Besieged by cuts, falling audiences and rows about ‘dumbing down’, BBC radio’s classical music flagship is small but still vitally important
Radio 3 is a relatively small station – 1.7 million weekly listeners, just 3% of the UK adult population, at the last count – but it generates big arguments. Is it too elitist or too populist? Should it showcase music or include drama, poetry and debate too? Does it “superserve” an elderly, upmarket, predominantly white audience in the south of England? Is it a shrine to the past or a beacon to the future?
These arguments have rumbled on for decades, and will fill the in-tray of Radio 3’s new “controller”, to use the corporation’s time-honoured but now rather fusty job title. Sam Jackson is a former managing editor of Classic FM and Smooth Radio, but the anti-populists should relax – that won’t mean wall-to-wall ambient music on Radio 3. “Radio 3 is unlike any other station: a network delivering ambitious, unique content, with live classical music at its core,” Mr Jackson insists.
The station’s aficionados may be few in number, but they are remarkably sharp-elbowed and would storm Broadcasting House if there was any sign of drivetime-style dumbing down. That phrase “dumbing down” has been the bugbear of controllers from Nicholas Kenyon in the early 1990s on. No one has ever properly defined what it means, and it has become a barrier to developing Radio 3 and growing its audience. Music critic and commentator Norman Lebrecht has argued that Mr Jackson’s predecessor, Alan Davey, oversaw “eight years of dumbing down” during his tenure, but that is unfair. Mr Davey kept the ship afloat at a time of financial stringency and the marginalisation of classical music within British cultural life. He wanted to create a station that thrived on ideas and discussion, but faced pushback from colleagues within the BBC who thought that would make it too similar to Radio 4.
Mr Jackson’s appointment has been largely welcomed, though having another white male as controller – the latest in an unbroken line since the Third Programme morphed into Radio 3 in 1967 – reportedly caused some anguish at the BBC. He arrives at a time of instability at the station. Budgets are shrinking and Radio 3 is vulnerable because its cost-per-listener is so high. Broadcasting concerts, running orchestras and choirs, and putting on the Proms are expensive – £60m a year, five times more than Radio 6 Music, which attracts 2.5 million listeners a week. Radio 3 suffered a startling fall in listenership in the most recent quarter, and if that is repeated this year it really will be in trouble. The planned move of more of the station’s staff, including the entire leadership team, to Salford as part of the ongoing “levelling up” of the BBC is also causing turbulence.
Poisoned chalice or an opportunity for Mr Jackson to bring a fresh vision to the BBC’s cultural standard-bearer? At a time when the Arts Council’s tin-eared approach to opera has reduced the sector to a mixture of rage and impotence, with music education more undervalued than ever, despite evidence of its benefits in other countries, and with the BBC itself under assault, the UK needs Radio 3 to be flourishing, confident and agenda-setting. Definitely beacon rather than museum. The station’s new controller will be judged on whether he can renew its sense of purpose, and appeal to an audience with no interest in tired old cliches about dumbing down. What matters in music – and culture generally – is not the division between pop and posh, but between good and bad, inspired and insipid.