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Radio 3 controller Alan Davey answers your questions

Too much news? More Private Passions? The future of the BBC orchestras? logo
Published: Tuesday, 2nd June 2015 at 7:00 am

You’ve been in charge since January. How are you dealing with the deluge of complaints about Radio 3’s Breakfast show? RT readers dislike its frequent news bulletins and reliance on quizzes, tweets, emails and listeners’ phone-in anecdotes. They’d like to hear longer compositions played.
It’s still early days for me but the most significant changes I’ve made are to the Breakfast programme. We’ve dropped the single phonecall and we have fewer news headlines and extracts from the papers. We’re giving the music and the presenters a better run.


Are current affairs and a discussion of what’s in the papers better left to R4’s Today at that time? Arts and culture stories seem more in keeping with Radio 3.
You’ll hear more arts and culture stories being reflected. It won’t be a culture section but the presenters will look at points of interest in the news that day and talk about them as part of the natural ebb and flow of the programme.

Some readers enjoy the “warm and friendly” presentation style, but many are dismayed at the tone of Radio 3 becoming “too casual and chatty”, too Classic FM. How do you respond?
There’s a happy medium to be found. I want the tone to be informal but informed, so not intimidating. Our presenters all know their stuff and I want them to be able to get over that knowledge and their enthusiasm for the music they’re playing in an informed way. That’s the tone we’re aiming for in Breakfast.

Could presenters use less hyperbole, especially after a live concert (“the greatest player/most amazing performance…”)?
That’s an interesting comment. I’d want our presenters to be objective and use their knowledge in how they reflect on a performance. I’ve heard reflections that talk about the length or particularities of the interpretation, the use of the horn section in an unusual way... There’s room for that.

The Building a Library segment of CD Review (on Saturdays) gets much praise – but some readers say the recorded, scripted editions are immeasurably better than the rambling live discussions.
There’s room for both. We get a lot of positive feedback for live discussions, if not all the time. In terms of Building a Library, it’s such a mammoth task our people take on in finding the best version of a piece, and it’s always going to be serious and detailed and carefully thought through. If we get the right guests, the level of erudition will be high. And the exchange of views is interesting. The sense of liveliness that brings is welcome.

You listened to Radio 3 a lot before you took charge – how has the reality of running the station measured up to your preconceptions?
It’s even more fun. What I’ve loved since arriving is the people here, their expertise and passion for what they’re doing. Everyone’s full of ideas. And good ideas. The possibilities are only bounded by the amount of airtime we have. It’s immensely cheering.

The BBC is having to make cutbacks across the board. How will this impinge on Radio 3?
Since I’ve come, I’ve not had to make cutbacks. The reality is that everyone at the BBC has to be aware of what things cost, and how we can use the resources we have. Everyone counts every penny in Radio 3 because they want to make more stuff and they want to make the money go as far as it can. It’s really healthy.

You’re also responsible for the BBC orchestras and choirs. How secure is their future in this time of austerity?
Their future is secure. They all have different roles that we can defend. We need to talk more about the BBC Performing Groups and what they do, not just what they do on air, which is a key part of Radio 3 and Radio 2, but also the contribution they make to the musical life of the country, with concerts that might not be broadcast. They travel the country and go to places that otherwise wouldn’t be served by orchestras. And what was nice about the BBC Trust’s BBC Music Radio service review [March 2015] was that the classical music sector acknowledged the importance of the BBC Performing Groups to the musical ecology of this country.

What can be done to curtail relentless trailers and hyping of forthcoming programmes?
We’d be failing in our duty if we didn’t let our listeners know in an informative way what’s coming up next. If there’s something we’re especially proud of, we want people to know about it. Some comment that it’s intrusive but equally there are complaints if we’ve not pushed something and people miss it. We have to find the right balance.

Is Composer of the Week in danger of becoming stale, featuring the same composers time and again? And have you taken up many listeners’ suggestions for neglected composers?
It’s an excellent programme. There’s still a lot of the canon to be exploring heartily – and outside of the canon. When Composer of the Week had its 70th anniversary in 2013, we asked listeners to suggest composers who were unjustly neglected. There was a great call for a wide variety of composers. That led to International Women’s Day on Radio 3 [in March] and then Composer of the Week featured five contemporary women composers. We’re constantly looking at the composers we feature and that’s informed by the suggestions listeners give us. In May, we explored female Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz.
[* Composer of the Week has just been voted by listeners as the "Best Arts and Music Programme on Radio" at an awards ceremony at the Voice of the Listener and Viewer Conference in London]

You’ve said that you’d like to open up the vast resource of the BBC music archive. How is this progressing? Would you consider repeating Proms from long ago?
It’s on-going – as you’d expect in the BBC. I’d like to find the right means to do that, whether broadcast or online or a mixture of both. The kind of material will be limited because of rights issues. Rights-cleared Proms go back to about 1978. Others would have to be individually cleared.

Could Private Passions (on Sundays) be treated like Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, with a repeat during the week of transmission and many more archive editions available online?
That’s an interesting idea. We’re looking at the whole schedule now but inevitably we’re limited by the amount of broadcast time we have in one week. In terms of archive editions, we’ve tested the water and made a number available online for the 20th anniversary, which has gone down well. But I’m not sure how many we’ll be able to make available.

What’s the point of the Specialist Classical Charts on Monday’s In Tune and Friday’s Breakfast show? "Please get rid of them!" say some readers.
It’s really important that we reflect what’s happening in specialist classical music shops and the contribution they make to the classical music economy, because without them the classical music scene in this country would be so less rich. But it’s something we’ll continue to look at.

There are three jazz shows on Saturdays and one on Monday. Please can the coverage be spread throughout the week?
Time is limited. I like all the elements of jazz we have. They all make an important contribution to the BBC’s jazz offering as a whole. We’re looking at the schedule but I’m not sure whether we’ll want to change the jazz slots.

Are some of the popular but more eclectic slots like Words and Music and Late Junction safe for the time being?
I love the eclecticism of those programmes (and Between the Ears) and I’d like potential listeners to have a much better sense of the full range of what R3 does, including our dramas. We’re 80 per cent classical music but we’re much more than that. We explore culture through the medium of radio in new and interesting ways. These programmes are an important part of our output.

Why not turn Choral Evensong (Wednesday/repeated Sunday) into a multi-faith service rather than just a Christian service?
We try to reflect the music of other faiths at other points in the network and there’s plenty of scope for that. Last year we looked at Islamic music and art in detail, as well as Jewish music. I’m always looking for excuses to explore music of all faiths and cultures. Radio 3 is a place to reflect it well.

Radio 3 too often asks listeners to refer to their website for detailed listings. Can more information be given to Radio Times before it goes to press?
It’s down to the way our production schedule works. Detailed playlists may not have been decided. But it’s an interesting point for a new controller.

Radio 3 dropped a mid-afternoon slot for children a while back. How can you encourage music appreciation in schools or among children listening at home?
I’m passionate about engaging children with classical music but I’m not sure if Radio 3 would be the right place for a children’s programme. I’m convinced we should introduce people of all ages to how music works and that’s what we’re looking at. In terms of children’s schools, across the BBC we’re doing a lot with our Ten Pieces initiative – live performances and explanation. The BBC Performing Groups have been into more than 200 schools introducing Beethoven’s Fifth and similar works. That will be reflected in this year’s Ten Pieces Prom [18 & 19 July], a mixture of orchestral and children’s work. It’s a really good contribution to music education in this country. Orchestras other than the BBC’s have taken it up using the Ten Pieces as the focus for their educational work. That’s more effective than a programme on Radio 3 would be.

Could Radio 3 produce a series introducing people to classical music, explaining terminology and the basics without necessarily dumbing down?
We’re looking at that. I want Radio 3 to make a programme for all ages to explain in an engaging way how music works. I hark back to the 1970s Pied Piper series, which was allegedly for children but its average listening age was actually 29. It was pitched at that level. It showed how Bach’s fugues might work and went at it with many examples from pop music or other kinds of music to illustrate the points being made. It’s that vivid illustration and fearless explanation that I’m looking for.

How about a series dedicated to great singers or the tradition of English song?
We have a whole season called The Classical Voice this summer, as well as Cardiff Singer of the World.

Please can we have more piano recitals and recordings? And where is the late Dame Moura Lympany, the best woman pianist Britain ever produced?
It’s all a balance and I don’t feel there’s anything we’re particularly neglecting. There’s an emphasis on the piano at the Proms this year. We’ve also got the Leeds Piano Competition, so we do have chunks of pianism. I’ve got Dame Moura’s Rachmaninov concertos. I’ll tell Rob Cowan who’ll have all her records.

Why doesn’t Radio 3 play recordings from the pre-digital age, 78 rpm records and LPs featuring many of the great classical performances of the 20th century that are now overlooked? Or would scratchy recordings put people off these days?
They might and I know Rob Cowan on Essential Classics likes to explore and emphasise earlier recordings. Interesting suggestion.

Which Proms are you most looking forward to?
There’s a whole series of Scandinavian stuff, Sibelius – and some Nielsen that hasn’t been heard at the Proms before.

What are your immediate aims for the future?
For the network and the Performing Groups to tell more common stories so that the Proms isn’t just a marvellous happening in the summer but that it gets people interested in what Radio 3 is doing and makes them seek out the Performing Groups live much more. I want to tell the story of the Radio 3 family much more effectively. We’re planting a seed in the Proms about the theme of "Music and Memory" and we’ll continue with the science of human perception of music later on. Likewise we began the year with Simon Rattle and Sibelius and we have them in the Proms. Then in December we have a Northern season around Sibelius’s 150th anniversary. It’s an excuse to explore northern culture in depth – and link all that through with one narrative.

Which are your own don’t-miss programmes on Radio 3?
Very unfair for me to pick any out but I’d say at any point of the day or night there’s something worth listening to on Radio 3. I’ve listened to Composer of the Week for years and years. I never miss In Tune because you never know who’s going to be on. As well as Live in Concert every night. Throughout my life I’ve been an avid listener to CD Review and might even be able to remember its predecessor Record Review. It is unfortunately a trigger to me spending money. And has been over a number of years!

[Our thanks to Alan Davey]


Read about Radio 3's imminent Classical Voice season – 15 June–4 July


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