BBC Radio 3's demise is on the cards
In his Guardian review of Jeremy Paxman's memoir, Will Self points out that the TV presenter is wrong to attribute the decline of the BBC's flagship Newsnight current affairs programme to demographic rather than technological changes. Will Self's observations on the "balkanisation of the media" are very relevant to the recent myopic soul searching about the future of BBC Radio 3 which coincided with the station's 70th anniversary. Technological change is the reason why the media landscape has changed so dramatically in the last decade. Yet, in her 1200 word exposition of how "BBC Radio 3 needs a rethink" Guardian cultural commentator and BBC biographer Charlotte Higgins does not use the word 'technology' once.
Like Charlotte Higgins and others who wrote panegyrics at the time of the anniversary, I am indebted to Radio 3 for its past role of illuminating and educating. But times have changed, and, as we are told so often, classical music must also change. New technology means the supply of classical music has increased exponentially, personalisation is now a listener 'must have', and classical music is available anywhere anytime from multiple sources. As an illustration, my relatively modest car's standard audio system not only has a radio tuner. In addition it has an iPod socket, Bluetooth connectivity, and an SDHC memory card slot. The latter gives me literally fingertip access to 32GB - more than 400 hours - of the music that has featured on this blog over the years. So it is goodbye to Petroc Trelawny, Katie Derham and all those Mahler symphonies, and hello to Bax, Glazunov, Simpson et al interspersed by blessed silence.
The core problem is that the fragmentation of the music market means that the the only homogeneous market left that is big enough to justify Radio 3's existence is that for high class background music. Which is why it has locked horns so disastrously with Classic FM. Yes, Charlotte Higgins is quite right in saying that Radio 3 used to be the envy of the world; but those days have gone and never will return. The BBC's penchant for serial self-harm combined with a death wish strategy of aping commercial stations make fundamental changes in the license fee model inevitable. The impact of those changes, which will shift funding towards a commercial model, will hurt. Because the BBC has been allowed, without appropriate checks or balances, to become a near monopolistic supplier of classical music in the UK. In a 2011 post I summarised that near monopolistic position as follows:
1. The biggest classical music festival in the world which receives a public subsidy of £62,000 per concert.
2. Five leading orchestras and a choir.
3. A year round programme of live concerts and music events.
4. Artist bookings and payments for all the above.
5. A substantial collateral promotional support programme including extensive TV coverage and social media activity.
6. A powerful young artist development programme that also co-produces commercial recordings.
7. A media partnership with a prestigous industry award scheme.
8. The largest new music commissioning budget in the world which awards more than £350,000 to composers annually.
9. Access to exclusive state of the art MP3 download and stream on demand technologies.
10. An online classical music presence that is part of a website ranked in the fifty most visited internet destinations worldwide.
11. Commissioning contributions from influential journalists.
12. Links to a co-branded print magazine with a monthly readership of more than 200,000.
13. A classical radio station with more than 2 million national listeners plus global reach via the internet and satellite
14. A guaranteed annual classical music budget of £50 million.
Such largesse is wonderful, until it stops. And in the near future the funding brakes are almost certainly going to be applied by fundamental changes as the license fee system is progressively dismantled. The classical music industry, and particularly the BBC Radio 3 apologists, need to wake up and smell the coffee. Radio 3 needs a rethink; but that rethink must be far more dramatic than taking the station back to a time when the cat's whisker was the new technology. Radical rethinking is needed to ensure that the priceless contribution made by Radio 3 in the past continues, albeit in a different form.
Let's assume that the license fee - which is effectively a form of poll tax - is abolished and the BBC is put on a commercial footing. The BBC performing ensembles and Proms should be set up as independent trusts*. Current funding levels for these independent trusts would be maintained for a five year transition period through regional arts funding bodies. The required increase in arts funding would be paid for by an increase in overall taxation. This increase would be very small, and can be sold to the electorate as a saving, as there will be significant central costs savings by the closure of BBC Radio 3. In addition funding would be provided for a New Music Centre internet radio station streaming content on demand. This station would be a co-operative managed by the liberated BBC performing ensembles; its funding would be conditional on 10% of its output being live music, 25% of its music coming from the managing ensembles, and 20% being new music or works meeting an agreed criteria of underexposure. After the five year transition available funding would be maintained, but would need to be bid for in the usual way.
My proposal is offered in the spirit of brainstorming. BBC Radio 3's demise is on the cards, and the driver is technology, not demographics or changing tastes. The classical music industry needs to stop burying its head in the old technology sand. What is now needed is a radical reshaping of the music supply chain.
* My 2009 article What price the BBC Proms contained a proposal as to how such a trust would work for a post-BBC Proms series. Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).
I fear Bob is absolutely correct, and Radio 3 is doomed. If it can ever improve from the often ghastly infantile style of the Breakfast and 'In Tune' components, so much the better, but I think this is unlikely. In their desperation not to be seen as 'elitist', they have made classical music into a repellent 'My Little Pony' of broadcasting, and they will perceive it to be difficult to go back. It is a symptom of the anti-intellectualism that fears alienating people. All I can say is, do readers complain about Jane Austen's use of language when they read the books? Do they find her prose so difficult that it needs to be broken up into 'snackable portions', as a R3 executive referred to their music ouptput? No, readers find that THEY make the intellectual adjustment needed to read it for themselves, and if that requires more effort, they make it, because they enjoy the challenge - they do not expect a Nanny third party to break it all up for them, like cutting up a child's food for them. So why break up a Haydn symphony (contemporary with Jane) into isolated movements on the radio? Are they afraid that a whole symphony will scare their imagined new listeners because it is so unbearably long (yeah, right - all of 15 minutes) and turn back to Chris Evans?