Why is Radio 3 still leaderless?

The BBC's vital classical service has fallen behind 6 Music in the ratings, and we need to know when its new boss will arrive

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

It’s happened almost by stealth but the number of listeners to 6 Music has now overtaken Radio 3, creeping up to 1.89 million per week (just .05 million more than the classical-music station). Actually the margin between them is probably greater because 6 Music has no analogue signal and can only be heard digitally. Whereas 6 Music sounds cool and with its digital playlist capability and big-star DJs is just so on-trend, 3 is being left behind.

Even more disturbing, there was no controller available to defend the station and remind us that the listening figures will bounce back in the next quarter because of the Proms effect — two months of nightly concerts, live on air, available online, and heard (and perhaps more importantly admired) throughout the world. It was left to a mere ‘spokeswoman’ to declare: ‘Since Rajar records began, BBC Radio 3 has traditionally fluctuated around the two million mark. We’re pleased to bring so many people our blend of distinctive classical, jazz, world and cultural programming which is a model of public service broadcasting.’

Such a bland demonstration of corporate-speak begs the question: why is the BBC’s leading classical music station, dare I say its leading music station, still without a leader? Why has no successor to Roger Wright been appointed? Has no one suitable come forward? Or are there other more sinister reasons? We need to know.

Back in 2010, just four years ago, it was 6 Music that appeared weak and leaderless. Indeed it was threatened with shutdown, victim of the BBC’s desperate need to make cuts on the front line of broadcasting in order to balance its books. But since then the station’s listening figures have virtually doubled, boosted by its social-media savvy and countless celebrity endorsements, from Ed Vaizey and Chris Martin to Emily Eavis and David Bowie. The trouble with 3 is that most of the musicians whose music it plays on air are dead; so no hope of an endorsement there. There are also very few ageing performers of classical music who are willing to turn themselves into DJs. Over on 6, we’ve had brilliant seasons from Bob Dylan, and visitations from Jarvis Cocker, Alex James and Guy Garvey. More recently Iggy Pop has graced the station with a Sunday-afternoon show that is so completely not what you might expect from the raucous, riotous, occasionally revolting ‘godfather of punk’.

You’d think with Iggy it would be all voice, and little music. Also that you’d need to see him, with his extraordinary stage presence, for him to have any impact. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. His deep, gravelly voice and measured way of speaking is perfect for radio. On top of that, he hardly says anything but lets the music (taken from his personal playlist and all of it, without exception, stirring, scintillating stuff) speak for itself. Take Sunday, when his theme was ‘Heroes and Otherwise’. After playing Dion’s ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, from 1968, about the three assassinated American leaders, Iggy says, ‘Hey Dion DiMucci. You sing beautifully. It’s real, real art to get your voice into a certain place and be able to tell the story without sounding …ha! …like you’re calling hogs or …ha! …calling attention to yourself.’

It was a bit of a surprise on Sunday morning to switch on Radio 4 as I was buttering my toast and hear a blast from Duke Ellington. Sunday Worship this week was from Brecon Cathedral, but not from a traditional Anglican service. Every year the city plays host to a jazz festival and the cathedral plays its part, its lofty rafters resounding to ‘Oh when the saints go marching in’ New Orleans-style rather than to an organ and cherubic choir.

That’s what I love about radio. The way it takes you places you never expected to go, and certainly not at eight o’clock in the morning. It quite changed my day as I listened to the Revd Dr Stephen Roberts arguing that jazz, with its improvisations, its joyful and yet reflective quality, its rhythms and its creative excitement has a relationship with faith, which also requires a degree of letting go, improvising, accepting the tune, the rhythm of life.

It’s not something I had ever thought of, or dreamed of thinking, yet there was something in it as we listened to Duke Ellington’s ‘In the beginning’, a magisterial bit of music based on those lines from the gospel of John, chapter 1, perhaps the most inspiriting passage ever written. It’s no accident, says the late Tony Crockett, former Bishop of Bangor, that jazz came out of slavery and the deepest of suffering. ‘Of all the forms of music, it seems to me it is jazz which offers us an integral pattern for coping with the brokenness of this world …To be willing to play with a theme, and see where it goes, for our lives are what they are, and often not as we might wish them to be.’ That sounded like good advice for a Sunday morning, and especially when interrupted by a blast of ‘Amazing Grace’ on the trombone.

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Show comments
  • tjamesjones

    “That’s what I love about radio. The way it takes you places you never expected to go, and certainly not at eight o’clock in the morning.”

    That’s true and a great thing. Radio 3 is mostly superb, it is probably easier to make worse than better.

    • MikeF

      Radio 3 used to be superb – it is now in large part a shambles. It needs to return to being a serious arts broadcasting station with an emphasis on playing complete works of mainly western classical music with informed, understated presentational style.

      • Kenneth

        Dead right. R3 has been relentlessly dumbed down – as have the Proms – by Wright. It needs to focus on its traditional audience and drop some of the ladettes and gimmicks.

    • Kitty MLB

      I totally agree and music you never encountered before. Admittedly I’m a jazz
      obsessive and just love all classical music which Radio 3 does superbly.
      I can close my eyes and imagine dancing in Vienna to my favourite piece of music. We do listen to Classic FM also but you have less variety.

  • Friends of Radio 3

    Part of the problem is that Roger Wright’s departure was – apparently – unexpected. In any case the post of Controller of Radio 3 isn’t one that is particularly sought after (unlike the Proms), and in this case it needs to be someone willing to pick up the hot potato of a service crippled by policies designed to ‘lighten’ the station and welcome hordes of new listeners, from 6 Music to Classic FM, and from Radio 2 to Radio 4. In fact from anywhere. Instead, the Radio 3 listeners have been trickling away.