70 years young: Radio 3, still pioneering new music and new ways to enjoy it

Controller, BBC Radio 3

This year, as many of you know, Radio 3 reaches a landmark, that of 70 years since the founding of the BBC Third Programme, our predecessor.

We still have many of the same values as those of 1946, for seven decades we’ve been pioneering in bringing great culture and music to people and enabling them to engage in depth and to discover new things. In our DNA is a continuing habit of bold, ambitious distinctive programming, showcasing and developing new talent, trialing the new, and commissioning works that become a part of the fabric of culture in this country today and that’s why we’re claiming this anniversary to celebrate the whole of Radio 3 its history and its future.

Among our anniversary plans, are a two week partnership with Southbank Centre, 'Sound Frontiers', where we run the network from a glass box in the Festival Hall, and a renewed effort to bring new talent and new work to our audiences.

Alan Davey with Jude Kelly, Artistic Director, Southbank Centre launching Sound Frontiers: Radio 3 Live at Southbank Centre

Over 70 days, from our anniversary on Thursday 29th September, we’ll be supporting both existing and new talent, from poetry to new music. For instance, in order to bring new music to more people we have teamed with Sound and Music to embed composer Matthew Kaner in our output - he'll be composing a new piece every week for the next 70 days, music that will be heard on Radio 3 Breakfast. The first Collide was premiered on Tuesday 26th September.

We’re also showcasing new poets in Three Score and Ten, a journey through the archives of our poetry output which sees greats like Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas and W H Auden reading their own work through to new works from poets like Alice Oswald, Simon Armitage and Liz Lochhead creating new poems for us. There's much more, as you'll see from some TV trails showcasing work we have commissioned which begin to be shown on Friday 30th September.

In tandem with our experimental content creation spirit, what many might not realise is our relentless commitment to quality sound. Classical music is so complex and wonderful in its sound makeup we need to translate that experience in a concert hall for audiences at home so they can feel immersed in the performance. Radio drama by the same token is such an intimate art form, that sound quality can really add to and enhance that experience. The Third programme was the first in this country to broadcast in stereo, Radio 3 experimented with quadrophonic, and to date we are proud of the HD 320 kps HD uncompressed sound we give listeners online, and we are looking to see if there are practical ways of taking this quality even further if this offers an advantage to the listener.

We have previously broadcast the BBC Proms in HD sound and quality surround sound, but this summer we’ve been undertaking some very exciting trials in binaural recordings. It’s the first time we have recorded the proms in binaural and the signs are good. Some early data back from the trials is encouraging, with over half of all who tried it giving it 5 stars – which means it was in the top 10% of all BBC Research & Development sound pilots to date and the people rating it was double the average for BBC sound trials. All of this means our audience love the technology. It shows our audience are hungry to have the best quality audio.

Music isn’t the only space we are experimenting, next week our evening of Beckett plays which will be broadcast as part of our 70th anniversary season on Sunday 2nd October featuring Ian Mckellan and Stephen Rea is one such broadcast. The plays will give an insight into the development of Beckett’s style and approach to sound, and it felt an appropriate thing to use truly immersive sound for, through binaural. Tom Parnell will give you a taster later. We’re also broadcasting in binaural as part of our anniversary, some J.G. Ballard mini dramas which air as Between Ballard’s Ears, the plays have been adapted by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Brian Sibley.

You’ll also see further developments in how we reach new audiences in new platforms, with more shareable content being developed that will present our output in different ways, using the BBC music app and other new technology in the pipeline. Then we are looking at how we use technology in different ways to enhance the experience of a live classical concert. So the BBC Philharmonic are launching a series of nine free concerts, something only the BBC could do with its fantastic performing groups, in a collaboration with Salford University and BBC Research & Development, which will present a different way of experiencing a concert. The concerts will also be broadcast on Radio 3.

Using ground-breaking new technology from BBC Research and Development, the concerts will create a more immersive musical experience for audiences both in the venue and across the country. The performance and interval discussion will feature in an enhanced live video stream online, which will enable the audience to delve closer into the orchestra, receive synced information about the music and even view a live orchestral score. The concert audience are invited to bring their mobiles and tablet with them to access this information whilst they enjoy the performance. The performances will all be streamed live online and will be available for 30 days after broadcast. We know we have a discerning audience who care not only about what we play but also about the way they hear it, how they experience it and how easy it is to hear it.

Radio 3 presenters celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Third Programme, the predecessor of BBC Radio 3, on Thursday 29 September. L-R: Lopa Kothari, Sara Mohr-Pietsch, Max Reinhardt, Tom Service, Katie Derham, Petroc Trelawny, Sean Rafferty.

What we really celebrate this autumn, is not just about 70 years of the third programme or even how it became Radio 3, but what we celebrate is a pioneering spirit. A place and suite of experiences, funded by the licence fee, that allows everyone opportunities to understand humanity through pioneering music and culture - even nineteenth century music was shocking once.

As long as we continue to push frontiers both in commissioning and sound development, then we’ll be doing our job right for the next 70 years and continuing to enhance lives up and down the country.

Alan Davey is Controller of BBC Radio 3.


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