FoR3 news items for 2016
November 7 2016: R3 'special': River of Music
- As an experiment, definitely something new. The 'clearing the schedules' idea we've seen before - several times - usually along the lines of 'Wiener Schnitzel, every note he ever wrote, performed round the clock for a couple of weeks'. The River of Music was content to flow for a mere 12 hours, from 9 in the morning until 9 at night - a non-stop stream of music with no presenters, no words, no separate programmes, the river following the 70 years of the Third Programme/Radio 3. Commentary was provided only online via a blog which also offered an opportunity for listeners to participate with their own comments.
These were opinions of 48 members of our own forum:
Overall, and regardless of the degree of individual enthusiasm, people saw it as an interesting idea and worth doing. While one or two were enthusiastic enough to suggest that a regular weekly feature would be welcome, others considered it, negatively, as 'background music' or 'musical wallpaper'; and some gave it a miss altogether because it didn't appeal.
Very few people (in fact no one who commented) showed any real interest in the online commentary, or wanted to read, or contribute to, the opinions online. A few took a look from time to time but weren't very enthused. However, it was felt that, if a parallel online service were to take the more trivial 'social media' aspects off air on a regular basis, then its existence would be welcome. People were a little confused, most of the time, as to what the sequence represented in terms of Radio 3's 70 years. There was an expectation that it would be self explanatory.
Those willing to take the broadcast as 'music without words' were of two sorts: those happy enough to listen to it as background music and those who deliberately chose to treat it as an attentive 'Innocent Ear' journey, sometimes of discovery. Both were satisfied, though other listeners felt that too often the musical choices weren't adventurous enough. In fact there were very familiar works and the more contemporary - which could be an uneasy mix for this style of broadcast.
Some people commented that the gaps between the pieces should have been longer; on the other hand, the segue-effect seemed well suited to the musical journey listeners who positively welcomed the lack of information (but were a small minority).
A third group was quite put out that there was no advance playlist to consult, especially as the online digital display didn't synch very well: since the pieces tended to be fairly short the 'Now Playing' window would often be showing the previous piece until nearly the end of the following piece. One comment was that there are still listeners who don't use the internet and they had no access either to on-air or online information. They had no option but to listen blind, which might or might not please them.
Given that past special events usually outstayed their welcome (at worst getting the verdict from unforgiving listeners, 'Awful - couldn't wait for it to end'), this event got very little criticism for the basic concept even from those who felt it would have benefited from further refinements.
In terms of change, the Radio 3 balance is still in credit… Outside the special events, there is a middle way to be explored, between having irrelevant presenter input to 'jolly things along' and having no announcements at all.
August 30 2016: Meeting of minds
- We had one of our ‘occasional’ meetings with Radio 3 management last week, this time taking a representative of the Radio 3 Forum with us. This is ‘our’ forum in that we host it on our website and run it (private enterprise providing what the BBC couldn’t afford), though the participants are mainly just Radio 3 listeners - about 80% having no other connection with the Friends than that they use our facility, making of it what they will!
Since their opinions and tastes are very wide-ranging, they provide a useful indicator of prevailing views on Radio 3’s programmes. We consulted with the forum ‘Hosts’, some of whom contacted the various interest groups (classical, jazz, world music).
A document summing up views of individual programmes, illustrated with listener quotes, was left with the controller to study. The particular programmes which provoked comments were: Breakfast, Essential Classics, The Choir, Hear & Now, Early Music Late, Jazz, World Music, Drama. These were by no means all critical, but they did offer suggestions.
There was little discussion on these programmes as our detailed views had been written out. It will have been obvious from other remarks that programmes like Record Review and Composer of the Week, though not mentioned, are much appreciated. There has also been approval for the new music which is beginning to appear in daytime programmes and the focus on women composers: we did praise what we thought was good!
The recent Rajar figures - which were very good - were mentioned, albeit with a bit of a health warning… Hitherto, the BBC’s own audience research suggested that Radio 3 has been appreciated, but not considered as distinctive as one might expect for an arts/classical music station deemed to have no close competitors. Standard formats (such as the ‘Breakfast Show’) and broadcasting practices may partly explain this: variations on a theme rather than much that is truly ‘original and different’ (the BBC criteria).
We established that Radio 3 no longer has a Presentation Editor (in the past Donald Macleod and Cormac Rigby performed this role): we tactfully suggested that it would benefit from one. There was a separate paper on R3’s presentation, with mainly listener opinions.
The strategies for attracting new listeners do need to be thought about - it is so much easier to cause people to switch off than to persuade people who don’t listen that they might like to do so. On that latter point we made it clear that we don’t think the wider BBC does nearly enough in a supporting role for Radio 3. But the last thing that Radio 3’s policies should do is cause its natural audience to switch off.
SPECIFIC LISTENER QUESTIONS WERE:
- Could playlists be published in advance (e.g. for Breakfast and Essential Classics)? Some playlists never appear.
- Any chance for the return of Discovering Music?
- Could unedited Proms Extra talks (40-50 minutes) be made available online, instead of just the 20-minute edited interval version?
- Could pre-concert events be used as concert interval talks throughout the year, as they are during the Proms?
- Could Hear & Now be on earlier?
- Any plans for ‘Rob’s Gold Standard’ to reappear on Saturday Classics (the answer to that was, Yes, a certain number have already been planned)?
August 16 2016: Rajar rally continues
- The Rajar listening figures issued recently, covering the second quarter of 2016 (4th April to 26th June), have perhaps vindicated the Controller's continuing policy of making small improvements to the schedule. Weekly reach, at 2.201m, is up by 8.1% on the previous quarter and by 16.2% on the same quarter last year. This is the highest reach since Q.1 2011 (2.258m), and is a record for a Q.2, which is often poor. (The previous best Q.2 reach was 2.174m, in 2011.)
The weekly reach for Breakfast is up by 9.0% (quarterly) and by 19.4% (annually), at 751,000. This is the highest figure since Q.1 2010 (777,000), when the programme had 3.5 hours more per week to pick up listeners. Could this increase really be down to the weekend birdsong, or is something else at work? We have a suggestion later.
These are the only reach figures released to the public by Rajar, and the BBC doesn't provide us with any information, but we have gleaned from press websites that Essential Classics (which has been tweaked to include the odd demanding piece and the new feature 'Music in Time', which discusses a piece in its historical context) increased its reach to 954,000, which is apparently a record. Late Junction has increased its reach by 12% (quarterly) and 36% (annually).
The new programme known as The Listening Service, investigating how music works and billed as a modern version of Pied Piper looks as if it has started well. Aimed at a wide audience it has increased the reach for its slot (in place of the first half-hour of The Choir on Sunday afternoons), by 8% quarterly and by 9% annually. The reach for Late Junction has increased by 12% quarterly and by 36% annually.
These are certainly good figures, but there is a down side: the other major audience measure, total listening hours, is slightly down: by 4.5% (quarterly) and 1.05% (annually), even with the increased reach; so overall, listeners have been more selective, with Breakfast, Essential Classics and Late Junction the beneficiaries - the lighter end of the schedule. As a result, hours per listener are down by a larger amount: 8.15% quarterly and 14.85% annually, implying the additional listeners are probably ‘dippers-in’, taking what they want and then switching over to a different station.
This dipping-in might, in part, be an effect of referendum fatigue, with people briefly switching over from Radio 4's Today to Breakfast and from PM to In Tune. One extra listener in the sample, clocking up 5 minutes with Radio 3 each week adds 2,108 to the station reach for the quarter, so unusual events can have noticeable results. The increased reach values of 84,000 (quarterly) and 307,000 (annually) need only 3 and 12 additional surveyed listeners per week (decimal numbers rounded up or down). The increases in reach for Breakfast of 62,000 (quarterly) and 122,000 (annually) need only to find 3 and 5 additional surveyed listeners per week.
The weekly reach for all radio also increased this quarter, though by a much smaller amount than for Radio 3: 1.8% (quarterly) and 1.04% (annually). The increases for Radio 3 are probably due to a combination of the Controller's changes, referendum fatigue, and sampling error – unless there’s something else we don’t know about… It's the long-term trend which matters, and as always, we’re looking forward to the next set of figures.
May 19 2016: Worth a peek
- The RAJAR listening figures released today for Quarter 1 2016 are interesting. No-one at the BBC actually said of Radio 3’s figures, ‘They’re fantastic, incredible, ama-a-azing’ but they weren’t far off. ‘Three-year high’, ‘Radio 3 in rude health’ &c. It would be accurate to say that they were pleasing or gratifying. Mais enfin, n’exagérons pas, mes enfants. And, anyway, let’s not forget that single quarterly results can be troublingly misleading when taken in isolation.
The previous 15 years have been very mixed. A few quarters were good but far too many were dire, so some caution is needed when comparisons are being made: what is being compared with what? How impressive is a ‘Three-year high’?
The figures fluctuate a bit on a seasonal basis, so comparisons should be between Jan-Mar quarters. Taking 2007 as the starting year (it’s when the, for want of a better word, ‘new’ Breakfast programme started): over that ten-year period this latest quarter is 4.1% above the average Quarter 1 and 3.0% above the median. That looks significant; it deserves to be called ‘pleasing’.
As far as the Breakfast figures are concerned, there have been so many tweaks in the start and finish times and the overall length of the programme that we’re left with too little data to make a meaningful assessment. But, in general, we can say two things:
1. The Breakfast figures look pretty good this quarter
2. All the recent programme changes have been, for us, in the right direction:
· dropping the phone-in feature
· reducing the news snippets
· reducing the tweets (claimed but not checked)
· a new presenter on the regular roster who is much approved of by listeners
· additionally, more new work and women composers are welcome, whether they get more listeners or not
If these changes have helped to raise listening a little, the message seems to be that the changes listeners still seem to want would help them even more, e.g.
· no isolated movements from longer works
· longer pieces of music, rather than just more short complete works (20 or more pieces in 150 minutes seems way too many: the more pieces, the more they vie with each other and detract from the programme’s overall musical value)
· if requests are played, could details of the requester be dispensed with?
· generally less informal chat
Several years back the BBC Trust gave its support to Radio 3’s proposal to be more ‘welcoming’, the necessity for which could be questioned. What kind of listener would avoid a radio station on the grounds that they weren’t made to feel welcome? If there are listeners who find Radio 3 ‘intimidating’, there is a case for pointing them towards Classic FM or Radio 2.
There is no case for Radio 3 to make its programmes ‘easier’ in order to attract a more general listener. That is perceived to be ‘dumbing down’ by listeners capable of coping with more difficult material. It’s the dictionary definition, for goodness’ sake – in the Oxford English Dictionary for the past 15 years: “To simplify or reduce the intellectual content of (esp. published or broadcast material) in order to appeal to a larger number of people.”
It’s what happened to Radio 3, and there’s still a bit of winding back to do.
February 3 2016: Blue, blue water
- A bizarre outburst from Classic FM’s managing editor, Sam Jackson, in the Sunday Telegraph (31 January), attacking the controller of Radio 3 Alan Davey.
Mr Jackson is suddenly miffed, apparently about a couple of lines included in a speech which the controller delivered… two months ago (on 1 December): all of 3,200 words long and didn’t even mention Classic FM once. So, what were the offending lines of the speech? In full:
“We [Radio 3] are offering you moments of contemplation, in full frequency sound without compression, that gives music the opportunity properly to have the beneficial effect it can. It’s the opposite of fast food – we’re giving you real nourishment, deliberately slow radio, and not, as may be found elsewhere, snippets, compressed in sound and context, to hum and forget.”
One could be forgiven for thinking the main subject was Radio 3, but the meaning of those words not, as may be found elsewhere was as plain to Mr Jackson as the nose on Mr Jackson’s face. Not in fact ‘likening Classic FM to fast food’ but saying Radio 3 is not like fast food: there is a difference. As for the rest – Classic FM’s sound is compressed: that’s a fact. It needs to be because so many of their listeners are driving in their cars and if the sound weren’t compressed the quiet bits wouldn’t be heard unless they kept adjusting the volume. Snippets? That’s what Radio 3 listeners call single movements from longer works: they don’t like them. But, in that sense, Classic FM plays snippets.
The nub of it is therefore ‘hum and forget’, isn’t it? And yet, and yet, not only are many listeners tuning in while driving (hence the compression) but – out of the mouths of babes and sucklings - Mr Jackson proudly announced that many students are listening to Classic FM while revising for their exams, because “instrumental music [without words] means people can switch off from the world and focus on their work”; and perhaps even absent-mindedly hum along with the tunes, as they concentrate on their studies? Sorry, Mr J – case dismissed.
Yes, we at Friends of Radio 3 criticised the previous controller for snitching some of Classic FM’s ideas, and his populist legacy is still too much in evidence to satisfy us. But to criticise the present controller seems to suggest that Sam Jackson doesn’t really have much idea what’s been going on at Radio 3 recently and he’s only parroting what others were saying some three years ago in the days of the previous incumbent. Look at these short seasons (broadcast throughout the day) and programmes from the past six months:
- Why Music? season: What makes music a vital part of being human? (including a world premiere of Max Richter’s 8-hour work Sleep).
- Northern Lights season: Music, performance and drama, inspired by the world's most northerly territories ...
- Celebrating Women Composers season: Learn about the lives and works of some of the great female composers
- New Year, New Music season: including a complete performance of Stockhausen's celebrated electroacoustic work Hymnen
- BBC Music Jazz – pop-up radio in collaboration with Jazz FM
- Folk Connections season: Folk music on Radio 3
- Artist Descending a Staircase – the first new radio production of Tom Stoppard’s radio play since it was premiered on Radio 3 in 1972
- Le Cid – Ranjit Bolt’s verse translation and adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s celebrated drama.
Clear blue water?
Oh, just one more thing …
“The commercial chief said that he had written to Mr Davey to complain about Radio 3 also airing video game music, and a BBC spokesman confirmed that the corporation had now decided not “to broadcast a regular programme with this focus”.”
Did they have any intention of having a regular programme featuring video game music? What they certainly have is an intention to have a ‘Pied Piper’-type children’s programme, and if it were thought appropriate to include some video game music in that, it wouldn’t be for Mr Jackson to say they mustn’t.
UPDATE: Contrary to the way the Sunday Telegraph report had been worded, it seems it had never occurred to Radio 3 to start broadcasting a regular programme featuring video game music. Perhaps one of Mr Jackson’s spies caught a fleeting glimpse of video in a recent edition of the cinema programme and … plainly a fiendish plot/pilot for a regular feature on video game music. But it seems not.
Let’s put it on record: we think Classic FM does a very good job and its listeners enjoy it. Long may it thrive - but Radio 3 it ain’t (see above).
Now: about those mornings on Radio 3, Mr D - time for a bit of a makeover?
January 1 2016: New year, new ideas?
- When the BBC Trust carried out their service review of Radio 3 earlier in the year, they concluded that, although the station was generally performing well, there were some aspects - most notably the breakfast programme - which had strayed too far towards Classic FM and needed to become more 'distinctive'. They asked for an 'update' (which we interpreted as being an answer to the question: 'So, what have you done about it, then?') from management after 12 months. We thought it would be a good idea to submit our own view and the Trust confirmed that they would consider it as part of the update.
We forwarded our report last month, having concluded that there had been some very interesting new programmes on Radio 3, already broadcast or announced, which were quite distinctive from Classic FM's output. But, we said, the 'populist' programmes (notwithstanding the axing of phone-ins and news headlines every quarter of an hour), designed principally to attract a new audience, still needed to do a lot more and ideally prioritise Radio 3's somewhat more informed listeners.
The year 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of the Third Programme and the station will start the year with a very 'Third Programme' week entitled 'New Year, New Music' ('the ghost of William Glock!!' commented one listener) in which the focus will be on the most innovative composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Some people will be less than delighted at the idea, but the question of whether one enjoys it or not is irrelevant: we shall be able to listen to it, hear it discussed (Stockhausen will be Composer of the Week) and learn more about it. Whether we then pursue a new interest or return thankfully to our Bach and Beethoven will be a matter of individual choice.
One of the most boring and predictable aspects of Radio 3 is the unvarying schedule: the same programmes in the same order, day after day, week in, week out, for years on end. Go back eight years and, but for the odd tweak, the schedule was exactly the same then as it is now. Pencil in the name of the presenter, a studio guest perhaps, and finally populate the playlist. Job done. But how wonderful to tear up the whole fixed points, fixed programmes, fixed formats and provide something gloriously different! (But hands off Through the Night, Composer of the Week, Choral Evensong, The Early Music Show, Jazz Record Requests and CD Review (now renamed Record Review - which incidentally was the first programme broadcast on Radio 3, at 08.04, Saturday 30 September 1967).
And why not publish the running orders in advance? Even a day in advance? Slight last-minute alterations are much less annoying than having no details at all. The automated technology won't cope, presumably - not that it copes very well now.