Classic FM at 25: how the radio station conquered the airwaves

It has drawn millions of listeners to classical music – and Gillian Reynolds was there from the very beginning…

classic-fm

It’s anniversary time at Classic FM. Grand celebratory broadcasts all week will mark its 25th birthday. But I remember the very start. On a dark, cold, rainy morning we gathered early at Classic’s Camden Town headquarters for its long awaited nativity.

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The atmosphere was fraught. There had been a worrying delay before the Independent Broadcasting Authority actually awarded the contract for this, the first of three planned national stations. Talk Radio and Virgin on AM would come later.

The more valuable FM frequency had been specified by Parliament for “music other than pop” and was initially offered to a different consortium, Showtime. They didn’t have enough investment.

Competitors began circling. Classic, driven by determined Ralph Bernard, then managing director of stakeholder GWR Radio, won the franchise. Bernard had been a journalist in Hallam’s newsroom when commercial radio came to Sheffield in 1974.

He knew the hazards of start-ups. This one came freighted with great expectations and even greater hazards. You can hear the whole Classic story on Tuesday night, now told slightly tongue-in-cheek, with Jon Culshaw playing Michael Bukht, Classic’s co-founder and first programme director.

In 1973, Bukht had been Capital Radio’s first programme controller, hiring existing stars (Kenny Everett, Dave Cash, Graham Dene) and people who would become stars (Maggie Norden, Brian Hayes, Susannah Simons).

The first two years were hard, but Capital eventually took off, becoming the biggest pop station in Europe.

Bukht had come to Capital from BBC TV current affairs, full of exuberant convictions and enthusiasms, all of which he continued to display in his parallel life as Michael Barry, the “crafty cook” of BBC2’s Food and Drink. I interviewed him a couple of months before Classic went on the air. By then he’d long left Capital, founded (and closed) the National Broadcasting School, become managing director (and departed from) Invicta Radio in Kent.

Why had he wanted the Classic job? “Because it is the most exciting thing to happen in radio in 19 years. It’s the sort of radio station I advocated to the Annan Committee in 1975 and it’s the sort of radio station I would like to listen to. When I was at Capital, we did four hours of classical music programming a week and we got bigger figures in London than Radio 3.”

Ah yes. Radio 3. That same year the BBC’s classical music station had acquired a new controller, Nick Kenyon. He’d begun altering his network’s schedule in July, changing the breakfast and afternoon daily sequences, bringing in a new sort of Sunday.

Listener reaction was instant. And furious. What did it teach him? “Two things,” he told me, “that Radio 3 listeners are extremely keen on what they have, and that they want to keep it that way.” But he went on making changes, backed by an advertising campaign, to keep Radio 3 competing. Its latest listenership this year is 2.06 million (its weekly audience).

I asked Bukht if Classic was going to be an alternative to Radio 3? “Oh yes,” he said, “and to Radios 1 and 4 and Capital Gold and everything else as well. A popular classical music station, not abstruse or elitist, is a natural part of the pattern of broadcasting.”

He also pointed out that classical music was being used in two of every five TV commercials, so was not totally unfamiliar to mass audiences. Bukht and Bernard knew the difficulties of launching new radio stations, but their passionate advocacy for Classic in 1992 wasn’t entirely a front.

Back then, Radio 1 was doing fine but Radio 2 was in apparent freefall. The BBC’s most popular radio station in London was Radio 4, but Capital FM was much more popular. Classic’s challenge was to edge into Radio 4 and Capital territory. If it could provide a new audience, it would grab advertising and thrive.

It did. People were already talking about it before it arrived because of the brilliant wheeze of chief engineer Quentin Howard to test the FM frequency by broadcasting birdsong. To this day, people still remember it, along with Classic’s posh identity jingles.

Not as many recall Henry Kelly’s morning show, the one where he gave racing tips, because between then and now Classic FM has gone through many a wave of change. In presenters, ownership, management, even address. When former BBC man Roger Lewis became its boss, it parked itself cheekily down the road from Broadcasting House.

Acquired by the Global group nine years ago, it went to live in Leicester Square with the other Global stations. Darren Henley started at Classic when he was a student, and by his own admission a “complete radio head”. He commuted from Hull University to read overnight news bulletins, stayed for 15 years, ended as managing director. His successor, Sam Jackson, carries on the tradition of management rising from the ranks and, proudly, of introducing millions of people to classical music.

Michael Bukht died in 2011. Roger Lewis is now chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union. Darren Henley became chief executive of Arts Council England two years ago. Presenter Nick Bailey has been with Classic from the start, did its opening show, played its first record, Handel’s Zadok the Priest. He believes its greatest achievement remains to have made the music more accessible for everyone. Alan Bennett is sniffy about Classic FM. But 5.8 million listeners love it.

By Gillian Reynolds

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Classic FM’s 25th Birthday is on Thursday from 6:00am Classic FM