It’s such a relief to come back from a trip to America, to switch on the first available radio and fall into Francine Stock talking about Nicholas Ray on The Film Programme. Americans have lost the radio habit. You won’t find sets in any, let alone every, room in the house. No one I know there listens to radio except in the car, where all you can find are music stations devoted to just one type of music, country, Cajun or classical, or the terrifying fire-and-brimstone lectures of the evangelist broadcasters. In the run-up to the presidential election, they’ll be joined by a flurry of far-right ear-bashers, dedicated to rustling up support for the Tea Party among the freeway cruisers. No nightly sequence of live concerts. No programmes like Analysis or In Touch. No chance to skip from a Vivaldi mass to a Venezuelan joropo while tuned to just one station.
But this is no time to be complacent about radio’s survival in the UK. It faded out in America because no one bothered to gild its competitive edge against the superficial attractions of TV. As the BBC worries about where its funding will come from in future years, and what will need to be cut as revenues decline, radio output will need to be protected with cast-iron guarantees. So much could be lost so easily. Radio has always been primarily a speech network, in spite of its commitment to music, yet original drama productions have almost disappeared from the World Service in the past couple of years. On Radio 4 the number of commissioned short stories is about to be reduced as the new autumn schedule arrives on air.
Without the licence fee, BBC Radio could not survive in the way it has done since 1922, when a ten-shilling note granted you the right to listen to the Palm Court Orchestra, the Proms or commentary from Twickenham on the rugby cup final. In 1946 the licence was extended to cover television. But the fee has always been controversial. The government collects it, but only the BBC benefits. The BBC therefore must ensure that it fulfils its obligation to cater for all tastes, all of the time. Can the licence fee continue to be justified in a period of grave economic crisis? And even if the licence survives, will the money raised from it be enough to allow the BBC to maintain its programming standards?
Take a look at the latest changes to the Radio 3 schedule and it’s as if we’re being given a glimpse of what the future might sound like. It’s not that the content is different, but the way it’s being presented is changing. Saturday afternoons are being shaken up. Out goes World Routes and Jazz Library (now relegated to late-night listening) and in comes Saturday Classics, which for the first four weeks is being presented by Gareth (from BBC2’s The Choir) Malone. ‘We are traversing the many paths of musical youth,’ he promised us, as he introduced clips from Verdi’s Aida, Elgar, Mendelssohn and Britten. The series is billed as ‘A personal view of classical music’, so Malone’s view of ‘musical youth’ was his own education in music, which was startlingly precocious. His mother, he said, played him Vivaldi’s Gloria when she wanted to send him to sleep. Later he learnt to play Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ prelude as his party piece. When he listens to Mozart he worries about him, because he ‘can’t help thinking about Mozart’s pushy parents’. But then, he decides, ‘I can’t help wondering would we have W.A. Mozart if we didn’t have Leopold Mozart?’
I didn’t watch Malone on TV, where I gather he is charismatic. On radio, he’s got a lot to learn. His voice is too jolly, too earnest of success; his unscripted dialogue too raw. ‘We’ve got loads of great music,’ he promised us, ‘and you’ll have the chance to play one of my favourite children’s games, Guess the Composer.’
Were we listening to a new kind of ‘Children’s Hour’? None of the billing suggested that this was intended as a programme for the under-teens, which would actually be a brilliant idea. What’s missing from Radio 3 (and from Radio 4, too) is any attempt to grow on listeners from childhood, nurturing them from that early love of Mozart to an appreciation of Berio, Boulez and Bartók. Malone struggled to find a theme among his disjointed selections of music. Was he giving us his youthful experience of music? Or the music of youthful composers? Or music written specially for children?
On weekday mornings, Morning on 3 was long ago updated to Breakfast, presumably to make it sound less like stuffy music and more like chatty radio. Now the morning programme is being name-changed again to Essential Classics, with slots like the ‘Essential CD of the week’, the ‘Essential Artist of the week’. But will it ensure that Radio 3 retains its status as the essential classical-music station?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 24, 2011