MEDIA: MAGGIE BROWN; BBC takes the difficult approach to change

I find the outcry over changes to Radio 3 perplexing.

I find the outcry over changes to Radio 3 perplexing.

There is a part of me that is sympathetic to controller Nicholas

Kenyon’s desire to increase audiences, and widen the network’s appeal.

Paul Gambaccini is hardly a barbarian.

And Composer of the Week, pushed out of its 9am slot to make way for his

hour-long show, was always a ratings problem. It can’t be Mozart every

week, and naturally tends towards the obscure. If you don’t like the

music of say Berio, you switch off and are put off, for a whole week.

Gambaccini presented Classic FM’s Classic Countdown with panache.

Radio 3 is trying to be more competitive, bidding to attract stray Radio

4 listeners who come to the end of the Today programme sequence, and may

be looking for a spot of pleasing music, to ease them into the morning.

But there is another part of me that wonders why the BBC seems unable to

make changes with subtlety, without enraging its audiences. The current

row has ghastly overtones of the Radio 4 revolt about Gerry Anderson,

and the high-handed changes to Radio 1, which drove millions of

listeners away.

It has brought to the boil once more the feeling that the BBC cannot be

trusted with national treasures. Despite so much experience, it still

has not mastered the art of making gradual change.

Remember, BBC radio is the one area in which the corporation’s output is

at its most distinctive: no commercial operator aspires to ape Radio 4

or Radio 3. It seems odd that it should court the charge of copying

Classic FM.

All the BBC’s governors want is for it to connect more with the real

world. John Birt, director general, writing in this year’s annual report

urged it to find a style of presentation to welcome new listeners. To

change the packaging, not the product.

Since Kenyon, the former music critic of The Observer brought a fresh

outsider’s eye to Radio 3 in 1992, he has been trying to do just that,

with regular presenters, and a modicum of useful information.

But it has been a frustrating three years with little in the way of

audience growth to record, although the latest quarterly RAJAR

(audience) figures published last week do show that Radio 3 had a

relatively good summer.

But 76 per cent of its audience is aged 44 and over. One third is over

65. It is overwhelmingly skewed towards upmarket, ageing males.

It has no option but to find ways of bringing classical music to wider

and younger adults. Mulling this over, I drove down the M40 with two

children on Sunday hopping between Radio 3 and Classic FM. Classic FM’s

programme about the life of Beethoven, with clips of his most famous

music won out. Even the children enjoyed it. Classic FM has created an

engaging personality, while Radio 3 is still searching for one.

May it succeed.

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