Archive of FoR3 news items from 2014
December 5 2014: High ambition
- A busy month. At the beginning of November, FoR3 had a meeting with the BBC Trust in connection with the Trust’s current review of the music radio stations. We discussed our submission, relating to Radio 3 only. This week we met Radio 3’s new controller, who takes up his post in January.
The Trust meeting centred on one main point: in 2011, the last time Radio 3 had a review, BBC management proposed a continuation of Radio 3’s strategy to become more ‘accessible and welcoming’ to a wider audience, especially to people ‘with little knowledge of classical music’. The Trust endorsed those proposals.
For us, the strategy was totally inappropriate for Radio 3, and had resulted in a lot of listener dissatisfaction – not only with the content adjustments but also in the new tone and style. The Trust had, in fact, stipulated that the station’s core audience should not be alienated; it was not Radio 3’s ‘sole responsibility’ to bring classical music to ‘all audiences’ - other services were better placed to do that.
At this year’s meeting our argument was that focusing on a smaller, dedicated, audience was ‘enabling’: it enabled Radio 3 to broadcast material that other services wouldn’t - or couldn’t. A strategy to attract a ‘potential’ new audience was, on the contrary, inhibiting; and Radio 3 had lowered its intellectual standards. Listener ‘interactivity’, celebrity guests, quizzes, restricted (and repetitive) repertoire were ingratiating attempts to gain new listeners by mimicking other stations, notably Classic FM.
In short, our message was that Radio 3 should be allowed to be specialist, demanding and rarified: delivering the content was what mattered, not the size or breadth of the audience.
Overall, we were very satisfied this year with the depth of understanding shown by the Trust and the level of the discussion. We now have to wait and see whether alternative arguments prevail.
The meeting with Alan Davey, Radio 3’s new controller, was not a lobbying expedition - more an opportunity to discover his line of thought and introduce ourselves as a, hopefully, useful and supportive group.
The first point we made was that, at the moment, what Radio 3 needed more than anything was a champion - someone who would fight for the service inside the BBC. No disagreement so far. Secondly, what Radio 3 did not need was ‘an ex-civil servant brought in to wield an axe’ and inflict deep cuts in the service. Mr Davey was emphatic: that was not the job he had been asked to do.
But financial constraints and pressures to ‘popularise’ would always be hovering around the corridors of Broadcasting House. We showed Mr Davey recent service budget (i.e. allowable spend) figures for the three network music stations. For 2007/08, Radio 1 had been allowed £31.3 million, and £41 million for 2013/14, an increase of £9.7 million or 31%. Radio 2 had £38.5 million, up to £47 million, an increase of £8.5 million or 22%. Radio 3’s allowance went up from £37 million to £39 million - £2 million or 5.4%.
A substantial chunk of Radio 3’s expenditure goes, necessarily, on supporting two ‘brands’ for which the BBC gets most of the credit - the Proms and the Performing Groups. Further, Radio 3 and Radio 4 both broadcast drama, one of the most expensive radio genres. A first-class production on Radio 3 will not cost less than a first-class production on Radio 4, merely because the audience is a tenth of the size. If you spend a lot less, you get a second-rate production. Yet Radio 3’s drama is, or should be, of a kind that Radio 4 wouldn’t broadcast.
Last weekend, Bryan Appleyard wrote a stout defence of Radio 3 and ‘high culture’ in the Sunday Times [sorry, it’s behind a paywall]. Mr Davey had read it, and just in case other BBC ‘grandees’ haven’t seen it, we’ll send them copies. It’s time more than quiet lip service was paid to the ‘high arts’ and that they were provided to an excellent standard for everyone on that most democratic of services - radio: available to all, not ‘accessible’ to all.
November 17 2014: Do listening figures matter?
- The press took up our Facebook story that last quarter Radio 3 had its worst Proms quarter listening figures ever, since comparable figures were first published in 1999.
It's often said that, as far as Radio 3 is concerned, listening figures shouldn't matter. They shouldn't: the provision of a high quality classical music and arts network is self-justifying and will only ever appeal to a small audience. Quoting The Envy of the World:
"The BBC has never sat down to define 'culture' or what a 'cultural network' should be doing. Nor has it ever really faced up to the fact that if such a network is to do its job properly it will only have a very small audience… "
However, within a rigid corporation structure decisions affecting Radio 3 may well be made on the basis of listening figures. Recently, BBC 6 Music, the digital-only station, overtook Radio 3 in reach, which triggered populist calls for 6 Music to be given Radio 3's slot on FM (the main reason being, apparently, so that 6 Music listeners could listen on their FM car radios as well as via all the various digital platforms now available, including DAB car radios).
Also, the BBC Trust, which is responsible for ensuring that public funding is spent in the best interests of the public, might be seduced by proposed station strategies designed to appeal to 'the broader audience'. This is exactly what happened in 2011, and the result can be heard daily in Radio 3's diet of 'accessible and welcoming' easier listening designed for a broad Classic FM-style audience. To quote the Trust: "We want more people to enjoy Radio 3's exemplary programming." To which the response would be, "No, you don't - you just want Radio 3 to increase its listening figures, because the BBC equates that with 'success'."
When the BBC claims that station budgets are allocated according to the nature of the content rather than the size of audience, it is hard to understand how Radio 3's content (live concerts, expensive features, full-length drama, as well as the obligatory support for the BBC Performing Groups and the Proms) could be provided as cheaply as Radio 1's programming, or Radio 2's, for that matter. Yet Radio 3 has the same service budget as Radio 1 and significantly less than Radio 2.
Even if Radio 3 has a relatively small audience, it is still better to have one which is being maintained, rather than one which is diminishing. We disagree with Radio 3's long-term editorial direction, so it's useful to show declining audience figures. They support our arguments if they show that, even on its own terms (getting new listeners), the strategy is counterproductive because it loses more listeners than it gains: fewer people are enjoying its 'exemplary programming'.
Let's leave aside the argument of cultural value as a 'public good' which the BBC finds increasingly difficult to appreciate. So, do the figures matter? No, but yes…
October 11 2014: O what can ail thee, BBC…?
- We’re a bit (very) late commenting on the final attendance figures for the Proms, partly because waiting for the online press release from the Media Centre proved vain. Unlike last year, there wasn’t one – the press must have been briefed separately with the ‘Glorious Summer for BBC Proms 2014’ story sent out on 13 September.
Also unlike last year, when ‘records were broken’ all over the place, few comparative figures were given this year. Average attendance was 88% (but last year it was 93%). ‘Over half’ the RAH concerts were sold out (but last year they specified 57 out of 75 – which is 76%). ‘More than 300,00 people’ attended the concerts (the same (wording) as last year).
But (big BUT) ‘around 33,000’ bought tickets for the first time (Tick Box) whereas last year it was ‘more than 32,000’, and more than 9,400 under-18s attended (Tick Box) ‘an increase of over 1,000 from last year’.
What we apparently see, then, is that attendance at ‘conventional’ Proms concerts was down, whereas first-timers and younger people boosted the figures. The last fact hardly needs explaining with the Pet Shop Boys (with Chrissie Hynde), Rufus Wainwright, Paloma Faith and Laura Mvula headlining their own shows, and the usual two family Proms (this year CBeebies concerts) joined by the War Horse Prom, with Gareth Malone and the Military Wives. Then there was the BBC Sport Prom, Kiss Me Kate, Battle of the Bands and the Free Prom (featuring Riverdance). The amount of classical music in these concerts varied from ‘nil’ to ‘some’.
The question is inevitably asked: to what extent do the “ailing” Proms (and “ailing” Radio 3, one might add) need the influx of popular entertainers and entertainment to subsidise them? Or are they not ailing at all, but merely being diluted in the search for bigger audiences along with the pan-BBC obsession with ‘reaching the wider audience’, everywhere?
Don’t be afraid: the Proms are for you. Look, here’s Joey the Warhorse and Paloma Faith. And opera singers Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe. And even famous pop stars. Something for everyone.
The great BBC publicity machine clearly set its Proms sights on ‘the wider audience’.
Pretty much like Radio 3: phone in and tell us what you think, email us with your suggestion of a piece of great British music, here’s an extract from a long concerto, have a go at our brainteaser, tune in to hear 6 Music presenter Cerys Matthews/Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys telling us about their favourite classical pieces.
Any wonder if, by the time Radio 3 gets back to being serious, many listeners have already quietly switched off and reached for a CD? [Last quarter, reach was down 5.6% on the previous year’s (poor) performance.]
September 27 2014 Hail to the chief
- Six months after the BBC announced the resignation of Radio 3 Controller, Roger Wright, and two months after his actual departure, his replacement has finally been revealed to an astonished world as the candidate hotly tipped for some weeks as 'the man most likely to' by the press.
Alan Davey, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, was apparently invited to apply and fitted the BBC's requirements well enough for no further round of interviews to be deemed necessary.
Meanwhile, sections of the press, already spreading alarm with sinister speculation at the unconscionable time the process had taken the BBC, looked on the appointment with disbelief: the new controller has no experience of broadcasting! Not of radio, not even of television. (And perhaps even worse, though no one seems to have mentioned it, no experience of working for the BBC).
But one seems to recall that the previous Director of Radio (then Director of Audio and Music), an even more senior radio post, had no experience of broadcasting either. Nor of the arts. And scarcely anything of the BBC. His cultural background had been in marketing via Pepsi Cola and Procter & Gamble. Then, Malvolio-like, he had greatness thrust upon him when he briefly occupied the post of … Acting Director-General. Of the BBC.
So let's just look at Mr Davey's qualifications – holding a senior administrative position in the arts world, working collaboratively with a team, passion for classical music. Yes, but look, he's been an axeman, slashing and burning all over the place. Prospects for Radio 3 not good then.
But, surely, he won't slash and burn if he doesn't have to. And if he does have to, so would anyone else in the post.
Yes, BUT HE'LL ENJOY IT!!!
Now, come, come people. Next January there will be a new man in control of Radio 3. He will be replacing the controller who probably had by far the most impressive combination of qualifications, musically, administratively, broadcasting-ly, BBC-ly, of any of his predecessors. Ever. In the history of the world. After his 15 years in post … need we say more?
Hail to the new chief!
September 15 2014 But answer came there…
- Last year, in fact about a year ago, we wrote to the then Director of the Proms, Roger Wright, who was also chair of the Classical Music Board which had responsibility for coordinating the broadcasts of classical music across BBC television and radio. We asked him why the televised Proms had edited out nearly all the contemporary music from their broadcasts. These had been broadcast, as usual, in full on Radio 3 but television is the medium which gets the bigger audiences by far.
New music is programmed in Proms concerts alongside more familiar works to give audiences who would not normally seek out such music the opportunity to hear it. Why then were the works made into an edited compilation programme for television, aired late at night when few people would see them unless they were already interested?
Two days after sending the letter we received a reply from the Controller’s PA: "Thank you for your letter of 19 August, addressed to Roger Wright, regarding television coverage of the BBC Proms/classical music this year. This acknowledges receipt of your correspondence."
We did send a reply intimating that we hoped there would also be a reply to our question. Sadly, Mr Wright did not take the opportunity during his further year with the BBC to oblige. In fact, this year the same thing has happened again - and it did not go unnoticed by composers whose work was removed.
But the BBC speaks: "… the Proms team and the commissioning editor have to bear in mind the audience and that newer works are often less familiar to them." What!?Newer works are always less familiar to them, not least because some of them are being given their première performances (that means they haven’t been played in public before), often commissioned by the BBC. And the whole point of including them in a concert with better known works is completely lost. One by one established composers lined up to condemn the decision.
Judith Weir, Master of the Queen’s Music: The decision is out of step with the commitment the BBC makes to new music.
James MacMillan: There is widespread shock among composers, publishers and performers.
Helen Grime: It’s patronising to the audience to assume that people are going to switch off.
Jonathan Dove: It is disappointing … I write music that is approachable, and it’s not intended for a ghetto, it’s intended for people who like music.
Sir Harrison Birtwistle, on the BBC's explanation: Crap
Nothing we say could be more eloquent.
September 10 2014 And finally… perhaps
- Almost one year ago exactly, we lodged our complaint about various aspects of the BBC/Radio 3 'Sound of Cinema' season. The most recent two events in the saga have been a response from 1) the Trust saying it had been referred back to Radio 3 as there may have been an inadvertent misunderstanding (shurely shome mistake) and then 2) from Radio 3 saying they thought they had replied and understood the matter had been referred to the Trust (it had). This is a copy of the letter sent to the Trust this afternoon:
I quote from the latest Trust email (21st August, ******* *****) relating to the Friends of Radio 3 complaint (breach of editorial guidelines by the BBC and Radio 3 regarding the interactive element of the Sound of Cinema season in 2013):
Thank you for your appeal to the BBC Trust. You have previously corresponded with my colleague **** ****** to confirm that the file with your previous correspondence is complete.
Correct. It was complete.
The Trust Unit has reviewed the various correspondence strands between you and the BBC Trust as well as your correspondence with BBC Complaints. We agree that you have not received a substantive response to your complaint alleging that the Nation's Favourite film music poll breached editorial guidelines. Having discussed your complaint with Radio 3 it became evident that there had been a misunderstanding between Radio 3 and BBC Complaints which resulted in their response not being sent to you and Radio 3 inadvertently thought that they had already responded to your concerns.
I think there was no misunderstanding or inadvertence. Radio 3 replied to us via BBC Complaints but we were not satisfied with Mr Wright's response (see Mr *******'s comment below). In any case, the interactive element (audience poll and the subsequent results programme on Radio 3) was also publicised across BBC television, radio, online and by the media centre, therefore was never a matter for Radio 3 alone.
***** *******, Radio 3 would like to respond to you further on your complaint and will write to you shortly.
I have indeed heard from Mr ******* (email 8 September) in which he said:
Agreeing with you that in such circumstances external adjudication would be helpful, Roger Wright asked me to send a brief response to BBC Information [BBC Complaints?], asking them to inform you that we had nothing to add to previous correspondence and that we did not recognise the allegations. As far as we were concerned, the matter was concluded, and we assumed, rightly, that you would pursue the matter with the BBC Trust."
Factually, Mr *******'s reply is accurate. However, you will surely agree that a reply that 'we have nothing to add and do not recognise the allegations' is unlikely to be construed as a 'substantive' response to a complaint. It would appear, in any case, that Mr Wright may have been referring to the official response to the general complaints about the 3-week cinema season, not the specific claim of a breach of editorial guidelines (on two counts within §17.2.3, 'Interacting with our Audiences') to which he did not refer.
I have replied to Mr ******* confirming that his understanding was quite correct, and we were not expecting to pursue the matter with Radio 3 but with the Trust. We did not expect the Trust to refer the matter back to the point where the complaint had started. This is the theme of Camus' novel,La Peste, where the hapless protagonist is sent trailing from pillar to post until a vital link is broken and he has to start back at the beginning again. It is classed as a novel of the absurd.
If you remain dissatisfied with his response it will, of course, be open to you to return to the BBC Trust to appeal.
We were entirely satisfied with Mr *******'s statement of the facts, but hope the BBC Trust will now consider the complaint itself, rather than refer it to someone else. We are available for further clarification.
Please accept our apologies for the delay in responding to your complaint.
Briefly: the BBC's Sound of Cinema season on television and radio seems in retrospect (in our view) to have been a ploy to draw the attention of the wider public to Radio 3 and persuade them to listen to the film music then everywhere on the station. That was (again, in our view) an abuse of the BBC's 'interactive' offer, an abuse of Radio 3 and a flop (reach fell below 2m, a year-on-year drop in reach and share). The interactive element breached BBC editorial guidelines in that it was not 'distinctive' (it copied Classic FM's annual Movie Music poll), and the poll results concert on Radio 3 did not match the expectations of the likely audience – for reasons stated elsewhere. The three-week season alienated Radio 3 listeners which the Trust said the station's efforts to be more 'accessible' should not do.
We wish to press this complaint regarding the breach of BBC editorial guidelines.
August 1 2014: Thrown to the wolves
- The BBC has a dilemma: does it trumpet the success of BBC Radio 6 Music in overtaking BBC Radio 3 for the first time with its quarterly Rajar listening figures? or does it stand back to present a broader picture which doesn't tell quite the same story? Of course, it tells the world how 'despite also being available on analogue radio' Radio 3 has been beaten by digital-only 6 Music, once threatened with closure.
Ivan Hewett has an article in today's Daily Telegraph, alluringly entitled 'Will an embattled Radio 3 have to change its tune?', in which he appeared to face in opposite directions. Or possibly in neither direction. Was it a plea for the current spectacularly unsuccessful strategy to be reversed, or intensified, or changed to something… else?
Like many, he latched on to the fact that pop station Radio 6 Music had 'overtaken Radio 3 in popularity'. A pop station 'more popular' than a classical music station - there's a novelty! 'Digital-only' underplays the fact that the Rajar figures now include all listening, analogue and digital, online, on Sky, on mobile phones and tablets - in fact any 'live' listening. This means that, with its younger audience (average age was given as 36 in the 2010 review), 6 Music has been at a decreasing disadvantage compared with stations like Radio 3 which are also on FM: few people can't get 6 Music if they want to listen to it.
Ah, but Radio 3 is 'lavishly funded' whereas 6 Music has a 'modest budget'. Well, yes. But all the BBC national network stations are 'lavishly funded' when compared with digital-only stations, Radio 3 rather less lavishly than others in spite of its obligations to support the Proms and the BBC's Performing Groups which eat up something like a third of its budget; whereas, among the digital stations, 6 Music is currently the most lavishly funded, even though a significant amount of the schedule is the cheapest kind of music radio output - playing CDs.
It must be conceded that Radio 3 had a rotten quarter - and even if it had had the few extra thousands to pull it just ahead of 6 Music, that would still have been a rotten result compared with its regular 2 million listeners.
But, to get back to Ivan Hewett and his two suggested alternatives:
Fall back in ever tighter defensive positions around the citadel of high art, as some [unnamed] people feel it should. Not sure what 'ever' tighter means. Perhaps it means tightening up the sloppiness and populism which has crept into so much of the output?
Abandon its loyal listeners and find new ones. In other words, press on with strategy of abandoning its loyal listeners in pursuit of new ones. But Radio 3 has been progressively doing that for 15 years - surely a primary reason why it is now so 'embattled'?
One suggested conclusion is that it should do neither because the 'real story' is that Radio 3 has done jolly well to maintain its 'share of the audience' at 4 per cent. That magic 4 per cent, yes, except that it is actually rounded up (or down) to 4 per cent, because the statistic is quoted as a whole number. However, up to the end of 2006, it seldom fell below 4.0 per cent, in fact on four occasions it reached 5 per cent (i.e. 4.5 per cent or a little more), but since 2007 (coinciding with the introduction of the new Breakfast format) it has more often been below 4 per cent. It needs to fall below 3.50 per cent for the figure to be registered as 3 per cent instead of 4 per cent - but with figures of 3.542 per cent and 3.60 per cent already recorded the magic 4 per cent looks less and less secure - and will continue to do so as the population rises and Radio 3's reach remains stagnant.
As Mr Hewett remarks: “That Radio 3 faces challenges is certain; but it's equally certain that without a faith in its core mission, it has no reason to exist.” Would Mr Hewett, the BBC and Radio 3's loyal listeners all agree on what that core mission is?
July 16 2014: Time for a change
- Anyone who has taken note of our campaigning over the past ten years will know that it isn't our style to stand on pavements waving banners and chanting; nor do we rant to the newspapers (though to read most of the press stories you might believe we do it all the time, 'vociferously').
We seldom contact the press and haven't responded to a request to splutter our anger/fury/outrage for years - and even then we did so with laboured arguments that had to be spiced up unrecognisably to make the story worth its column inches.
Nor do we personalise: we wish Roger Wright all the very best when he leaves the BBC (at the end of the week, it seems) to take up his new appointment in Aldeburgh in September. Our views on the strategy he has been pursuing are a separate matter. It has been a controversial and very lengthy process achieving no obvious success.
Now, it's time for a radical change of approach: for the first time in our (over) long existence we shall be dealing with a new controller who will be responsible for Radio 3's editorial strategy. We hope this will be someone who has total confidence in the intrinsic value of those areas of the arts which Radio 3 covers: classical music, jazz, world music and the spoken arts; and - just as important - confidence that there are intelligent and informed listeners who expect to be taken more deeply into those subjects in which they already have knowledge, who will not be 'intimidated' or 'daunted' by in-depth examination of musicology, or ideas on subjects of current importance, or being addressed, seriously, by experts in their field.
We quote from last week's editorial in The Guardian: "At […] times the presentational tone can be jarringly patronising, as if still recovering from the shock of Classic FM placing its tanks on the Radio 3 lawn."
Classic FM is Classic FM. It aims to present classical music in an accessible way to a broad audience. It should be left to do that without Radio 3 trying to muscle in. In the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, the BBC denies that Radio 3 has been copying its rival at all. It should not be allowed to get away with claiming that broadcasting a live concert every evening is enough to satisfy some 'niche' audience, so that an extensive part of the remaining classical schedule can happily concentrate on serving 'normal members of the public' who will appreciate a service which is a marginal cut above a Classic FM-without-the-adverts, and won't frighten horses.
That the BBC's 'audience research' has discovered listeners who like the new BBC-style Classic FM would come as no surprise to anyone who stumbles upon discussions on forums like Mumsnet (no disrespect!).
May 16 2014: So is that up… or down?
- The latest (March) RAJAR figures for Radio 3 presented a bit of a challenge for any spin doctor, so the BBC response was rather muted (or rather, it concentrated on Radio 2). Yes, both the reach and the listening hours were UP on the previous quarter (December), in the case of the listening hours, very substantially so. But the December quarter had had a very low reach and low listening hours, so improving on them wasn't difficult (and not improving on them would have been disaster).
On the other hand, because of the seasonal variations to the figures (for instance, Proms quarter each year), a more valid comparison is always with the same quarter the previous year, not the quarter immediately before. And the same quarter last year was quite strong, so the reach in the latest quarter was well DOWN on last year's. And even the latest listening hours didn't quite overtake last year's. So, do you quote the quarter-on-quarter figures and say the new ones are UP (4.8% up for reach and 25% up for listening hours)? Or do you quote the year-on-year ones and say they are DOWN (down 3.5% for reach and down just fractionally for listening hours)?
Both sets of figures tell their story. But there are other figures too. Each year the Office for National Statistics recalculates the 'RAJAR population' of the nation's 15+ audience. So if, as happens, year-on-year the population goes up but reach goes down that is… not what would be hoped for.
Calculating the Radio 3 reach as a percentage of the population is less headline-grabbing but more valid. And averaging the percentage reach over the four quarters irons out the quarter-by-quarter fluctuations.
On the published RAJAR tables, Radio 3's percentage reach is unfailingly 4% because the figure is quoted to the nearest whole number. So 4% could mean anything from 3.50% to 4.49%. Taking this year's population figure, that would mean that a "4%" reach might be anything from 1.862m to 2.389m. In recent times Radio 3's reach has never been above 2.30m, and although it did drop below 1.862m a couple of times, the population was also lower at that time, so percentage reach was still - 4%.
The figures the BBC appears to use in Annual Reports are the annual averages so, since the latest set of figures completed the year 2013-14, we can see that the average of the four quarterly figures is 2.025m (3.806%), whereas the previous year it had been 2.103m (4.017%). The percentages round up or down to… 4%. But there is a significant difference: in the past 15 years the annual percentage reach has only once been lower than it was last year, 2013-14, and that was in the year 2007-08 which first brought us the delights of 'Breakfast' and the howls of dismay from listeners.
The conclusion has to be that, in spite of all the strenuous efforts to attract this elusive 'potential' new audience, the trend is down. And there are still very unhappy listeners.
May 7 2014: Trial and error
- The Discovering Music programme was Radio 3’s nearest thing to the long-running Talking About Music series on BBC radio, given for almost 40 years by the composer Antony Hopkins. Hopkins, who died yesterday aged 93, was remembered with gratitude and admiration for his unpretentious and informative delivery, capturing the attention of young and old listeners who wanted a deeper understanding of the great works of classical music.
At the end of 1998, a short series, Discovering Music was announced: the conductor Leonard Slatkin would give ten talks on various aspects of music, the hour-long programmes to be broadcast each weekday for two weeks. Since the new controller, Roger Wright, had only begun in post the previous month the series was probably commissioned by his predecessor, Nicholas Kenyon.
These programmes were repeated in the summer-autumn of 1999, and at the beginning of 2000 Discovering Music reappeared in what became its standard format: a series of different musicologists each week analysing a particular piece of music, with illustrations often provided by BBC orchestras.
2 January 2000: 4pm Discovering Music: A new long-running series exploring the great works of classical music, using specially recorded examples to illuminate the textures and deconstruct the music. In this first programme, Anthony Payne unlocks the secrets of Elgar's Second Symphony with the help of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Brad Cohen.
In successive weeks, there were a number of presenters at Sunday teatime: Anthony Payne, Chris de Souza, Gerard McBurney, Roger Nichols, Stephen Johnson, Catherine Bott, Sarah Walker, Ivan Hewett. The works were varied: Schubert’s Piano Trio D929, Bartók’s String Quartet No 6, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Wind Instruments, Ravel’s Ma Mère L’Oye, James MacMillan’s The Berserking, discussed with the composer.
Judging by the comments on the BBC’s then relatively new messageboards, the programme was well-received by listeners. However, it seems that it was not fulfilling whatever mission it was supposed to fulfil, and a revamped version was announced for the autumn season, after the 2003 Proms season.
The programme was billed as ‘Charles Hazlewood Discovering Music’, though the title was not persisted with after a few weeks as Stephen Johnson was also presenting. The programme was moved from Sunday teatime to after lunch on Saturdays, still an hour long at this point but with an audience ‘workshop’ (this seemed to mean a studio audience encouraged to ask questions). Hazlewood was more of a showman and was occasionally joined by one of his own bands providing the musical examples. There had been a hint in the BBC Music Magazine that Leonard Bernstein’s television series in the United States had been the model.
In spite of some sticky moments (certain examples of plagiarism being noted and Hazlewood’s recent conducting debut at Carnegie Hall, or rather his now familiar manner of presentation, having been roundly criticised, snake oil and real estate being mentioned), the programme was lengthened to 90 minutes to allow for a full performance of the work under discussion, and moved back to Sunday teatime in early 2007. Some programmes retained the original serious intent: Stephen Johnson explored the medieval Play of Daniel with the Harp Consort, for instance, followed by a complete recorded performance.
However, it appeared that this still did not satisfy and there were rumours that the programme was to be axed. In August 2011, FoR3 wrote to Radio 3: “Can you reassure listeners that Discovering Music will be returning to a regular slot when the Proms are over, and what day/time will that be, please?”
The reply was: “Discovering Music will be moving to enhance our Monday to Friday 'Live in Concert' live music broadcasts. Each week, in a concert interval, Stephen Johnson will introduce listeners to a work from the second half of the concert.”
So the 90-minute programme was to be squeezed into a concert interval where Stephen Johnson had a bare 20 minutes to unlock the secrets of Liszt’s Piano Sonata or Beethoven’s Große Fuge. From Sunday to Saturday, and then back to Sunday, then any day except Saturday or Sunday; first extending it, then shortening it: where next?
This was not satisfactory and the options could have been to return to something like the original format or drop the whole idea. Early in 2014 the station decided in favour of a solution that listeners had already complained about: a concert interval of recorded music instead. Discovering Music, the station’s only programme of musical analysis, was no more.
It’s hard now not to see Radio 3’s recent programme policies as the complete negation of Antony Hopkins’ careful contributions to educating and informing an audience eager to pursue a deeper understanding of music.
But do tweet and tell us which is your favourite piece of music, and why…
May 1 2014: Va tacito…
- Timeline of changes to the presentation of the choral music programme on Radio 3
Sept 12 1999, 10.55pm-12.00am. New series Choirworks Paul Guinery with Denis McCaldin, Haydn’s Late Masses on period instruments: Te Deum in C for the Empress Marie Therese. English Concert Choir and Orchestra/Trevor Pinnock. Mare Clausam (fragment). Tolzer Boys' Choir, Tafelmusik/Bruno Weil. Mass in B flat (Theresienmesse). Janice Watson (soprano), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo), Mark Padmore (tenor), Stephen Varcoe (baritone), Collegium Musicum 90/Richard Hickox
Spring 2003: Details released about the autumn schedule changes led to rumours that the programme was to be dropped, since it was not clear that there was an available slot for it. FoR3 wrote to Radio 3 quoting alarmed posts from the BBC’s messageboards: "a disturbing rumour …such a move cannot be regarded as helpful", "an evil slanderous suggestion which could never be true", "a crassly stupid act", "a dereliction of the BBC's remit", "exactly the kind of educational and entertaining programme that Radio 3 are still very good at producing". Was the rumour True or False?
14 May 2003: Radio 3 replied, confirming the programme was going, ‘replaced by an extra edition of Performance on 3; this will include choral music as appropriate as will the other days of Perf on 3. It allows more flexible scheduling reflecting the musical life of the UK and beyond.’
This was interpreted as meaning that choral works could be scheduled ‘more flexibly’ if included in existing programmes, rather than anchored to one programme on one particular evening of the week.
July 13 2003, 8.00pm-9.30pm: Paul Guinery introduced the final edition of Choirworks: ‘a concert of Purcell and Bach recorded last month in Westminster Abbey as part of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music. Purcell: Funeral Sentences for the death of Queen Mary II; Te Deum and Jubilate; Bach: Cantata No.11, Lobet Gott in seinen Beichen (Ascension Oratorio); Emma Kirkby (soprano), Charles Humphries (countertenor), Charles Daniels (tenor), Roderick Williams (bass), Choir of Westminster Abbey, St James's Baroque James O'Donnell (conductor)’
The extended length of the programme, and the fact that it had been brought forward to an earlier time indicate that it had proved popular.
Autumn 2005: In the view of the ‘flexibility’ reason given for dropping the 90-minute Sunday Choirworks barely two years previously, it was baffling to learn that a new programme devoted to choirs, 90 minutes long on a Sunday evening was to begin on Radio 3 in the New Year. The new host was to be Aled Jones, who had been presenting on Classic FM and whom the BBC had also signed up to present a programme on Radio 2.
8 January 2006: The Choir begins on Radio 3. ‘Aled Jones begins his new series on choirs by celebrating one of Britain's best loved and most highly regarded choral directors, Sir David Willcocks.
Aled assesses his achievements with composer John Rutter, singer Catherine Wyn Rogers, biographer Bill Owen and Sir David himself. Including music from the Choir of King's College Cambridge, The Bach Choir, The Choir of the Royal College of Music and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Salt Lake City.’
A major change was that this was not to be primarily a programme of choral music, but a programme about choirs. For some, the possibility that Aled himself had the competence to ‘assess the achievements’ of one of the great choral directors was slight. Amiable though he was (and by now an experienced broadcaster) this proved the case and too often he appeared to flounder.
The scope of the programme stretched wider than the great choral works to include more or less anything that was sung by vocal ensembles of any kind. Barbershop quartets, gospel: CDs often replaced the ‘live’ recordings and the programme already had little for appeal to the fans of Choirworks.
May 2012: It was announced that Aled Jones had signed for ITV, and would be co-presenting their breakfast show from the autumn. Jones’s engagements with the BBC were progressively ended, including on The Choir.
3 January 2013: Aled Jones presented his final edition: ‘The King's Singers join Aled Jones in the studio together with rising close-harmony stars Vive for a look ahead to the 2013 London A Cappella Festival. Plus there's more music from the six choirs picked to represent the UK in the Europe-wide 'Let the Peoples Sing' competition later this year.’ There were 20 items averaging about 4 minutes each.
An interim period saw a number of guest presenters, all involved with choirs and singing, introducing the programmes. Listener comments grew more favourable.
31 October 2013: A BBC press release announced that the new resident host of The Choir, as from 5 January 2014, was to be Sara Mohr-Pietsch who had for some years been a presenter of the station’s breakfast show. The programme’s strategy-imposed format had been criticised by press and listeners alike for triviality and progressive resemblance to Classic FM.
Comparisons soon began to be made between The Choir and Breakfast: tweets and texts were welcomed
5 January 2014: The programme had already been moved, first from 6.30pm to 5.00pm and now to 4.00pm (a less good slot than early to mid evening – 3.30pm is the ‘trough’ each day). A live choir was in the studio, but most of the music was on CD. ‘Plus, the first in a series of visits to amateur choirs from around the nation, and Sara makes her pick from the range of recordings of this week's choral classics: Tallis's Spem in Alium’
The programme is now presenter-led, there are short works, chattier interviews and features such as ‘Meet My Choir’ with input encouraged from listeners. How it has changed in concept and purpose from the first edition of Choirworks. As usual, those with the keenest interest in the music content itself are left scarcely catered for as gradual transformations are wrought, step by step – the same recognisable imprint spreading across the station: Never mind the music, enjoy the chat.
Va tacito e nascosto…
April 22 2014: How to succeed…
- "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."
Radio 3’s ratings haven’t been very impressive, so what other ‘means of judging success’ are there? and how reliable are they?
The BBC’s ‘lead metric’ is the Appreciation Index which provides a measurement of how much people enjoy programmes. A panel made up of members of the public records daily which programmes they viewed/listened to, rating their enjoyment/appreciation on a scale of 1-10. These figures are aggregated by service, the mean figure is calculated and then multiplied by 10 to give each channel or radio station its own AI score, now ‘out of 100’, rather than out of 10.
As has been pointed out, people usually avoid programmes which they dislike, so the programmes they choose to listen to will usually afford some positive reward, even if at a low level.
Since the first quarter of 2011, the BBC has been publishing the AIs for television and radio services (though not for individual programmes) and most services come out of this well: for the ten national (UK-wide) radio stations, the average AI scores are in the range 74 to 84 (average 80), with Radio 3 coming third (behind 5 Live Sports Extra and 6 Music) with 82.
But, statistically, a high proportion of the Radio 3 listeners on the panel will listen to the high audience programmes – Breakfast, Essential Classics and In Tune – all programmes tailored to attract the ‘potential’ new audience. One could assume that those at whom the programmes have been specifically targeted will enjoy them, whereas those who hate them won’t choose to listen (and therefore won’t register their dislike). QED?
The BBC issues this caveat: "Owing to the quite considerable difference in output from one radio station to the next, and the fact that they are aimed at different audiences, it is not advisable to compare AI scores between radio stations."
Considering that, using a scale of 1-10, the scores are mostly 7s and 8s, this suggests similarity rather than ‘considerable differences’. Programmes will show wide differences, but these aren’t routinely published as members of the public might arrive at incorrect conclusions… Apparently.
But besides the Appreciation Index, separate scores are published for Distinctiveness - whether listeners find programmes ‘original and different’. Here the BBC stations do less well (average 74), presumably facing greater head-to-head competition from commercial broadcasters.
As for Radio 3’s ‘distinctiveness’ score: it might be supposed that it would do well, considering the lack of competition. However, third from the top for its AI, it’s third from the bottom for distinctiveness (it just beats Radio 5 Live and Radio 1). So, if not very distinctive, what does it resemble? Listeners might compare it with Classic FM and Radio 2, given the pronounced similarities with many programmes: short pieces of music interspersed with chat, and repetitiveness in the (classical) music, at least in the breakfast programme, which means there isn’t much distinctiveness even from day to day (a piece of Johann Strauss II, Gershwin and/or Piazzolla, a film or TV theme, Slavonic/Hungarian/Romanian Dances, some Ravel, a few warhorses …).
Finally, on appreciation scores: a conclusion might be that you will find an appreciative audience if you set out deliberately to attract one, no matter how low or trite your standards. On distinctiveness - pretty much what we’ve been saying all along: that Radio 3 will imitate anything that might encourage those who habitually listen to other stations to switch to something else as long as it’s not too unfamiliar.
Another quote from the controller: "We know how to get our listening figures up - what we would do is to make the station less distinctive."
Not quite true, then: the station has become less distinctive (judging by its scores) but the listening figures are still unimpressive. So why not become really distinctive? Dump the chat, the games, the listener contributions. Make the content more adventurous, risky, even. Bring back the more demanding programmes, the critical analysis.
Some systems of programme ‘quality control’ are able to measure the ‘cultural and intellectual level’ (or fulfiment of cultural standards). Does the BBC system measure this? Or is it simplified to either ‘helps me to relax’ (entertainment) or ‘makes me think’ (demanding)? If so, no wonder the intellectual dimension has virtually disappeared.
* Averages quoted are for all quarterly scores since they were first published. This disguises trends over the period but these have mainly been undramatic.
March 24 2014: But what next?
- It has been announced that the Controller of Radio 3 and Director of the Proms, Roger Wright, is leaving the BBC to become CEO of Aldeburgh Music.
During most of his time as controller (15 years, which made him the station’s longest serving controller by some margin) we have been at odds with him and disagreed with his vision in attempting to make Radio 3 the hub of the BBC’s ‘classical music for all’ service. We would have preferred him to have used his (we thought) considerable influence to effect an expansion of art music coverage on the mainstream BBC services, television and radio, rather than seek to attract new audiences to Radio 3, where the audience has always had high expectations - and long memories…
We also thought he could have fought harder to maintain the value of Radio 3’s budget. Other services overtook it, leaving it as the worst funded BBC network station in respect of its content costs. Much of what we (continually!) complained about seemed to stem from disproportionate budget cuts. Radio 3 has been very far from the ‘horrendously expensive’ service that it has often been painted.
All this said, we wish Roger all success in his new post at Aldeburgh. But Radio 3’s future will now be a source of some anxiety until the station's editorial direction becomes clear.
March 9 2014: How the BBC thinks
- So, the axe has fallen, or will fall, sort of, on BBC Three, rather than (yet) on BBC Four.
The Director of Television, Danny Cohen (just turned 40), was interviewed on Radio 5 Live by Richard Bacon (38). First point: 'There was an expectation that BBC Four, which is a channel for an older market, would be the one that went…'
Wait a minute! A channel for an 'older market'? No, it isn't. It is a channel for adults rather than children, but BBC Three isn't for children either. BBC Four is for people, including younger people, interested in the arts and culture generally; or as the BBC puts it: “The Corporation's gold card channel for arts, music and culture.” People in their twenties and thirties can - and certainly do - watch it if there's any subject that appeals to them.
The debate was held in the Guardian too, where one reviewer spoke of the 'perverse decision' having been taken by 'the old, badly informed duffers at the top of the BBC' who could now 'now happily carry on watching BBC4 into their dotage'; to which one reader responded:
“This is absolutely untrue. There are numerous people who simply enjoy BBC 4 because of its informative nature. As an A-level science student I find it to be a great public service which is of a quality that is not found elsewhere on British television. To assume that it is only watched by those who are 'old' suggests that this is a stereotype based upon the assumption that only the elderly would like to watch high quality informative program[me]s presented by those who can inspire. This is very much untrue; I can assure you that as much as some may enjoy 'reality TV' or 'comedy' others enjoy being educated regardless of their age - old and young alike.”
Quite so. Though Mr Cohen (40) didn't take the opportunity to make this point.
Next point: Wasn't it the easy option to close BBC Three rather than BBC Four, because 'older people' tended to have more of a voice - in other words they would have made more of a fuss and all the media people who had any influence were of the same demographic. Weren't older people, in fact 'overly served by the BBC'? asked Mr Bacon (38). 'They are, they are, of course,' agreed the Director of Television (40).
Really? Name one service that is targeted on 'older people'. Where does the idea originate that serious, educative or cultural programmes are for 'older people'?
The same argument pertains with what is caricatured as the 'highbrow' - only accessible to the 'élite'. That's nonsense: it's accessible to anyone who is interested enough to seek it out. Those who need to have it simplified and trivialised aren't that interested in the first place or they wouldn't be satisfied with having it served up in a diluted fashion. Radio 3, take note.
February 24 2014: Thesis - antithesis - synthesis
- 1. "In more than 15 years of running Radio 3, I have never been put under any pressure over ratings."
2. "By joining with the rest of the BBC in this short [cinema] season, attention has helpfully been drawn to Radio 3 across a wide spectrum of BBC audiences who would not be natural listeners to the station. This is a requirement of our Service Licence Review, conducted by the BBC Trust in 2011, which obliges the station to reach out to the widest audience…"
3. - - - - -
Q. But how are those two propositions reconcilable? If Radio 3 is required/obliged to reach out to the widest audience, and to people who would not be natural listeners to the station, how is this not also a strategy for increasing ratings?
A. In two ways:
a) you may draw attention to Radio 3 and reach out to the widest audience, but they may take no notice and not listen
b) they may take notice and start listening but an identical number of people who are natural listeners to the station might stop listening
In either case, ratings would not rise. So, seeking to widen the audience is not necessarily the same as chasing ratings: in fact, the ratings might go down.
Q. That’s true, and they haven’t been very good lately, have they? The Breakfast programme which is specifically aimed at getting new listeners has had dire ratings for the past two quarters, so the Controller may have a point here. But, what is the advantage of a wider spectrum of audiences but fewer listeners? In what sense is that a better use of the licence fee, for example?
A. Hmmm, well, it will be better for Radio 3 management because they will have rid themselves of the critical listeners who complain and pick up on mistakes, and will have replaced them with less demanding listeners, so they won't need to employ experts; and Breakfast can play The Four Seasons, Rodeo and the Slavonic Dances every week. Q.E.F.
February 3 2014: Turning up the heat
- With a number of journalists picking up on Classic FM’s submission to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s public inquiry on the Future of the BBC, pressure on Radio 3 is building up to justify a strategy which has been unpopular, its success elusive, and its motive mysterious. They have a case to answer and declaring the criticisms “complete nonsense” does not go far in explaining why, in that case, various organisations and listeners are so frustrated and angry.
In among the tweets and texting, the quizzes and playfulness, the chat and cheeriness, there are still some very good programmes and wonderful music. But it is a miscalculation to imagine that radio listeners will happily navigate a way through such childish banalities to find the more serious content. They won’t obligingly switch on and off, and then back on for the good things. They will either switch off completely or stay listening, and fuming. Either way, they won’t be happy.
Two points: we would like to remember that Radio 3 still has some excellent presenters, sometimes disappointingly hidden away from the limelight; and production staff who - we’d like to think - could do much better given a more worthwhile brief.
But… Radio 3 is underfunded and, at a time when the BBC has had to tighten its belt, some services have been treated much more kindly than others. To produce a fine service, of the kind which once inspired, educated - and entertained - Radio 3’s budget needed to be maintained or increased. Squeezed budget, cheap programming. The BBC pays lip service to Radio 3 and what it does; and then turns away to more important matters, playing safe with ‘old favourites’ that pull in big audiences.
Radio 3 is not performing its role as educator of those who want to be stretched; it's purveying pap to those who don't.
January 6 2014: Why BBC scandals happen
- They happen because those at the very top - Executive and Trust - are too remote from what’s going on. ‘No one told me, I was assured, the evidence was not compelling…’
1. In August 2010, RadioCentre (the umbrella group which represents UK commercial radio stations) submitted their response to the BBC Trust’s review of Radio 3, saying: “…we 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. In a recent interview, the Radio 3 controller concurred that programming and scheduling changes on Radio 3 were a result of trying to get people to sample the station and get our regular listeners listening for longer. We note that the style of Radio 3’s breakfast programme has moved closer to that of Classic FM…”
The Trust dismissed this, along with similar submissions from listeners and organisations, because it had no idea of the likely results.
2. 24 February 2011 RadioCentre wrote to the BBC Chairman (then Sir Michael Lyons) to express concern at the Trust’s conclusions regarding Radio 3, repeating their comments.
“We are therefore concerned that the Trust has given Radio 3 permission to continue to pursue this populist strategy, agreeing with BBC management that Radio 3 should look for ways to be more ‘accessible and welcoming’ (particularly at breakfast and drivetime).”
We have no information as to whether the BBC deigned to reply: it certainly made no difference to Radio 3’s strategy.
3. November 2012, the CEO of Global Radio (owners of Classic FM) spoke out at the Radio Conference in Salford:
“If you look at the changing programmes Radio 3 has done against Classic, it is pretty overt that it has looked at the successes that Classic has had and adjusted its programming structure… Radio 3 has aggressively pursued Classic FM and it uses its other platforms to cross-promote the station. They are absolutely trying to take our listeners.”
4. And now, January 2014, Classic FM itself has spoken publicly in response to Radio 3’s ‘defence’ of its populist descent:
“Mr Wright’s recent editorial changes move Radio 3 even further away from its previous distinctive position, making it harder than ever for Radio 3 to justify its privileged public funding. The BBC appears intent on moving its network into the space occupied by a commercial radio competitor in a market of only two stations.”
And this is the key point from the commercial point of view: it’s an unjustifiable use of public funds. From Radio 3 listeners' point of view, it takes away our choice by offering a second station aimed at attracting a ‘broader audience’ with little knowledge of classical music. Classic FM is already doing that.
And what will the ‘men at the top’ do? Ask Radio 3 to account for itself? Which it will do. And if licence fee payers ask what justification they gave, they will be told it is secret, exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
Ask the guilty party and they deny it all, not a shred of truth in the accusations. And at the top of the BBC they will smile understandingly and draw their remuneration.
Meanwhile, after two and a half months, we’re still waiting for a response to our complaint that the ‘Sound of Cinema’ season breached the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines in two respects and that listeners who complained were fobbed off with information that was factually incorrect.