Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

The mutilation of Radio 3

The station’s controller, Sam Jackson, has butchered the schedules by cynically moving the highbrow output to the cheap seats

Radio 3 presenter Tom Service is a terrific writer so why is he being forced to talk drivel on Saturday mornings? Photo: Amy T. Zielinski / Redferns

On Saturday 12 December 1964, Harold Wilson addressed his first Labour party conference as prime minister, George Harrison was photographed with his new girlfriend in the Bahamas, Pope Paul VI told Catholics they could drink alcohol ‘in moderation’ before Midnight Mass and, according to the Mirror, ‘two strip-tease girls fought in the nude in their dressing room after finishing their fan dance at a night club’.

The station has become little more than a Spotify playlist interrupted by the disc-jockey burbling

It was also the day that Record Review arrived in its Saturday morning slot on the BBC’s Third Programme, now Radio 3. And there it remained. During the Three-Day Week, the Falklands, the mourning of Diana and the post-9/11 panic, music lovers could find solace in the programme and especially ‘Building a Library’, a magisterial evaluation of rival recordings of a particular work.

Until this month, that is. Record Review and its presenter for 25 years, Andrew McGregor, have been moved to the dead air of Saturday afternoon, which I know isn’t such a big deal when you can listen to Radio 3 programmes any time you like. But the symbolism matters, and look what has replaced it: Saturday Morning, presented by Tom Service. To quote the publicity for the first episode on 6 April: ‘As well as a fantastic classical music playlist, there will be news reports and short features including a new bite-size feature where Tom and guests unpack the answers to questions you’ve always wanted to ask. This week, Tom asks why music gives us goosebumps.’

‘Unpack’ is a favourite word of Sam Jackson, Radio 3 controller since last year and previously head of Classic FM, Smooth and Gold. He has meticulously tweaked Saturday Morning to maximise market share while satisfying the cravings of the BBC’s diversity dinosaur, which has a tail-thrashing seizure if it doesn’t receive its fix of crossover. Warning: if you’re catching up with last Saturday’s episode on BBC Sounds, hit the pause button at 30 minutes or you’ll hear Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’ in the style of an evensong motet. I nearly threw up.

Fortunately that crooning atrocity wasn’t typical of the ‘playlist’. There were some well-chosen novelties: a mandolin concerto by Barbella, a movement from Valerie Coleman’s Shot Gun Houses and Widor’s Introduction and Rondo. In the last two the soloist was the clarinettist Anthony McGill, who was live in the studio. Cue one of the horrors of Radio 3: the guest interview in which a musician exclusively reveals that he or she loves a certain piece and then describes some diversity/crossover/accessibility project while the presenter purrs their approval. I think we were encouraged to get excited about four such projects during the course of the morning.

And the segues! Here’s Service filling the gap between a Brandenburg Concerto and a Chopin Nocturne: ‘It just sounds so contemporary, doesn’t it? And that’s the time-travelling power of all the fantastic performances I’ve got for you this morning. Like this one, a dream [voice goes dreamy] of another world…’ Service is a terrific writer, so I can’t believe that’s his real voice. I’m not so sure about Jess Gillam, presenter of This Classical Life, who last week informed us that Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique contains ‘one of the best grooves that has ever been written – the groove is off the scale’. And this while talking over the music.

Not everyone is guilty: I remember my late friend Cormac Rigby, head of presentation during the station’s golden era, telling me 20 years ago that young Petroc Trelawny had discovered the secret of informal delivery, and so he has. But Jackson has increased the waffle quotient, conveying the message that classical music must apologise for being itself. Jazz, too: I’d assumed that Earlier… with Jools Holland, at noon on Saturday, would cater for hardcore jazz fans as Jazz Record Requests does. But no sooner had we heard Fats Waller’s ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ than we were listening to one of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, of all things. Duke Ellington’s ‘Things Ain’t What They Used to Be’ (you can say that again) was followed by the sub-Mendelssohnian note-spinning of Louise Farrenc’s First Symphony. To his credit, Holland didn’t attempt contrived links; he just sounded miserable at having to work his way through this random smorgasbord.

The latest butchering of the schedules makes matters worse because Radio 3 is cynically moving its self-confidently highbrow output – Composer of the Week as well as Record Review – to the cheap seats. Meanwhile it has allocated its front row to Friday Night is Music Night, the pride of Radio 2 and the Light Programme for more than 70 years. And it doesn’t see the irony that, while bellyaching about cuts to music funding, it’s enforcing its own deadly cuts by reducing the serious presentation of classical music to the point where Radio 3 is little more than a Spotify playlist interrupted by disc-jockey burbling.

The groove is indeed off the scale. Back in 1992, Classic FM filled a gap in the market for light classics. Now that Radio 3 is irreversibly committed to the same formula, only with added finger-wagging, is there any chance that someone will launch a burble-free station doing what it used to do so brilliantly and unobtrusively?

Watch Damian Thompson and Igor Toronyi–Lalic discuss more on Spectator TV: