Thursday, February 02, 2012

Audience data explodes entertainment fallacy

'The trouble is not that we want entertainment, but that we don't. If audiences truly insisted on nothing but entertainment, the world's theatres would: (a) be completely emptied, once and for all; (b) start delivering much more serious work.'
That observation from theatre and film director Peter Brook is relevant to the RAJAR audience data for UK classical radio stations released today. In the last quarter of 2011 BBC Radio 3's audience decreased by 5.4% against the previous year and continued the downward trend for the station. Everyone, with the exception of the BBC Trust, knows that Radio 3 is broken; so there is no point in going down that path yet again. But it is worth looking at the trend for the total audience for classical radio.

There is now virtually no difference between BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM - they both put entertainment before art, employ the same presenters and sound the same. If the audiences for the two stations are added together we find that the UK audience for classical radio declined year on year by almost half a million, a drop of 6.0%. Which means one of two things: either classical music is declining in popularity or the version of classical music served up by Radio 3/Classic FM is not what listeners want.

Views will differ as to which explanation is correct, but I opt for the latter for two reasons. First there is anecdotal evidence that audiences are flocking to 'difficult' contemporary classical music. Secondly there is factual evidence that audiences want more than entertainment: the same RAJAR data shows that news, speech and drama channel BBC Radio 4, the least dumbed-down UK station, added half a million listeners. Which means the Radio 4 audience grew by 4.8% in the same period that Radio 3/Classic FM's dropped by 6.0% - in fact Radio 4 gained almost exactly the same numbers of listeners as Radio 3/Classic FM lost.

Fortunately it appears that BBC director general Mark Thompson, on whose watch one of the biggest cultural genocides of recent years has taken place, is on the way out. Let's hope his successor reads Peter Brook's The Shifting Point from which my opening quote is taken. Header graphic is Salvador Dali's Queen Salome (1937) and Dali designed Brook's 1949 Covent Garden Salome. A little later Dalí created an opera titled Être Dieu with a score by the avant-garde French composer Igor Wakhévitch. Read about that forgotten opera here.

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4 comments:

Pliable said...

Ralph Spurrier comments via Facebook -

I, for one, am part of these figures as I have virtually abandoned R3 for long stretches of the day in favour of R4 - or my CD/LP collection.

Thanks Ralph, it's the same for me. If only the BBC Trust would get the message...

pete said...

Radio 3 needs to drop the dreadful Late Junction and Night Waves and play classical music at these times.

And get rid of all its jazz.

Philip Amos said...

I have no doubt that you are absolutely right about this, Bob. I've commented on the issue here in times pastm but a couple of things I might add. First, there is a site called 'Classical Live Online Radio', a great convenience for it provides links to 160 or so classical music stations, these categorized geographically as Europe, USA, and Rest of the World. The great majority of the stations thereon that I've listened to in all regions have the simplest format: an announcer who names the composer, work and performer(s), and then the music. Why anyone would suffer the teeth-grinding twittering and blethering of Radio 3 and similar when they could stream, to take one example among so many, RAI, which I light upon because much of its programming is drawn from the vast RAI archives of studio and broadcast concert performances (and that raises another beef with the Beeb), I do not know.

For people who do not have a vast personal collection of recordings, there is also the Naxos Music Library with circa 65000 CDs on over 200 labels (now including the entire EMI back catalogue, and that means back to Elgar conducting Elgar)you can stream, once you stop being overwhelmed by what's in there. I've had a link to it for about five years and I'm still a bit boggled, especially re the historical reissues, mostly wonderfully remastered and often recently unearthed in the case of concert performances. (Tip for people with the surpassing good sense to read your blog. The NML annual subscription is not small change, though eminently reasonable. However, if you go to tso.ca, the site of the Toronto SO, and sign up for their email newsletter, you'll then be invited to sign up for Beethoven on Demand. If you do that, you will, when you click into BoD, find yourself actually in the NML -- free. Got to be the best deal on the internet.)

I've detected, particularly on another blog, a certain snooty attitude toward streaming re quality of sound. I listen mostly to historical recordings anyway, but even so, with nifty Altec-Lansing speakers, I have no idea what it is I'm supposed to be missing. That is best left to the audiophiles.

But re your central point, Bob, my mind always goes to Gramophone magazine, of blessed memory. After the magazine was bought by some conglomerate or other, the executive suits decided it should be dumbed down, dumbed way down, to compete with the mags of ClassicFM and the BBC. Having done that, I think it took about five years for Gramophone's circulation to be cut almost exactly in half. And so there is your point writ large. I doubt if Gramophone lured anyone from ClassicFM, but they sure as hell lost their serious readership, me for one, and I first put in a regular order for Gramophone at the local newsagent's when I was eleven years of age, half a century ago.

Mike said...

Broadcast classical stations will continue to "dumb down" as audiences go elsewhere and that it's less a programming issue than a technology issue. Web-savvy listeners and those who like a broader mix of music just construct their own playlists from a mix of their own libraries and on-demand sources.

Blaming management of broadcast radio for this is possibly like condemning stable-boys for the popularity of the automobile.

The only reason I ever tune into broadcast music radio now would be to record something for later listening, and even then I would be grabbing the web stream rather than off-air version. Radio stations are great factories for generating audio content but I listen to it all via MP3 files on USB sticks in the house or the car.