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Does Radio 3 need a new controller?

If the BBC decides it does, there’s no better model than Radio 4’s current chief Gwyneth Williams

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

Where next for Radio 3? Last Friday was the First Night of this year’s Proms season but it was the last night at the Proms for Roger Wright, who for 15 years has masterminded the station and for seven of those 15 the summer concert programme as well. Rather surprisingly, and you might think ominously, no successor has so far been named to steer this most elegant yet vulnerable station into the digital challenges of 2015 and beyond. Could this be anything to do with the fact that earlier in the year a new post — Head of BBC Music — was created? Will Wright’s tenure be the last time the station has a dedicated Controller, looking exclusively after the BBC’s classical music (and jazz) output?

Wright himself has often been accused (not least in this magazine) of weakening the station’s classical music backbone and of pandering to the current taste for excessive chatter and constant interactive communication. But how do you keep on attracting new listeners to such a ‘highbrow’ station (ever more essential as the current audience ages)? What concessions need to be made to ensure the station stays in tune with listeners, both existing and potential, who now behave very differently from how they would have done even ten years ago? Digital and the web are here to stay and not to make use of what they offer would be like sticking to candelight or refusing to take the train. What matters is that the station stays ‘alive’, connected, in tune. If that means becoming more user-friendly, we are going to have to live with it — as long as not too much is sacrificed along the way.

Wright in his tenure at 3 and for the Proms has given us a Bach Christmas (every note of the composer’s surviving works played continuously over ten days) and the Doctor Who Prom. The vibrant, provoking mix of Late Junction (now sadly curtailed) and John Wilson at the Royal Albert Hall with his carefully reconstructed scores for Hollywood film classics. Essential Classics and the Free Thinking Festival (taking the station north to the Sage in Gateshead). Ukeleles at the Proms and the amazing beatboxing of Naturally 7. Whoever takes over will have to combine passion and enthusiasm with an incredibly broad knowledge of music, plus an understanding of how to sell what’s on offer to an audience that increasingly has far too many alternatives to choose from. What will make 3 stand out against 6 or 2 or the lure of Spotify and YouTube? How should it compete against Classic FM with its aspirational feature programmes and poaching of former 3 stars such as Aled Jones and Catherine Bott?

Over on 4, Gwyneth Williams has been subtly transforming that station since she took over as Controller in 2010, broadening its outreach to give it a more international feel and take its sometimes complacent audience (yes, I’m afraid we are!) beyond the UK’s shores. She has also dedicated her time in charge to adding on ‘the quieter exploratory and analytical voices of scientists’ and blurring the sharp dichotomies between the arts and sciences that have emerged in the last half-century. The result has been regular series like The Life Scientific, presented year-round on Tuesday mornings by the always accessible and keenly interested Professor Jim Al-Khalili and already an established part of the schedule. And the latest blockbuster series, Plants: From Roots to Riches, presented from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew by Professor Kathy Willis.

This series of 25 lunchtime ‘shorts’ (produced by Adrian Washbourne) has just 15 minutes each weekday to engage the listener, draw them in, and then take them on a journey of understanding of just one thing about botany that may throw light on something much bigger. It tells the story of plants, but not just through Kew’s extraordinary collections of living plants and those that have been carefully dried and preserved in the herbarium. As the engaging, articulate Willis explained on Monday, visitors to the Palm House at Kew are immediately made aware of how insignificant they are when faced with the biggest exhibit, a cycad that was brought to the Gardens in 1775 and is at least 250 years old. That in itself is pretty amazing, but it’s now known that it belongs to a group of plants which predate the dinosaurs and have survived several episodes of drastic climate change. How weedy we seem in comparison.

I might quibble with the glib assumption made on Tuesday that the Enclosure Acts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were a good thing because they turned worthless common ground that was not being well tilled into privately run farmland, which provided food crops for the growing population. That’s not what we were taught by the social historians back in the more idealistic 1970s. What about the fate of those tenants without land of their own? But it’s no bad thing to be provoked by a science historian while munching a lunchtime sandwich.

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