Wednesday, April 15, 2015

This is my radio


Three months into the role, the new controller of BBC Radio 3 Alan Davey has revealed his vision to rejuvenate the station and make it relevant in an age of multiple media. At the centre of his vision is bringing back the Pied Piper programme last heard in 1976, and winding back the clock on the breakfast programme by dropping the vox pop contributions from listeners. When I explained last year why classical radio must change or die, I incurred the wrath of the Friends of Radio 3 by suggesting they advocated that Radio 3 presenters should once again wear dinner jackets while on air. It now seems that my misunderstood joke will backfire on me, and that Alan Davey will soon be announcing the return of formally attired presenters.

At this point let's make one thing clear. I was a huge fan of David Munrow's Pied Piper programme, have probably written more about him over the years than any other music journalist, and my interview with Munrow's mentor, the EMI producer Christopher Bishop, is one of the few first hand accounts of Munrow's career - listen here. But reheating the Pied Piper format for an age where every variable in classical music broadcasting has undergone a paradigm shift is a ludicrous concept, and it simply underlines that Davey - who has no broadcasting background - is struggling to come up with original ideas. BBC Radio 3's new controller has also missed the point that the original Pied Piper led the kids away, for them never to return.

Among other headlines from the interview with Alan Davey, which was published in the Sunday Times, is - as predicted here - an emphasis on sound quality to differentiate the station from Classic FM, and a move away from patronising its listeners, aka dumbing down. Like his earlier BBC Radio 4 interview Alan Davey has obviously written his latest script specifically to satisfy the Friends of Radio 3. Although the Friends of Radio 3 and On An Overgrown Path have both pointed out in the past that Radio 3 has got it badly wrong, I now view the activities of this pressure group with considerable nervousness. They claim to be non-prescriptive; so by default they have opened the door for the winding back of the clock strategy that Alan Davey is now unveiling; in fact, they have publicly expressed approval of his early plans.

The paradigm shifts in culture and technology mentioned earlier mean that any winding back of the clock at Radio 3 is doomed to failure. The Friends of Radio 3 is headed by the well-intentioned and very likable Sarah Spilsbury, and its online forums are a valuable resource. But the group's membership is statistically unrepresentative of the Radio 3 audience, it has no constitution or election of officers, and there is no rigorous methodolgy for checking that the views it expresses represent those of its members, yet alone all Radio 3 listeners. But the Friends of Radio 3 has the ear of the reactionary media, which means it also has the ear of the BBC. There are regular meetings between the Friends of Radio 3 and senior BBC executives; in fact Alan Davey met with the Friends of Radio 3 before he took up post - see Dec 5 2014. The Friends of Radio 3 regularly supplies soundbites to the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph; so, with a license fee and charter negotiation looming, keeping the pressure group onside is a high priority for the BBC and Alan Davey.

In the Sunday Times interview Alan Davey says: "If you set out to chase ratings, it's quite hard to succeed". I am a lapsed Radio 3 listener, which means that I am an unrepresentative sample of the thousands that Davey needs to woo back to his station. My header photo shows the alternative to Radio 3 that currently satisfies me: it is not a single station but a mix of media across a mix of sources. To win me back, Alan Davey needs to put his money where his mouth is and stop chasing ratings. He needs to create radio that is relevant, stimulating, dangerous, enlightening, challenging and new. I don't want programming by pressure group, Petroc Trelawny without the phone-ins, or a reincarnated Pied Piper with James May as presenter.

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6 comments:

FoR3 said...

Pliable: thanks for prior (almost) notification of the wicked calumnies against FoR3! In fact, I'm quite happy with your point of view - just less sure that the changes proposed must necessarily involve winding the clock back. I took 'Pied Piper' to be shorthand for 'a good children's programme', evocations of Antony Hopkins to mean the return of a bit of solid musicology. Just because such things were once dropped doesn't mean, surely, that the concept is outdated? But on phone-ins I beg to disagree: I'm happy with Petroc without them. More later, if you so wish. Sarah

Pliable said...

Sarah, I don't think we are too far apart on this one. But if by Pied Piper Alan Davey had meant 'a good children's programme' he should have said so. I suspect the reason why he did not talk in generalities about children's programmes is that his ideas would have come over as even vaguer. There were concerns about Davey's lack of broadcasting experience and civil service background when he was appointed. Nothing he has said or done to date dispels those fears for me.

Forget likes and dislikes for Petroc Trelawny. Dropping the phone-ins from the breakfast programme is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

FoR3 said...

Bob - this is one of the difficulties. For me (and FoR3?) the 'great divide' is between those who think Radio 3's recent attempts to cross the Atlantic have been a disaster and those who don't - or even haven't noticed anything happening. At this point we move on to what steps should be taken to preserve thenature of the 'service' [sic], what it should be like.
Forget being 'representative' of the R3 audience: who is? Do you resolve it by holding a poll? And as for the 'reactionary press' - at least they're saying something, though, again, not always the same thing (Ivan Hewett?). The progressives keep quiet because their staff often contribute to/work for Radio 3. The important thing is to thrash out some ideas which will hold water: I don't find them quite as obvious as you suggest. I certainly don't see Radio 3 being treated in isolation from the rest of the UK broadcast media.

Martin Pilkington said...

Hi,

I hope this is not the People's Front of Judea and Judea People's Front all over again. I'm a member of the very loose FoR3 group, which has no fixed agenda that I can discern, just a wish as per your final comments for some intelligence, imagination, oomph in music programming on the station in particular (and was concerned at it becoming a slightly less saccharine version of Classic FM. My personal stance is that I'm sick of hearing endless romantic and baroque music during the day, and would welcome encountering new music (whether that's recently composed or new to me) far more often. I do loathe the 'I love this piece 'cos it reminds me of Sorento' calls, but enjoy the listener input that pushes the presenters towards different stuff/engages with the audience.

Enjoyed my intro to your blog, but please, leave 'paradigm shifts' to management consultants.

Regards,

Martin

Pliable said...

Bryan Appleyard's Sunday Times interview with Alan Davey is now out from behind the paywall and available at - http://bryanappleyard.com/radio-3-media-metaphysics/

Pliable said...

Martin, welcome to On An Overgrown Path and thank you for your thoughtful comment. I take your point about the overused phrase 'paradigm shift'. I try to avoid using it; but it does have a true meaning and originated, I believe, before it became the property of management consultants. (Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [1962]?).

A very quick search for alternatives throws up some viable but long winded expressions that, rightly or wrongly, will not play too well in an age of rapidly decreasing attention spans. Twitter has a lot to answer for!