What’s on the radio?

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I believe BBC Radio 3 has lost sight of its purpose, which is to entertain the public, the BBC has become too concerned with its own self-importance.

The old BBC Third Programme (I am told) never was a music first channel, but an evenings-only channel dedicated to the arts, culture and the intellect. The predominance of music came with the daytime addition of the music programme in the 1960s.

The Reithian ideals of “educate and inform” are often recalled by critics of dumbing down, but in fact the BBC effectively abandoned them long ago in the interests of entertainment to win back TV audiences from ITV.

On television the result can be seen by comparing BBC2 today with what it was when David Attenborough was in charge. And on radio I think there’s been a similar shift away from subjects and values traditionally associated (rightly or wrongly) with white, middle-class male academics.

But towards what? There I think we encounter Radio 3’s identity problem. Unlike Radio 1, 2 and 4 it seems to lack a clear character and focus; it’s trying to please all of the people all of the time.

I have always thought the answer is to re-establish BBC Radio 3 as the channel of the intellect, and define its programmes in terms of how they serve that end.

The other point to make is that demographically the population is getting older, and (I’m guessing a little here) that will include a lot of radio listeners. It’s not so likely that those aged 16-24 (if there are any) form a large chunk of the (potential) listenership. Yet there seems to be this movement towards making BBC Radio 3 more accessible – but for whom? Of course it’s important not to be elitist or exclusive, but inclusiveness can sacrifice individuality. And without getting too dogmatic, if a programme (or a radio channel) is high quality and if it is unlike anything else it is more likely to attract new listeners. If it sounds like everything else, it won’t.

It’s a fair point that BBC Radio 3 would have to sabotage its programmes quite badly to turn people (and their radios) off, because its product is still highly distinctive and quality driven. Most of the complaints are about how they are pitched, the tone, the occasional trivialization, in case it becomes a more worrying trend.

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