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Roger Wright Roger Wright | 10:34 UK Time, Thursday, 17 May 2012

BBC Young Musician 2012, Laura van der Heijden

BBC Young Musician 2012, Laura van der Heijden. Photo: BBC

Discussions about awards and audiences remain fascinating to me. It has been a week of awards, ratings and audience figures.

Do we all feel a glow of satisfaction if something we like does well in audience terms and, admit it, an even warmer glow if there is something we don’t which doesn’t? And what do we think about something we don’t like which does well in ratings?

Look at the response to the BBC Young Musician competition last weekend compared to Britain’s Got Talent?  Those who admired the fantastic talent to be heard and seen on Young Musician seemed to cast scorn on those who watched the dog, Pudsey, act on BGT.  But we live in a complex world where subtle messages are hard to put across. Headlines about headline messages are so much easier to communicate, but there are more subtle things at play.

So it is with our classical music world – let’s celebrate the success of Young Musician and the arrival of the remarkable cellist Laura van der Heijden.

The Radio 3 audience has dipped a little this last quarter, a quarter which saw a non-stop Schubert celebration for eight days in March – but this is not a reason. Radio 3 audience figures do fluctuate around the 2m mark, and we had  a strong end to last year, but the amount of time that our listeners listen to us is up year on year –– audience figures are only one measure of our success.

Elsewhere this week the station picked up three Sony awards (gold, silver and bronze for a news feature Child of Ardoyne, a drama Use It or Lose It and Best Music Programme for In Tune, our drivetime programme) – a list which displays the range and distinctiveness of our programming.

 

Radio 3 producer Philip Tagney

Radio 3 producer Philip Tagney with the RPS Music Award for Creative Communications. Photo Simon Jay Price 

The Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards last week saw Radio 3 pick up the Creative Communication Award for our special series of contemporary music, 'Hear and Now 50'. This is not an initiative aimed at building large audiences but is absolutely at the heart of our station – if not here, where?

And last Saturday there were records broken on the first day of booking for this year’s BBC Proms – over 100,000 tickets sold in the day, up 13% on last year.

So success to celebrate, worrying trends or simply the normal response from us as individuals looking for like-minded folk to gather round to criticise or applaud our shared likes and dislikes?

We must never miss a chance to celebrate the range, quality  and distinctiveness of Radio 3 –  whatever the measure - and I’ll admit now that, much as I admired Pudsey, it is Laura’s career that I look forward to following in the years to come.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    "The Radio 3 audience has dipped a little this last quarter".

    Figures show it has now dropped over 15% in the last year. Some might say your words above attempt to mask the ongoing decline.

  • Comment number 2.

    "We must never miss a chance to celebrate the range, quality and distinctiveness of Radio 3 "


    We must never miss a chance to ponder whether our widely criticised new schedules had anything to do with the little plummet in our figures, either.

  • Comment number 3.

    A few thoughts on some of the fascinating questions raised above:

    "Do we all feel a glow of satisfaction if something we like does well in audience terms"

    I'd say this is true of most people, but not everyone. The intellectual snobbery of the meritocratic class is particularly odious, i.e. taking a perversely smug delight in obscurity for its own sake. You know the type...for the lack of a better term, the "nose hair and moth-eaten-cardigan set": shabby, crabby, and unpleasant to know.

    All of us are all-too-familiar with the kind of dour losers who are just bursting with glee to tell you they haven't have a television set for decades; who drone on at length about how they don't have the foggiest idea who the latest pop star du jour is, on and on ad nauseam. As if the value of a work of art lies in its being unpopular and obscure!

    Conversely, to assume that everything popular must be crap-- "dumbed-down mass-produced cultural commodities devoid of real meaning", etc. is every bit as problematic. Elitism is a blight which speaks to a narrow-minded lack of understanding and appreciation of works on their own terms, and is as much about fear of the unfamiliar as anything else. I'm reminded of a sobering quote from Dostoevsky's Underground Man: “...and now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something.” Ugh, what a horrible way to live--no thanks!

    "and, admit it, an even warmer glow if there is something we don’t which doesn’t?"

    Oh, I'm sure I would if only I didn't fit the paragraph above so well--in fact, a lot more closely than I'd ever care to admit in polite company. As Adorno once said, "The mote in your own eye is the best magnifying glass."

    "And what do we think about something we don’t like which does well in ratings?"

    It happens so often, most of the time I either ignore the whole scene completely and move on to something constructive, or feel terribly guilty and beat myself up for being such an insufferably elitist kill-joy, forcing myself to overcome my prejudices and see at least a little good in whatever I'm ready to trash-talk and dismiss out of hand.

    I don't know what I could possibly say about "Britain's Got Talent", other than remind the haters that this is basically our generation's version of the old Music Hall and vaudeville variety shows. When you think about dancing dogs in that context, it's suddenly a lot more understandable, if not palatable.

    Something to think about, at any rate.

  • Comment number 4.

    "Something to think about, at any rate."

    A great deal to think about, I'd say. And provoking even more thoughts.

    RW: "and, admit it, an even warmer glow if there is something we don’t which doesn’t?"

    I'm not sure that one gets a warm glow at all: more a sense that one does have a point, that there could possibly be some justification for disliking, say, the new Breakfast concept.

    Here's another view on what the latest figures might mean: http://www.for3.org/news/for3news/for3news.html#May17Th

    I think we have moved on from the time when 'snobs' *boasted* about not having television or not having heard of some pop star: the next stage is that they have to keep quiet about it because they're despised for their 'elitist' tastes.

    But hurrah for Radio 3 in covering the Young Musician competition. There appears to be a view that the television coverage was, again, dire.

  • Comment number 5.

    "I'm not sure that one gets a warm glow at all: more a sense that one does have a point, that there could possibly be some justification for disliking, say, the new Breakfast concept."

    I don't think it makes sense to have it both ways: either you reject populism and the idea of "public taste" or you don't. What sense is there in feeling vindicated by numbers when people agree with you, but dismiss them when they're not in your favour as "disingenuous spin" or chalking it up to the bad taste and low standards of those pesky new audiences?

    Face it: whinging about "slipping standards" is just another way of saying you think your personal tastes are better than everyone else's. Perhaps they are, but that's no way to make policy for a publicly-funded radio station in today's mind-blowingly subtle, complex musical environment.

    Just because a small handful of asocial bush-league pedants can't find value in fostering a sense of community through audience participation doesn't mean anything in the overall scheme of things. And carping about trails, tweets, and presenters being too cheerful while completely ignoring the station's very real achievements seems more than a bit off.

    "I think we have moved on from the time when 'snobs' *boasted* about not having television or not having heard of some pop star: the next stage is that they have to keep quiet about it because they're despised for their 'elitist' tastes."

    Well, I don't think we're fooling anybody. Keep it under wraps in public, but get a bunch of like-minded people together and all the prejudice comes tumbling out soon enough. And good grief-- have you read some of the threads your own forum lately? Not only is everyone over there glowing, they're practically gloating. For what it's worth, I never heard of Pudsey the Dog until I read this blog (yes, really!) and I didn't even have a TV until my friends got so sick of hearing me bash it they actually bought me one and paid for a cable subscription. Now I switch on when I'm doing my daily hour of cardio--which usually results in alternating between feeling guilty/grateful to have such friends, despairing for the state of humanity, berating myself for sardonically sneering down my nose, and navel-gazing over what the hell is wrong with me that I can't simply enjoy it like everyone else.

    Ah well, back to my Adorno. Better check my cardigans for moth holes, the Proms are coming. *rolls eyes*

  • Comment number 6.

    >> I don't think it makes sense to have it both ways: either you reject populism and the idea of "public taste" or you don't.

    No, that isn't the case. One can take the view 'to each his own' - which does imply that somewhere - like Radio 3 - there should be something other than 'populism' and 'public taste'. Surely? That doesn't imply any sort of judgement on the tastes of others, and no sort of judgement on the people who have different tastes.

    >> have you read some of the threads your own forum lately

    They are just Radio 3 listeners 'having their say'. There's a clear division of opinion. One group is having its choices diminished, the other is having choices extended. Now, guess which ones are likely to be 'whingeing'!

  • Comment number 7.

    "One can take the view 'to each his own' - which does imply that somewhere - like Radio 3 - there should be something other than 'populism' and 'public taste'. Surely?"

    But that's exactly my point: when you ask for something beyond "public taste", it all boils down to asking for YOUR taste, i.e. the taste of the demographic who'd prefer the station as it was in 1971. But as the Controller said above, it's a complex world with subtle things at play-- and honestly? At the end of the day, some people are bound to be unhappy. At least they're trying to move the station forward and appear to be doing their best in an extremely difficult-- almost impossible--environment.

    As amateurs with little more than a sense of "how things should be" to back us up, we simply aren't qualified to dictate policy from a vacuum. Expecting one person's opinion to be given weight beyond that of any other of the two million listeners simply isn't warranted. And I might remind you that if they'd sold out to public taste completely, there wouldn't even be a "Hear and Now", original drama, the Schubert festival, Young Musician, any of it. Anything other than enjoying what you like and letting the rest go seems a colossal waste of time (and possibly counterproductive).

    "They are just Radio 3 listeners 'having their say'. There's a clear division of opinion. One group is having its choices diminished, the other is having choices extended. Now, guess which ones are likely to be 'whingeing'!"

    When three-quarters of the people surveyed didn't listen to the Schubert festival, but were content to sit around rubbishing it while making scummy, juvenile personal attacks on presenters and management, it really makes one wonder.

  • Comment number 8.

    >> But that's exactly my point: when you ask for something beyond "public taste", it all boils down to asking for YOUR taste

    Not really. There are many things that fall within Radio 3's remit that would not be to my taste; in fact plenty of classical music that isn't to my taste; plenty of individual programmes that aren't to my taste. That isn't the issue: a Radio 3 which appealed to my personal tastes 24 hours of the day would be seriously falling down on its remit commitments.

    The point is: how well will the BBC cater for minority tastes which (the clue is in the word) only appeal to small sections of the public?

    Instead of thinking of it in terms of audiences ('popular' or 'elitist', who likes what and who wants what, adults and cildren), why not think of it in terms of content? With a wide range of television channels, an even wider range of radio stations and more than £3.5bn to play with, what proportion should be allocated to the serious arts, presented by 'acknowledged experts' (to use a phrase from Radio 2's (that's Radio Two's) service licence), and directed towards anyone who wishes to develop an in-depth appreciation?

    You say: "if they'd sold out to public taste completely, there wouldn't even be a "Hear and Now", original drama, the Schubert festival, Young Musician, any of it."

    But all we know is the direction in which things are moving; we have no idea how far it will go. With Radio 1 getting a 38% rise in budget over this Charter period and Radio 3 getting 13% it's hard to see how they can possibly keep up standards of excellence. But those are chosen radio priorities, not necessities (Radio 2 gets a 32% rise, Radio 4 - 34%): the money is there, it's just going to the services with the highest audiences - remember we're talking about percentage rises here, not the amount of money, so it's the balance which is shifting towards popular culture/entertainment.

    Forget about 1971, or the Third Programme, or the Golden Age: we're talking about now and the gradual encroachment of popular entertainment into all services and an increasing percentage of the available money. What's wrong with trying to defend serious cultural programming?

  • Comment number 9.

    "Instead of thinking of it in terms of audiences ('popular' or 'elitist', who likes what and who wants what, adults and children), why not think of it in terms of content?"

    The idea that somehow the BBC should--or ever would--even *consider* divorcing content from audiences in the 21st century is simply untenable. All broadcast programming presupposes a defined audience: just throwing it out there without regard to who's listening is a 100% guaranteed recipe for failure. Just how few listeners could Radio 3 have each quarter that you'd still find an acceptable use of public funds? Whatever it is, I'm sure it's infinitely less than those from the Trust--and everyone in the real world holding the purse strings.

    "The point is: how well will the BBC cater for minority tastes which (the clue is in the word) only appeal to small sections of the public?"

    Again, the bottom line is you want the BBC to cater to your small section of the public: "serious special people with serious special interests" in a style you don't find annoying--no audience interaction, no social media, no superfluous chatter. If Radio 3 is to fulfill its educational remit, it needs to take into account the way people consume media and listen to music today before they can even have a hope of reaching them. It's an enormously complex problem, and simply saying "longer pieces and no texts, tweets, and chat at drivetime" isn't going to help anything.

    With the BBC itself under attack and facing extreme pressures from commercial interests, everything they do has to demonstrate value for money and relevance to the British public at large. The bitter truth is you and I simply aren't part of a demographic that's considered particularly valuable, relevant or interesting. Now I'm sure the Party Line would be quick to counter with "oh no, all our listeners are tremendously valuable and we desperately care SO VERY MUCH about your input and feedback" but I think we both know that's a bunch of [expletive deleted]. Unpleasant, but something to keep in mind unless you're willing to spend all your time tilting at windmills.

    In the past, you've characterized this debate as a matter of idealism versus pragmatism. All I can say is that, based on everything I've ever experienced in the music industry, there's no escaping the fact that pragmatism wins every time. But the fact that Radio 3 is still producing a tremendous amount of quality content speaks to a more nuanced, principled strategy--balancing the needs of competing interests in a tremendously difficult environment-- than you seem to be willing to give them credit for.

  • Comment number 10.

    Perhaps some of your audience is now streaming your service. I live in the USA and certainly am. I have given up on NPR and its minions for classical music service. Kindest regards and thanks for being a bastion of intelligence and good taste

  • Comment number 11.

    >>The bitter truth is you and I simply aren't part of a demographic that's considered particularly valuable, relevant or interesting. Now I'm sure the Party Line would be quick to counter with "oh no, all our listeners are tremendously valuable and we desperately care SO VERY MUCH about your input and feedback" but I think we both know that's a bunch of [expletive deleted]. Unpleasant, but something to keep in mind unless you're willing to spend all your time tilting at windmills.


    Well, I think you're the one trying to have it both ways :-)


    >>But the fact that Radio 3 is still producing a tremendous amount of quality content speaks to a more nuanced, principled strategy--balancing the needs of competing interests in a tremendously difficult environment-- than you seem to be willing to give them credit for.

    You seem to contradict yourself. Are they the bad guys or the good guys? Cynical or principled?

    I think they have the money and the outlets to be both popular/populist and cultural patrons. Too much is at stake for them to pursue the first and progressively abandon the second. Giving people 'what they want' has little to do with education.

  • Comment number 12.

    "You seem to contradict yourself. Are they the bad guys or the good guys? Cynical or principled?"

    Excellent question. I suppose in a "a complex world with subtle things at play", there's enough room for all these qualities in the same person at the same time, isn't there? Good, bad, cynical, principled: I'd almost say that's the definition of being a complex, subtle person in a complex, subtle world. And that's okay. Maybe because I live with so many contradictions in my own character I'm sensitized to noticing them in others.

    I think William James was right when he said "a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind". But who is someone, really, when nobody's looking? That's not for you or me to say. All we can do is have enough empathy to avoid our prejudices getting the better of us, blacking up the grey, and turning complicated people in impossible situations into comic book villains when they really don't deserve it at all.

    "I think they have the money and the outlets to be both popular/populist and cultural patrons. Too much is at stake for them to pursue the first and progressively abandon the second. Giving people 'what they want' has little to do with education."

    True--but all the same, you can't educate people who never switched on. I seriously doubt anyone thinks the new programming abandons their role as cultural patron; quite the contrary. The UK isn't what it was 40 years ago, and it's very much a matter of "evolve or die." Even more importantly, what would musical life in the UK be without the BBC orchestras, commissions, regional concerts and choral groups? A sobering thought indeed, and all the more reason to tread carefully.

    I know you don't set much stock in the idea of radio as fostering a sense of community among its listeners--but I think if you'd listened to the Schubert festival for any length of time, you might have come away with a better sense of why so many people thought it was so uplifting and extraordinary.

    In my opinion, the scholars, presenters and writers did an excellent job of immersing the audience in Schubert's worldview: covering him from so many angles--musically, historically, personally--that they really brought him to life for people who never had the chance to learn about him in depth. Sure, it occasionally veered toward the hokey, but overall, it was a bold move that left a lasting mark in the lives of listeners who connected with the station as never before.

    It's easy to lose sight of the value in something you never experienced yourself, but it's definitely worth considering. And yet another reason I try to hold off on being judgmental as best I can.

  • Comment number 13.

    I'll be selective - not that you make any point that I'm anxious to avoid, but life is short ...

    >>all the same, you can't educate people who never switched on.

    This is why I find it puzzling that such cultural programming is largely limited to Radio 3. I have no problem at all with a programme like Maestro at the Opera. On BBC Two, it's educational to that audience, but it's a one-off. The BBC has proved that they can do this type of programme successfully: why not provide them for the millions watching television, rather than the thousands listening to Radio 3? But then, I have a concept of the most interested people 'moving on' to Radio 3 for something more critical and serious - something which is gradually disappearing from Radio 3's schedule (Discovering Music shortened and downgraded, Jazz Library replaced by a CD sequence).

    Then again, however much you may praise the Schubert festival, you can't get away from the fact that it was only on for 8 days in a year. The big blast and then the schedule sinks back into its norm of routine formula programming. The drama? Yes, the drama: some excellent plays and then weeks or months of repeats or undistinguished works. If you don't keep up the standard, you lose the audience.

    I'm looking not just at how things are but where they seem to be going. The BBC still praises the 'range' of what Radio 3 covers but this becomes less and less convincing. And where is the depth? Taliban poetry merits an entire programme not a 10-minute glance; the Grosse Fuge or Liszt sonata need at least the 45 minutes they would have had even five years ago, not a brief interval talk; a Jazz File series? - gone.

    The new morning programmes have one advantage: they're cheap to produce. And that's why I'm deeply suspicious of the (apparently) mammoth cuts in Radio 3's budget compared with the popular stations. It doesn't really argue any sort of 'principled strategy' other than to push more and more money into the services which will attract big audiences.

    Not so much 'Evolve or die' as 'Evolve and die'.

  • Comment number 14.

    "Not so much 'Evolve or die' as 'Evolve and die'."

    If they never change anything, commercial interests are going to lobby hard to portray them as irrelevant, outdated and elitist. In the current climate, the dreaded e-word is the ultimate kiss of death--so what choice do they have other than to try to strike a balance? It's a near-impossible situation, and I see no reason not assume they're doing the best they can.

    "This is why I find it puzzling that such cultural programming is largely limited to Radio 3."

    I think it has everything to do with the nature of television itself. I know we can't include links here, but if you search Twitter (yes, really!) for "The Commodification Of Culture And Its Implications For The Television Industry" you'll find an excellent article I linked for friends a few weeks ago.

    "I'm looking not just at how things are but where they seem to be going."

    Fine, but you can't divorce what's happening at Radio 3 from what's happening to society at large. Have you had a look at what's become of the classical recording industry over the last ten years? The current state of orchestral management? Music education in the UK? On and on. These are the kind of concerns people who've spent their entire careers working in the music business are going to be all-too-aware of, and I'd be incredibly surprised to hear it isn't filtering into the decision-making process.

  • Comment number 15.

    P.S: I just noticed the Twitter link only comes up if you search with an ampersand: "The Commodification Of Culture & Its Implications For The Television Industry". Hope that helps!

  • Comment number 16.

    I don't disagree with anything you say in your Msg #14, and the situation as you portray it. The difference lies in attitude:

    1. That's the way things are, nothing to be done about it, live with it.

    2. It is not a good way for things to go and should be challenged.

    If the BBC isn't powerful enough to withstand commercial pressures of this kind, it doesn't deserve to survive at all - and once it is driven entirely by those pressures it probably won't.

  • Comment number 17.

    "It is not a good way for things to go and should be challenged."

    Well, I'm not sure how showing up to poke the Controller about an ambiguous dip in the ratings accomplishes anything.

    Even if the BBC is beyond hope, when it comes to "making a difference", perhaps the most direct way to express idealism is to volunteer for Music in the Schools programs which introduce children to great works. Why not work to break down noxious stereotypes and change society one person at a time? To the extent that anything positive is happening at all, that's where most of the real change appears to be. So let's hear it for the Young Musician program.

    Which brings me back to my original point: judgmentally kicking back, sneering, and picking holes in other people's creative efforts is the easiest thing in the world. It's all fine and good to consume great music, literature and art, but what are we actually PRODUCING? In a sense, having "high standards" can become a devastating cop-out, poisoning your will and paralyzing you with the fear of mediocrity. And while the unexamined life isn't worth living, what of the over-examined life? Ugh. From my perspective, "complain less, create more" appear to be words to live by.

    Nice talking to you--though I have a sneaking feeling we're the only ones still reading this (apart from the social media people, who wish we'd both jump off a cliff). :(

  • Comment number 18.

    >>Well, I'm not sure how showing up to poke the Controller about an ambiguous dip in the ratings accomplishes anything.

    Please, sir, he started it :o): I merely responded. Meanwhile, you creative types must create, we analytical types must analyse.

    Yes, nice to have spoken. It looks as if we are now completely buried under shovel loads of pictures, never to be heard of again ...........

  • Comment number 19.

    By far the most significant fact about Radio 3 in 2012 (as against Radio 3 in the 80s when I started listening, or the station as we might expect it to be) is that it still plays 'the best' classical music.

    By 'the best' I mean the music that the programmers consider to be the best--which will have some relation to what informed critical opinion and the most 'discerning' public think is top-drawer.

    This music isn't always introduced in a manner that's consistent with how it was thirty years ago, but if (say) a young string quartet sponsored as BBC Young Artists wanted to perform a Bartok cycle, I don't think they wouldn't be pushed towards Mendelssohn.

    As I see it, the BBC Young Musician of the Year and Pudsey the dog were successful because they aroused similar feelings: pleasure in their excellence (in their very different fields) and sympathetic benevolence because the performers were so young.

    It's very heartening for me to read Roger Wright saying that audience figures aren't the only measures of success for Radio 3. All he needs to do, in my opinion, is to assemble a diverse range of programme makers and tell them to go out and make absolutely the best programmes they can.

 

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