‘Smile, segue and shut up’

2 September 2017

9:00 AM

2 September 2017

9:00 AM

Three weeks before Classic FM launched, I was on the radio in Hong Kong, introducing hits by Rick Astley and Wet Wet Wet. I’d just turned 21, and was working as a presenter for British Forces Radio.

A phone call came from London. ‘My name is Michael Bukht. I’m setting up a new radio station and have heard good things about you. We’d like you to present our afternoon show. By the way, do you know anything about classical music?’

Michael Bukht would not have fared well in today’s consensual media world, where respect is the watchword. He was a bit of a bully, capable of exploding at anyone promoting views not aligned with his own. But he had absolute belief in what he was doing. The successful pop station Capital Radio, which he had set up in the early 1970s, was his model.‘Same sound and style, just different music,’ he announced. Bukht saw the classical masterworks as pleasure-providing commodities, not cultural treasure to be treated with devout respect.

Thanks to my organ-playing mother, and Mrs Siday, my long-suffering piano teacher, I did know a little about classical music. When we first met and I announced this fact to Bukht, he looked uncomfortable. ‘Sunshine,’ — a term of endearment he used when dealing with anyone younger than himself — ‘I don’t want you getting carried away. I’m going to fine anyone who refers to an opus number on air. And if you dare mention a Köchel number [the system by which Mozart’s works are catalogued] there will be trouble.’

A week before launch, the Financial Times ran a story challenging Classic FM’s financial position. At the last minute, one presenter got cold feet and decided to stay at the BBC. But we got on air.

In the early hours of 7 September 1992, staff gathered at the Classic FM studios in Camden Town. Presenters and producers hung around eyeing up the leftovers from a vast breakfast buffet the advertising team had laid on for their clients. At six o’clock the red light lit up and the station’s breakfast host made the first announcement. ‘Good morning and welcome to Britain’s first national commercial radio station. This is Classic FM. I’m Nick Bailey and this is George Frideric Handel.’ Zadok the Priest rang out, accompanied by popping corks and the clicking of cameras.

The night before, the Prince of Wales and the prime minister, John Major, had been guests at the Proms, attending a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. For the BBC’s mandarins, it should have been a time of celebration. But the corporation was deeply worried about Classic FM. Senior figures feared it would destroy Radio 3, decimating its audience and thus weakening its justification for licence-fee funding for its orchestras, the Proms, and its ambitious and expensive programming.

In fact, Michael Bukht had no interest in Radio 3 whatsoever. His music policy was clear — ‘nothing you’d want to switch off’. Mozart was king, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak — yes, please. Bartok, Stravinsky and Britten were to be treated with suspicion. And absolutely nothing contemporary, thanks very much. He saw his audience coming from Radio 4, and recruited familiar presenters including Margaret Howard and Susannah Simons to ensure they felt at home. He considered the audacious signing of half the BBC Gardeners’ Question Time team to Classic FM as his greatest coup.

Bukht didn’t care if we messed up composers’ names or misattributed repertoire. ‘Just do it with confidence,’ he said. But the complaints soon became too much, and Classic FM made its first hiring from Radio 3, the veteran announcer Tony Scotland, who’d been made redundant as a result of the BBC station’s attempts to find a more modern sound.

‘There’s no way I’m having your voice on my station,’ Bukht told Scotland on his first day, before allocating him a corner of the office where he was to knock us into shape, drilling us in Italian arias, French vowels and Hungarian accents. In the end, he did find himself broadcasting, when the advertising team engaged him to read a daily Shakespeare sonnet — to promote Parker Pens.

‘Smile, Segue and Shut up’ was Bukht’s mantra when it came to training us. He installed a bright flashing light in the studio, linked to a phone number only he had. Talk too long and you’d be dazzled mid-link. And he always seemed to be listening, despite his commitments running the station — and cooking under his other identity as television chef Michael Barry.

A few months after the launch, we gathered nervously waiting for the fax containing the first listening figures. Fewer than 2.7 million and we would have to pay money back to the advertisers. A cheer went up when the figure was announced — 4.3 million. ‘We’ll be burying cash under the floorboards,’ proclaimed Bukht.

I left after two years; this summer I am privately raising a glass to two decades at Radio 3. But I’ll be toasting Classic FM too. On air the biggest change is heard in the adverts. At the start they were aspirational — John Lewis, Volvo, Singapore Airlines. Now it’s dental implants and insurance-chasing lawyers. But the core product, the music, has not changed much.

There was an important coda to that first set of audience figures. Despite Classic FM’s success, Radio 3 held steady. Even when the commercial station hit a record high of nearly seven million, Radio 3 kept its two million listeners, and has done so ever since.

Most of the critics were distinctly sniffy when Classic FM launched. But musicians were more open-minded, foreseeing a legion of potential new consumers for their work, ones who might only become occasional purchasers of recordings and concert tickets but consumers nonetheless. Britain’s middle classes had provided a brand-new audience for classical music, happy to be seduced by the station’s unthreatening musical selections and cheery introductions.

The mission statement, read on air every 15 minutes, is still going down well: ‘Classic FM — the world’s most beautiful music’.

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