radio 2, as the main sources of popular music, though the Director of Audio and Music, Tim Davie, said in a blog:
“…we will consider how the range of music played on Radio 1, Radio 2 and Radio 3 should adjust to ensure we continue to offer a diverse spectrum of new and UK music as part of our stronger focus on originality and distinctiveness.”
The position of Friends of Radio 3 has been that we regard Radio 2 as the most appropriate home for the various kinds of ‘popular music’ – which includes not only much contemporary ‘world music’ but also the less specialised programming of jazz. In the case of jazz we feel this most strongly because its presence on Radio 3 reduces the amount of airtime available for more specialised jazz coverage.
However, as long as Radio 2 was pursuing a younger ‘pop’ audience and a determination to keep its ratings above 13 million, we felt it unfair to press strongly for the removal of musics which would as a result find no other place on BBC radio.
With a rethinking of Radio 2’s coverage and the BBC’s stated willingness to see its average listener age rise, we hope this might be an opportunity to see Radio 3 able to expand its horizons in the direction of its own brand of musical distinctiveness, with less well-known and experimental works and a wider range of global ‘classical’ music rather than ‘music which isn’t being aired anywhere else’.
As for 6 Music, given the choice between keeping it or BBC THREE (that’s the television channel, by the way) we’d support the music station, several times over.
February 5th 2013: RAJAR days
- The publication of the quarterly radio listening figures always provides plenty of copy and excitement for the media - especially the BBC which can be relied on to find a big success story somewhere ('Sir Terry Wogan leaves Radio 2 breakfast on a high' or 'Record figures for Radio 4' or 'Radio 3 adds audiences to accolades'). The print media may delve a little deeper than the BBC press releases and focus on inconvenient truths but these will usually be forgotten inside a week, if they are noticed at all. In any case, the press, like the public, only has access to headline figures since the BBC guards the interesting information very jealously; secretively, in fact, self importantly calling it 'commercially sensitive' or 'confidential', without a hint of shame.
Since the RAJARs have lately come to interest even the general public for various reasons, two points are worth noting:
- the RAJAR figures are neither as accurate nor as inaccurate as people think, and
- a set of quarterly figures is, in isolation, of limited significance. What does matter is the trend over at least one or two years, and the reasons - insofar as they can be guessed - why sometimes that trend is up and sometimes down.
Between 2006 and 2008, Radio 3 had hit some dangerously low figures, twice going under 1.8 million and once under 1.9 million.
We are always in the middle of a trend, which can go up or down. And in the December quarter it was down, with a bump. As ever, we wait to see what next quarter's figures will be before feeling able to pronounce. But we can ask questions:
Why did the very weak figures manage to peak at over 2 million over the summer? We would suggest that going back to last spring, BBC television started running the sound spot 'Step into our World' trails (how many times did newcomers to the Radio 3 messageboards come asking the name of the pieces of music being played?), featuring the four Composers of the Year. Then Radio 3 received a lot of publicity by winning the Sony UK Station of the Year award. Come Proms season the online Guardian, for one, carried a banner advert for the Proms, and the Proms themselves had enough stories (Goldie, the Darwin children's Prom, an evening of MGM film musicals) which pleased the press. Every Proms programme invited people to join Radio 3 for Breakfast, 7am-10am. And indeed in Proms quarter Breakfast had its highest reach - 816,000.
The December quarter saw a tumble to 1.874 million. Will Radio 3's reach settle back into a very modest 1.9 million now? Certainly the triumph of Breakfast was shortlived, dropping from 816,000 to 728,000, from highest to one of the lowest.
What axes are to be ground here? Certainly, those listeners who appreciate the new style Breakfast and the accessible Radio 3 will feel their own tastes are vindicated when the figures go up. Those who have deserted Radio 3 for its 'populist' programming will feel that poor listening figures are a sign that Radio 3 has abandoned its core audience and failed to find a new one. We don't have enough data to say how much truth there is in either claim.
But a rule of thumb might be: RAJAR figures going significantly down - bad news; RAJAR figures going significantly up - also bad news. Remember the axiom of Michael Grade that 'if Radio 3's ratings suddenly shot up then something would clearly very seriously have gone wrong'. Out in the wide world there are millions of potential Radio 3 listeners to be won over; but you can't please a wide range of them and focus on the programming that makes Radio 3 distinctive. If depth and seriousness aren't for them, then leave them to all the vast range of light entertainment which the BBC and the commercials already offer.
February 5th 2013: RAJAR days
- Are the erstwhile friends of world music deserting it, or are they just becoming more critical?
Several years ago the jazz and world music critic, Clive Davis, predicted the demise of the more fashionable element of world music (the headline is a mistake: the regular radio critic Paul Donovan was away). 'I am sure' wrote Davis in 2004, 'that [Roger] Wright's pursuit of the trendies who turn out to munch canapés at the Radio 3 Awards for World Music is doomed.'
The Radio 3 Awards for World Music are certainly more than doomed, axed a couple of years ago.
Another world music specialist, Michael Church, criticised both Womad and Radio 3's world output in 2005: 'With very few exceptions, the groups favoured by Radio 3 offer street-smart fusions - local styles with an internationalised electronic top-dressing, reflecting a universal aspiration to make it big in the West. We're talking, by and large, about global pop.' Church's own field recordings of the music of Georgia (Songs of Survival) and Chechnya (Songs of Defiance) have, on the other hand, been covered by World Routes. In fact, World Routes has made numerous notable programmes and short series on traditional global musics, as well as contemporary world music performers and releases.
Now, is another leading figure in the world music industry becoming disenchanted? Ian Anderson, editor of fRoots magazine, has ruffled some world music enthusiasts with his December editorial. Anderson writes: '[…] the World Music area of fRoots' musical enthusiasms seems, sadly, to be in a trough: [World Music] has been trying too hard to ape the mainstream music business.'
Anderson is more specific on what is right about the current folk/roots scene than what is wrong on the world stage. His fire is turned generally on the industry and its sell-out to the commercial model. But wasn't this always what world music was, necessarily if not intentionally, about: creating a high profile genre which would have its own corner of the record store shelves? It was a 'marketing concept', 'all geared to record shops, that was the only thing we were thinking about' as Charlie Gillett put it So, wouldn't the record industry, certainly the big labels, not want its products to be in the mainstream, musically, where the money is?
This won't – we hope – herald 'world's end' on Radio 3. It has become an integral part of 'what Radio 3 does'. But the station has a potentially substantial audience for world music – beyond those single interest world enthusiasts who seldom listen to Radio 3's wider programming. For that larger audience, who may know little about the global traditions, classical, folk or popular, there needs to be a balanced output. We have argued for more systematic coverage, more specialism, more criticism, and a limit on the 'street-smart fusions'.