Hooked On Classics

All comparisons are odious, but there is none more odious, among some sections of the Radio 3 audience, than Classic FM. It is the ultimate shorthand of complaint. Whenever Roger Wright, Radio 3’s controller, makes a change, he can guarantee the words “Classic FM” will pop up. Classic, to some Radio 3 listeners, stands for background music, rather than listening, which requires active concentration and stops you in your tracks.

What Classic FM makes of being seen as some kind of diabolical other we will return to. But the comparison cropped up again when Wright first unveiled this week’s “refreshed” schedule, with the aim of increasing “listener interaction” and “personal relevance”. These apparently innocuous phrases were immediately decoded by critics on the Friends of Radio 3 website as “drive-time disc spinning” and “stomach-churning phone-ins”. Even the title of the first new programme, Essential Classics, hosted by Rob Cowan and scheduled at 9am, rang alarm bells.

Presumably, critics fear “listener interaction” because they don’t want to be reminded of their fellow listeners. That’s understandable, yet on Friday’s Breakfast show “Your Call”, where listeners explain what certain music means to them, the letter from a father explaining why Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2 reminded him of his daughter had me in tears.

Nor should “personal relevance” necessarily mean dumbing down. On Essential Classics, it came in the form of Marcus du Sautoy who was interesting on the parallels between maths and music. He was not very good at arithmetic, he confessed, but discovering maths was “like the change between being able to do your scales and playing music.” He is a fellow of New College Oxford where “every night there’s a concert going on. It’s extraordinary!” Well there is on Radio 3 too, thanks to Roger Wright’s innovation this year.

On the subject of maths, it’s unavoidable to note that Classic FM has 5.7 million listeners, compared to 2.2 million for Radio 3. Unlike Radio 4, which has no direct competitor, Classic’s existence does provide a point of comparison, albeit crude, for Radio 3. Even if the BBC ignores that, others don’t and the question of whether and how to respond to that has to be faced. The fact is, in a world of infinite distraction, all radio needs to shout louder to draw attention to itself.

Hence, the fashion for “event radio”, which can be heard all next week on Radio 4 in the eight-hour adaptation of Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece. In a plan hatched four years ago by Mark Damazer, then controller, the epic portrayal of the struggle between Nazism and Stalinism will occupy all drama slots on the network except The Archers. The cluster of programming around it included a Radio 3 Night Waves interview with the magnificent Kenneth Branagh, who plays the central role of Viktor Shtrum and Start the Week, which discussed Grossman’s experience as one of the first journalists into Treblinka. “They allowed him to sit in on the interrogation of captured guards and that is something all historians long for,” said Antony Beevor. Linda Grant explained how the novel is suffused with “a torment and tragedy about the relationship between sons and mothers” fuelled by the enduring guilt Grossman felt over his mother’s death at the hands of the Nazis. From what I’ve heard, I strongly recommend it.

On the eve of 9/11, John Humphrys did a superb Today interview with Tony Blair, which ran so long so you could just picture the people in the gallery tearing up all the other items and waving away guests. It ran so close to the clock I thought it was going to crash the pips. Those moments you stop in your tracks are what radio is for, just as much as being essential background to everyday life.