Why classical radio must change or die
Reaction to Alan Davey’s appointment as controller of BBC Radio 3 has been predictably facile. The Guardian fulfilled its role as part of the BBC PR machine with a sycophantic piece by arts editor Charlotte Higgins titled Alan Davey: why Radio 3 have hired well in this former punk enthusiast. It takes a lot to reduce me to tears of laughter, but Ms. Higgins assertion that “Within the BBC itself, audience figures are not the main priority for Radio 3” certainly had tears of mirth rolling down my cheeks; as did her assertion that Alan Davey’s appointment was justified by the size of his CD collection. In the opposing camp, Norman Lebrecht’s outpouring of vitriol suggests that the designate Radio 3 controller dented Lebrecht’s Rolls Royce in the Arts Council car park at some time in the past; either that or Lebrecht craved after the post that Davey was appointed to. Among the fence sitters, the self-styled Friends of Radio 3 used the appointment of a new controller to express - for the umpteenth time - the hope that the classical network would revert to its former name of the Third Programme and that the presenters - sorry announcers - would once again wear dinner jackets while on air.
Missing from the coverage by industry experts was one glaringly obvious fact - that the name in the frame is far less important than what is happening around the frame. Despite Charlotte Higgins’ risible assertion, the reality is that BBC Radio 3 needs an audience more than the audience needs Radio 3. Because new digital technologies in the form of mobile audio players, internet radio, audio-on-demand and, above all, music streaming, have made one-size-fits-all classical radio as perpetuated by Radio 3 and its role model Classic FM redundant.
There is no mass market for classical music. What comes under the umbrella heading of classical music is actually a granular agglomeration of diverse but overlapping niches, and the new digital distribution channels enable listeners in all those different niches to very precisely personalise their listening. Classical radio audiences are not falling because classical music has become less appealing. They are falling because BBC Radio 3 and virtually every other classical radio station has chosen to ignore the increasing fragmentation of audiences, and, instead, has pursued a futile strategy of chasing a non-existent mass audience with one-size-fits-nobody programming. The reason why classical radio lost one million listeners in twelve months in the UK is that the early and mid-adopters of new digital distribution channels have abandoned traditional radio, and all that is left is a fast diminishing rump of technology late-adopters.
There is a future for classical radio; but only if the medium wakes-up to what is happening in the real world. Bland one-size-fits-nobody programming must be abandoned, to be replaced by granular niche content that adds the value of authority to the anonymous streaming that is fast becoming the distribution platform of choice. The rapid uptake of audio-on-demand apps such as iPlayer means classical radio has become an alternative form of streaming, and the big opportunity for BBC Radio 3 is to position itself as the primary source of rich niche content accessed both by real time broadcasting and streaming.
The current wall-to-wall easy listening programming must be replaced by a matrix of challenging and informative niche content - early, contemporary, sacred, world music, drama etc - edited and presented by people who know what they are talking about. But that will require a sea change at Radio 3: because among the many things lost from the station during the dark years of Nicholas Kenyon and Roger Wright has been authority, with knowledgeable and opinionated contributors such as Leo Black, Robert Simpson and Hans Keller being replaced by ex-Classic FM celebrity classical jocks such as Petroc Trelawny and Katie Derham. (The Guardian revelation that Petroc Trelawny was a contender for the Radio 3 controller post also reduced me to tears, but they were not of laughter).
Charlotte Higgins has never been more wrong when she opines that at Radio 3 Alan Davey should “not rock the boat too much”. All objective measures show that Radio 3 is holed below the waterline and sinking fast. As I am not a beneficiary of the BBC’s considerable largesse, and as my Rolls Royce hasn’t been dented recently, I am not going to express a view on whether Alan Davey is the person to save the sinking ship. But what I do know is that it will take more than a very large CD collection to allow Radio 3 to survive the transition from the old world where it had a virtual monopoly on broadcast classical music, to the new world where Radio 3 is just another player on a large, crowded and not very level playing field.
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