Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Kate Chisholm

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Kate Chisholm

Article excerpt

The new controller of Radio 3 has at last been appointed. Alan Davey (not to be confused with the former bassist from Hawkwind) comes to the BBC from the Arts Council and a career in the Civil Service. This will be his first job in broadcasting, and will be no small challenge. These are tough times for Radio 3, squeezed between the commercial charms of Classic FM and the trendy allure of BBC's 6 Music, and it's experiencing a slow but as yet unstoppable decline in audience numbers.

The BBC's home of classical music and 'culture' is often criticised for being too off-putting, too elitist, not in tune with the current mood. Critics like to ask why, with just under two million listeners, the station should continue to be funded by UK taxpayers, most of whom will never tune in to hear Matthew Sweet or Philip Dodd on Free Thinking or to Opera on 3 live from the Met in New York.

At the other extreme, some formerly loyal listeners (including, I suspect, more than a few readers of this magazine) have been complaining that Radio 3 has gone too far down the populist road, breaking up its morning sequence with chit-chat and gimmicks such as the classical top ten and nerd-ish interactive quizzes, which ask listeners to phone in with their answers to questions such as identifying a piece of music after hearing it being played backwards on the rewind button.

Davey has referred to his new job as 'an honour', especially because of his remit 'to renew' this 'wonderful institution' for 'the digital age'. But what does renewal imply? What kind of digital new life does Radio 3 need?

Last week's offering from the newly created super-channel BBC Music, an umbrella organisation in charge of all the BBC's musical output under the control of Bob Shennan (also the controller of Radio 2), was a digitally remastered version of the Beach Boys' inimitable 'God Only Knows', performed by 27 international artistes and played simultaneously at eight o'clock last Tuesday night across most of the BBC's radio stations and TV channels. Radio 3's listeners were saved from the trauma of hearing that ethereal, haunting song given new digital life by the likes of Elton John, Stevie Wonder, One Direction and Nicola Benedetti because at the time it was hosting a 'live' concert from St George's Bristol and could not be interrupted.

Years ago, when digital editing was just taking off, 'Perfect Day' was similarly re-created by a cast of unusual cohabitees for the BBC's Children in Need campaign. …

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