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THE ROGER WRIGHT INTERVIEW

Interviewer: Ian Lace

Roger Wright is Controller BBC Radio 3

The questions below have been posed by the Classical Music Editor and contributors – reviewers and article writers – to MusicWeb International (http://www.musicweb-international.com)

I.L.

First, a note of thanks: for the often fascinating repertoire – material sourced from Radio France, Bulgaria and Estonia etc. – broadcast through the night, and the quantity and quality of information on the BBC Radio 3 web site. We are also pleased to learn about the imminent extensive coverage of the works of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, plus the complete symphonic cycle of Arnold Bax – and the imaginative concept Music and Words featuring classical music alongside poetry and prose readings, to mention but two of the more welcome offerings across the new BBC Radio 3 schedule.

The Questions

MusicWeb International (Ian Lace – I.L.)

What is your vision for the future of BBC Radio 3, how far does the new schedule align with that vision and how might the schedule develop?

How do you envisage the positioning of BBC Radio 3 in relation to Classic FM.?

BBC Radio 3 (Roger Wright R.W.)

BBC Radio 3 will continue to be the UK’s leading cultural broadcaster, with an emphasis on live music and the arts.

Radio 3 does not position itself in relation to any other broadcaster. It offers a unique role in the UK radio market and plays its part in the overall BBC radio portfolio.

I.L. In drafting your future plans, what steps were taken to consult listeners? Can you give us examples of items in these schedules - changes prompted by listener input? What mechanisms and forums are in place and used on a regular basis by which Radio 3 management can obtain feedback from listeners and take their views into account in planning the style and content of the station’s output? Granted that many opinions oppose and cancel each other out (e.g. some listeners are deploring the shifting of ‘Choral Evensong’ to Sundays whereas others are perfectly happy with that arrangement), but there is a general feeling that BBC Radio 3 too often ignores a significant number of listeners’ opinions and wishes.

R.W.

We take views from our listeners all the time – in a variety of ways – research groups, letters, phone calls, E-mails, etc. All these varied (and often conflicting!) views were taken into account when we considered the schedule changes. For example a number of listeners wanted more classical music after 9.30pm. and many wanted Composer of the Week at an earlier time in the evening – hence the changes to the evening schedule.

However, in the end, it is our job to take editorial decisions and that often means leading, rather being led by, the audience.

I.L. There is concern about BBC Radio 3’s tendency to ‘dumb down’.

(a) The inconsequential chat of In Tune’s Sean Rafferty is instanced – more intelligent and informative material please. Furthermore, MusicWeb contributors fear that there will be yet more presentations of such programmes as the Proms by well-known popular ‘personalities’. Such people are manifestly non-musicians and all too often their comments come over as superficial or even simply ill-informed. Could we have assurances to the contrary please?

[It has to be said though, that we have no objection to lucid, non-stuffy, enthusiastic contributions from informed non-musicians such as Ken Russell, Andrew Motion, David Dimbleby and David Mellor.]

(b) We are also concerned about the equally irritating practise of playing ‘bleeding chunks’- just one or two movements of a work. May we be assured that this will be either outlawed or at least minimised?

R.W.

The question of presenters and presentation style is a hugely personal one and is not a new debate. The regular team of Radio 3 presenters will continue to present the Proms on Radio 3.

We will continue to play complete works. However there are times, as in the past, when it is appropriate to play movements or excerpts from certain pieces when it makes editorial sense.

I.L. There is a concern that the music broadcast on BBC Radio 3, at times, is too far outside its basic remit. Disproportionate interest in world music is instanced and one contributor comments: "Radio 3's 'Late Junction' in particular includes a breath of music so wide that at times that it could often be easily played comfortably on Radio 1 and Radio 2. It could be contended that so many varying styles of music played on Radio 3, in addition to the predominant 'classical music' could make the audience confused and gives the station a reputation for being a dumping-ground for music that it doesn't know what to do with.

Another contributor commented: "The BBC has a portfolio of radio stations and the different genres should be distributed among them rationally. Why must Radio 3 reflect a wider range of tastes than Radio 1 (pop music targeted at the 15 - 24-year-olds), Radio 1Xtra (new black urban music for a young audience) or 6 Music (pop music of the 1970s to the present, targeted at the 25 - 44-year-olds)?"

Your comments please

R.W.

Radio 3 has for many years included a broad range of music – jazz has been broadcast since the early 60s. Indeed there are some listeners who only come to Radio 3 for our jazz or world music. However it remains a small percentage of our overall music output.

It is important to remember that there are many members of our audience who are classical music lovers but who would love to see programmes like Late Junction expanded and increased. We need to find ways to respect the tastes of other listeners.

Western classical music will remain the vast majority of the output of Radio 3’s music programming, but the joy of discovery of other musics, cultures and ideas has always been central to Radio 3’s public service remit.

I.L. There has been much media debate about the implications of the proposals to broadcast concerts etc not as truly "live" but on a deferred relay basis. One contributor writes, "what are we to make of a publicly funded radio station, primarily concerned with art music, cutting the majority of live broadcasts of concerts? Surely one of the first priorities of Radio 3 must be the championing of live music making in the UK?

Can you please give the following assurances:

a) There will be no reduction in the number of transmission hours per week devoted to live or deferred relay concerts, recitals and operas.

b) There will be no reduction in the BBC's commitment to its in-house orchestras as a result of these schedule changes - i.e. no reduction in the amount of their output that is broadcast and no amalgamations or closures of orchestras or redundancies of musicians.

R.W.

In the new schedule there is an increase in the amount of live and specially recorded music. There is no reduction to the commitment to the BBC performing groups.

I.L. Listening to pre-recorded concerts is, for many, a poor substitute for live broadcasting, many of us fear that there will be a loss of quality and of course the sense of immediacy. We understand that one reason given for no longer transmitting live concerts was that their timing is too irregular for a fixed radio station and wreaks havoc on the start times of other programmes?

But doesn’t the BBC stop everything for football?

R.W.

The BBC does not stop everything for football, but that is irrelevant.

There are no winners and losers in music making.

Our listeners have not responded negatively to the concerts, recitals and operas which we have recorded. The difference is between hearing live performances and those on CD and the amount of live and specially recorded music is more than 50% of our music output.

I.L. It seems that a lot of prestigious concerts and operas are to be broadcast during weekday afternoons. This will do nothing for the working listener who can't listen via the internet or who obstinately prefers the medium of radio. Why is it thought necessary to broadcast such items at a time when many listeners won't be able to tune in? And why not repeat these prestigious concerts at varying times of the day?

And many are unhappy about the consequential loss of lighter late afternoon programmes such as those presented by Brian Kay and Edward Seckerson.

Your comments please

R.W.

There are times when we really can’t win with our scheduling.

For those who are out in the evening they say please put something on during the day, those who are working want it in the evening and those who want things repeated clash with those listeners who want something new. We try to strike a balance but will never be able to please everybody all the time. I am, though, delighted that we are now able to introduce complete operas in the afternoon. The recent Opera North "Peter Grimes" was hugely enjoyed.

As far as the loss of some of our 4 p.m. programme is concerned I can only offer the views of some listeners (who are not alone in their views):

"The new Radio 3 schedule is appreciated and a welcome change. This afternoon was an absolutely tremendous programme. It was of such a high standard. Thank you ever so much."

----------------------------------------------------------------

"I am very happy with the changes that Radio 3 has made to the afternoon schedule. As far as I am concerned, more programmes devoted to orchestral music can only be a good thing."

------------------------------------------------------------

"Instead of Brian Kay's Light Programme we now have Dukas, Hindemith, Franck, Haydn and Beethoven.

Personally I am celebrating."

I.L. Instead of ‘dumbing down’ why ‘not un-dumb up’? Should it not be a responsibility of BBC Radio 3 to educate, particularly younger potential listeners, especially those who may not have had the opportunity of learning to listen to classical music?

You might recall the Anthony Hopkins’ Talking About Music school of music, broadcast all those years ago on Sunday afternoons on what was then the BBC Third Programme. Hopkins straightforwardly analysed basic repertoire works. There were other excellent programmes like Composer and Interpreter in which contrasting interpretations of, say, all the Beethoven symphonies were discussed and played. If such programmes are in the BBC archives can they not be re-broadcast or new ones in the same mould conceived; but, please, introduced by musicians or knowledgeable people who can communicate, not ‘personalities’?

It is noted that Discovering Music is to be retained and expanded but from a glance at this programme’s more ‘advanced’ content in Radio Times over the last few weeks, Discovering Music hardly qualifies it as a basic music appreciation teaching medium?

R.W.

One listener’s dumbing down is another listener’s entry point to a world of music and the arts. We seek to entertain, educate and inform and Discovering Music is certainly appreciated by the students who use it as part of their GCSE study. By the way "Talking About Music" wasn’t always on the Third Programme. It only transferred from the Home Service to the Music Programme in 1964 – and how the world has changed in the last 43 years!

Here again is an example of some typical views from our listeners about our new schedule:

"I am delighted to find the new changes to your schedules. At last you seem to be returning to your roots: 'proper' music, intelligent commentary from knowledgeable hosts, some great performances and good variety."

I.L. Regarding Classical Collection: Will it explore both new and historic recordings? Will there be something of the same systematic approach as adopted by CD Masters, i.e. vintage artists and classical repertory themes? Will there perhaps be a wider remit of artists, including not only vintage artists but also those with an extensive range of recordings? (earlier this year CD Masters had the oddly restrictive notion that an artist should be 70; thus Barenboim wasn’t admitted, although, later on Pinnock was admitted at 60)

Will Classical Collection use BBC sound archive recordings to widen the scope of exploring historic recordings more imaginatively? (Rather weakly, CD Masters would only play recordings that had at some time been commercially available. It is understood there could be rights/copyright issues if sound archive recordings were made available commercially but does the BBC not have the right to broadcast from its own archive, as recently with Choral Evensong?)

Will the best practice of CD Masters be preserved in Classical Collection? viz.
- items to be played, with times clearly documented in Radio Times (essential for listeners who like to order scores on the internet or from their local libraries)

- a dedicated Message Board giving listeners the opportunity to discuss recordings played and presenters to respond to listeners’ views and defend their own, as well as giving listeners the opportunity to request or suggest future broadcasts

- the selection of distinctive recordings that are not currently available on CD, including some that have never been available on CD.

R.W.

Classical Collection is a new programme and will contain new and legendary recordings. I hope our listeners enjoy it.

Using BBC archive is not part of the brief for Classical Collection but archive recordings will continue to appear occasionally in our schedule.

There is currently no plan to have a dedicated messageboard for Classical Collection but we shall be adding some boards to our current offering and we will consider this once the programme has been launched.

I.L. Will BBC Radio 3 maintain its commitment to new music, commissioning music by contemporary composers? Will Radio 3 continue to foster the talent of younger promising British composers and performers? If so could you please identify one or two such talents?

R.W.

Yes.

We will remain the most significant commissioner of new music in the world and continue to commission new writing..

Our current roster of New Generation Artists shows just some of the young talent we are extensively supporting.

Other more specific questions:

I.L. Some MusicWeb contributors, including composer, Arthur Butterworth, have expressed dismay at BBC Radio 3’s neglect, even abandonment of brass band music. Considering that such composers as Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams have written for that medium how can such neglect be justified? Must brass band music be regarded as a ‘cloth cap’ art or something like a competitive sport?

R.W.

We don’t regard brass band music in this way. For those lovers of brass band music we will never play enough, for those who dislike it we play too much. It will continue to be included occasionally in our schedules.

I.L. Some feel that organ music is likewise being neglected?

R.W. See the above answer!

I.L. Would it be possible to have a series on neglected conductors: Ashley Lawrence, Stanley Pope, Norman del Mar etc etc

R.W. We continue to broadcast a range of artists and consider all programme ideas. Thanks for the suggestion.

I.L. Please advise on the planned future use of the BBC tape library for repeat broadcasts

R.W.

When we repeat programmes we will obtain the programmes from the tape library – although we are now "tape free" in our current recordings.

I.L. There is a feeling that many 19th century British composers are being overlooked. More: German, Coleridge-Taylor, Coates and Wood etc and less Britten, Cage and Maxwell Davies, perhaps? Is BBC Radio 3 planning to commemorate the bicentenary of Balfe in 2008?

R.W.

We attempt to strike a balance in our output and our recent coverage of British symphonies has been warmly welcomed. We also always try and reflect significant anniversaries.

I.L. Additionally, contributors have asked if the following composers might have some or increased coverage: William Hurlstone, Alan Hovhaness and Allan Pettersson

R.W.

Thanks for the suggestions. I hope your contributors enjoyed Alan Hovhaness as Composer of the Week.

I.L. Would it be possible to have more downloads of studio broadcasts and available from the BBC Radio 3 web site server for longer

R.W.

This is a matter of regulation. The BBC Trust has ruled that the BBC should not offer downloads of classical music. This matter is currently out for public consultation.

I.L. Finally, some technical questions. One contributor feels: "The public is being softened up for Radio 3 to go digital, before other BBC radio channels, because it is cheaper to produce than analogue and I dispute the claim about purity because the compression involved in the process loses harmonics and downgrades quality with DAB." Another commented: "…I listened, for instance, to a 2006 Prom broadcast of the Shostakovich 8 and switched off before the end because of the poor sound quality, with so much compression there was no genuine fortissimo…Why is it that the new digital sound quality is so much worse than how FM used to be?"

Another contributor, a minority voice amongst us, contending the ability to distinguish between a ‘live’ relay and a recorded one, commented on the latter comment thus: "the problem of "bandwidth squeezing" could have something to do with it. If a "live" relay is transmitted at a high bit-rate, and a recorded one at a low bit-rate, there will be a difference. Of course, this will only apply to DAB. The whole point of variable bandwidth was supposed to be to optimise the traffic by transmitting (e.g.) speech-only programmes at a lower bit-rate, leaving more room for music programmes at higher bit-rates. The technicians know the relationship between bit-rate and sound-quality. If inappropriate bit-rates are being used,
somebody might be overruling the technicians? – cost-scrutinising accountants, perhaps?

Would you please let us have your comments

I.L. Finally: digital broadcasting might be cheaper to produce than analogue but doesn’t it use far more electrical power?

R.W. There were indeed problems with the coding on our DAB transmissions during the 2006 Proms for which we apologised and which were subsequently rectified. Radio 3 still broadcasts at a higher bit-rate than other BBC stations, although there are times when this bit-rate has to be reduced to accommodate other listeners’ desire to listen to other occasional BBC stations. We know from our market research that the majority of listeners have switched to digital radio for the choice of services.

The electricity (power) consumed by a DAB transmitter network to
deliver Radio 3 is substantially the same as delivering Radio 3 from a
FM transmitter network. On receivers, as we don't control the
manufacturers it is difficult to comment.

Thanks for your interest and questions.

March 2007

 

 


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