Roger Wright, Controller, Radio 3

Date: 09.06.2010     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.01

Speech given at the PPL Annual General Meeting
Wednesday 9 June 2010

Check against delivery

Good morning.

Thanks for your kind invitation to be with you today.

Being here, selfishly, also takes me away for a few hours from those supportive bits of communication which seem to have landed on the desks of Controllers of Radio 3 and its predecessor the Third Programme ever since its first days in 1946.

It is a huge privilege to be the keeper of the Radio 3 keys and so it was with great pride that I walked into my office on the day that I took over to find a batch of correspondence on my desk. Good luck messages from well wishes no doubt – or so I thought.

On a postcard was my first communication from an adoring member of the public – written in capital letters it read: "Dear Mr Wright, You clearly don't know what you are doing. There is too much singing. Get lost."

With the BBC's celebration of opera currently in full swing I dread to think what that correspondent might now write.

By the way, when the Daily Telegraph, which has written that there's too little opera on the BBC yesterday, wrote that there is now too much it proves that, as a public service broadcaster, you really can't win.

But I was pleased to receive that first "get lost" postcard. Why?

Because it showed, as does so much of the debate about radio stations, that our audiences care – and they feel passionately about BBC radio and what they rightly regard as their stations.

In particular, it also shows that they care about music. You may not enjoy some of the personal criticism but above all you want audiences to love music with such a passion. We live in a time when institutions are not particularly loved but what they offer is often still appreciated. The NHS and the BBC are just examples of two institutions which suffer from this current anti-institution outlook – but the principles behind the organisations and what they offer is still universally admired.

Crucially, the public still has a strong sense of connection to what is offered by the BBC – audience approval is high – and we want our audiences to feel a real ownership of our programming. As one listener wrote to me recently: "I think you have an anti-Handel policy. I wonder if this is the case. Please reply and let me know where I stand."

So I did.

You know how diverse and how fragmented our media consumption has become. In this environment the collective agreement between the PPL and the BBC is vital in order to build in the necessary cost-effective and time-effective creativity at the heart of the relationship between our two organisations. The forward looking nature of this agreement gives real benefits to members and audiences alike.

Another example of a beneficial relationship is that between the Royal Opera House and the BBC in which the publicly funded opera house can makes its productions available to an audience of millions, free at the point of use, through a public service broadcaster with an ongoing commitment to full-length opera.

But it is the fragmentation of the media and audiences which forces us – or should force us – to re-state some of the important principles by which our musical and wider cultural world should be governed. They are for me: the support of live performance, new work and quality.

I'd also like to suggest that we should put celebration higher on our list of priorities too. Indeed, we have much in the world of music to celebrate.

We live in a time when there is a more abundant wealth of compositional talent in this country than at any other time in our history – and the quality of British performing musicians is too often taken for granted. We are also fortunate indeed to have a really creative set of friends and colleagues in the recording industry who continue to produce important recordings that help sustain and promote these composers and artists.

Partnership, as was once waspishly suggested, is what the BBC does to you – in fact we now have a different approach to partnerships.

Radio 3 has a genuine two-way partnership with the recording industry – for example, by our broadcasting of the recently created specialist classical music chart, our special composers seasons and our independent reviewer recommendations, we know that Radio 3 creates a powerfully positive market impact with increased sales as a direct result of our broadcasting initiatives. The BBC Trust is currently reviewing Radio 3's service licence and I am looking forward to our discussions with the Trust about how we need to keep with the times and deliver our station's unique output by the digital means which our audiences now expect from audio providers.

The current success of the A-Z of opera downloads in our drivetime programme In Tune is just one example of the audience hunger for consuming our output when they want and how they want – any time, any place, anywhere – sadly Martini Radio 3 is still a long way off.

It is performers and composers who are the lifeblood of our musical existence. It is ironic therefore that composers struggle to survive here and it is a miracle that we still have so many fine musicians who continue to produce such high quality work with little or no rehearsal time as the economy dictates.

The schemes that, for example, Arts Council England brought in to stabilise orchestral funding are to be applauded but I fear that amid the plethora of strategy papers, policy reviews and organisational psychologists we might lose sight of the obvious – namely, celebrating the achievements of our composers and performers and putting in place the necessary support structures to sustain them.

That is why at Radio 3 we chose to be the most significant commissioner of new music in the world – that's why the BBC still has five orchestras and the BBC Singers on its staff at a cost of £28 million – yes, of course it is the unique funding formula of the licence fee that gives us that possibility – but it's essential to remember the value of this cultural patronage that is vital to our cultural economy – essential too that we remember the value of this level of investment, not just its cost. Without that investment there would not be a full time symphony orchestra in Wales – or indeed in Northern Ireland – and there wouldn't be a full time professional choir in the UK either.

And it's not just Radio 3 of course. Radios 1 and 2 are also committed to programming with real public value – whether it is the BBC Introducing scheme in which thousands of bands have participated and had their unsigned material uploaded and heard by Radio 1 staff – or the search that soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has been carrying out to find a new singing star who will be unveiled by Kiri at the Proms In The Park.

The BBC Proms is another example of investment in our musical life. I know you know all this – but there are still many in our audiences who don't know that the BBC funds and runs the Proms – and has done since 1927 – they think the BBC just broadcasts them. A festival of the Proms' size and scale, reaching tens of millions of people and committed to new work and distinctive programming would be unthinkable without that financial support.

The Proms costs almost nine million pounds and requires a subsidy of over five and a half million in order to keep the quality high and tickets prices low. That subsidy is provided by the licence fee and allows the Proms heritage of linking accessibility and quality to continue, with every Prom live on Radio 3 and three times the number of televised Proms compared to only ten years ago – in fact for the first time this year five BBC TV channels – One, Two, Three, Four and HD will feature the Proms, including BBC Two in prime time every Saturday night.

Being both popular and distinctive are not mutually exclusive.

It is also possible for BBC radio and commercial radio to work together – for example in the promotion of digital radio or in offering – as do Radio 3 and Classic FM – entirely complementary services.

There is though, in all our activities, a necessity for re-invention. Standing still is not an option. It's more likely than ever that if you stay in the middle of the road you'll get knocked over. Simply because organisations (for example performing groups, music colleges, venues, festivals, funding bodies or radio stations) have existed for a number of years does not mean they have a right to continue as they have since they were founded, their work unchallenged. In a climate of cultural change we need to be flexible and ready to adapt to new environments and audiences tastes. And we need to be ready to take hard decisions about the importance of their work based on real value to the community. Not just on nostalgic sympathies.

So there are tough decisions ahead – the BBC Trust has those now as it weighs up some of the BBC management proposals about the future of BBC radio.

The debate is a passionate one and that, as I said, is all to the good. Music (and often music on the radio) is the emotional backdrop to our lives.

In these stressful days, music has a power to relax us all but it can also do much more – it can console and stimulate us. As the pianist Stephen Hough wrote recently: "at moments of acute joy or sorrow, men and women throughout history have sung or reached for musical instruments to express the inexpressible. When minds are taut with emotional entanglement, there seems to be an inner compulsive instinct to release and harness this tension through the measured vibrations in the air that we call music. Isn't an orchestra a good example of the most melodious coalition? Up to a hundred personalities sitting within the proximity of a poking bow or spitting mouthpiece, each with their own heartfelt ideas, are forced to put aside their egos for the sake of a greater good."

That working together for a common greater good can be heard this Sunday on Radio 3. I hope you'll be able to listen to the BBC's Big Concert – in which, for the first time, all the performing groups will broadcast live from concerts across the UK – ten hours of live music – more than 400 musicians in six cities.

I also hope that the message of what music uniquely means to us all and its symbol of partnership and the need for mutual trust and respect will resonate and never make us call into question its value.

Thank you again for inviting me today and for the work that you do to help sustain in such a vital way the richness of our musical life.

Thank you.