Independent radio audience (RAJAR) data released this morning underlines the disastrous situation at BBC Radio 3. In the last quarter of 2013 the classical station's total listener hours plunged year-on-year by 16.4%, driven by a decrease both in number of listeners - down 3.3% - and average hours per listener which were down an astonishing 13.9%. It has to be said quite bluntly that there is no evidence at all that the continuing poor performance of BBC Radio 3 is due to anything other than the BBC's signature brand of mismanagement. While Radio 3 slips into the doldrums, radio in general is in rude health, with today's official BBC press release headlined 'RAJAR Q4 2013: more people than ever listening to radio after record-breaking quarter'. During the quarter BBC Radio 4 - a comparable station to Radio 3 - attracted a record audience; while Classic FM - which BBC Radio 3 has tried so desperately to ape - increased its audience by more than 250,000. Separate data shows that classical music, whether live or broadcast, is far from dead; with the Association of British Orchestras reporting a longer term increase in concert audiences of 16%.
BBC Radio 3's scheduling during the last quarter of 2013 revolved around rebroadcasting the Bareboim Ring. This Ring cycle had much merit as part of a summer Proms season celebrating the Wagner bi-centenary; but spreading a repeat across the Christmas holiday period coupled with a 'Hollywood rhapsody Prom' typifies the lazy and unimaginative programming that has become the hallmark of the station. Audiences want to be surprised, inspired and informed, but under network controller Roger Wright Radio 3 has become an unsurprising, uninspiring and dumbed-down wilderness. And if you think that is harsh just look at those audience figures again.
I am one of the many who has deserted BBC Radio 3 in recent years, and when listening on CD recently to Dieter Schnebel's ecumenical, ecstatic and extraordinary Missa - the Kyrie is based on a groaning sound and the score contains a noise layer in addition to vocal and instrumental parts - I was reminded of these thoughts from Alberto Manguel's book A Reader on Reading:
'What we believe a book to be reshapes itself with every reading. Over the years my experiences, my tastes, my prejudices have changed: as the days go by, my memory keeps re-shelving, cataloguing, discarding the volumes in my library; my words and my world - except for a few constant landmarks - are never one and the same' -Dieter Schnebel's ragged edge of modernism happened to suit the moment, but my world and my music - except for a few landmarks - are never one and the same; so tonight it may well be Haydn, or even Titi Robin, that I listen to. Just as music audiences are composed of thousands of random individuals rather than homogeneous groups of the 'old' and 'young', so the same audiences are composed of thousands of individuals whose experiences, tastes, prejudices and music are in constant flux. Which means fluxless music programming - 24/7 Wagner, Britten and Verdi last year, 24/7 Richard Strauss this year, all underpinned by a basso profundo of Mahler and Shostakovich and other 'safe' composers - is as nonsensical as targeting a mythical homogeneous, new audience. The tastes of audiences are never one and the same, and new distribution platforms such as Spotify recognise this. BBC Radio 3's biggest threat is not Classic FM; it is the new distribution platforms that recognise the reality of classical music and allow listeners to constantly reshape their listening. Composer anniversaries and all they bring are just one strain of a particularly virulent lazy programming virus that has infected BBC Radio 3 in particular and classical music in general. What we need on the airwaves and in the concert hall is less predictability and more serendipity.
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