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40 Years of Radio 3

Radio 3 controllers - Howard Newby, Stephen Hearst, John Drummond, Nicholas Kenyon, Roger Wright

Then and Now – 40 years of Radio 3

The current celebrations signal the metamorphosis of the BBC's 'Third Programme' into 'BBC Radio 3'; the BBC's cultural network (which was created in 1946, and broadcast alongside the 'Home Service' and the 'Light Programme') was renamed as part of a realignment of BBC radio channels in September 1967: the Home Service became Radio 4, the Light Programme, Radio 2, and a new popular music network – Radio 1 – was added.

The Third Programme celebrated its own 60th anniversary in 2006 – you can visit the specially-created website marking the occasion at Radio3 - The Third Programme. In it you'll find a wealth of sound files from the archive; you can hear some of the people who laid the foundations of the Third Programme talking about their aspirations and ambitions for the network.

In the early days, Radio 3 broadcast sport and educational material; confusingly, Radio 3 was an 'umbrella' title under which sheltered separate strands called 'Music Programme', 'Sport Service' and 'Third Programme' – today's listeners might therefore be rather surprised by the schedule for its first day - Saturday 30 September, 1967. The Radio 3 day began as late as 8am with news, followed by Record Review introduced by John Lade. The first female voice on Radio 3 was the critic and piano expert Joan Chissell discussing 'Some recent records' as part of that programme; Charles Osborne followed Chissell (a long-standing contributor who died in January 2007 at the age of 87) with a Building a Library feature on Schumann's song cycle, Dichterliebe; so far, so familiar. But after the 9am news, Saturday morning breakfast listeners had to knuckle down to a serious Mozart opera, helpfully translated as 'The Clemency of Titus.' This was a BBC recording: a little 'S' in the margin of the Radio Times indicated that it was made in stereo - something now taken for granted; the cast included Heather Harper, Janet Baker, Patricia Kern, John Cameron and John Mitchinson; Gary Bertini conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Then something occurs which would never happen now: Acts I and II of Clemenza are separated by another music programme - Ravel piano music played by Colin Horsley! At midday, the network switches to jazz with another edition of the long-running Jazz Record Requests, introduced by the well-known figure of Steve Race. Then, until 6pm, music lovers who aren't interested in sport must turn to their record collections, because the network's 'Sport Service' takes over with an afternoon of sport, beginning with a feature programme on sailing dealing with 'a constructive approach to kit-building', 'Club of the Week – Whitstable Sailing Club'; 'an exercise with the Whitby Life Boat'; and 'an interesting conversion'. Quite apart from the sober and rather un-promotional language used to describe the items, such a 'built' sports magazine programme would be rare on the British airwaves today, where actuality reigns supreme. The choice of sailing as a subject perhaps reflects perceptions of the audience's interests, the more so as the programme is followed by a golf feature! Commentary on a US/UK swimming gala follows, interspersed with horse racing; football comes later, with 'commentary by Alan Clark and Brian Moore on the second half of an English league match'. Radio 3's sporting afternoon concludes with an hour's results round-up.

Then the 'Third Programme' takes over: Charles Rosen's hour of Bach on the piano is followed by a talk on theology and iconography in the Middle Ages, and a feature on the folk music of Czechoslovakia; Pierre Boulez conducts the BBC Symphony orchestra in a Berlin Festival concert of Debussy, Webern, and an intriguingly unfamiliar piece called 'The Laments of Shchazi' by 'Volkonsky'. By way of interval talk, theoretical physicist John Maddox contributes a 'Personal View' of current affairs – a strand that survives even today in a ten-minute Sunday morning slot on Radio 4; part two of Boulez's concert offers Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The poems of Abraham Crowley (1618-1667) are read for half an hour, and then Radio 3 listeners are ushered gently towards the land of nod with a Mozart Quartet. Closedown follows after a 15-minute news summary at 11.15pm. You can download a pdf of the relevant page from the Radio Times, complete with promotions for future events in the 'Music Programme', here.

These notes on Radio 3's first day show that – sport apart – the new network continued to fulfil former BBC director-general Sir William Haley's dictum that the original Third Programme should feature ‘the full and frequent performance of great works in their entirety or to the development of those highest forms of music and drama which, while they have a major importance have, as yet, only a minority audience…'

In April 1970, the discrete strands within Radio 3 were either fully absorbed or shunted off into other networks. In a never-ending process of creative renewal, Radio 3 has combined innovation with an undying respect for the original aims of the network in serving its audiences. Very long-running programmes such as Record Review (now CD Review) and Composer of the Week have been joined by merely long-running programmes such as Private Passions, and Late Junction – a popular late-night programme which reflects the eclectic tastes and listening habits of new generations of music lovers. In addition to jazz, drama, talks, poetry and classical music – which have always been in the schedule – the scope of the network has been expanded to include World Music, which now counts Radio 3 as its home.

In recent years, the BBC has offered viewers and listeners opportunities for 'total immersion' in the work of iconic figures in the musical arts; Radio 3 has played its part by clearing the schedules for broadcasts of the complete works of Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. The schedules are regularly overturned for evenings focussing on specific artists, countries or cultural issues; through its website and broadcasts, Radio 3 continues to showcase the BBC performing groups, and the BBC Proms, as well as bringing out new talent in the form of its New Generation Artist and composer awards schemes.

The other significant change in the network – at its most striking when you compare the schedule for Radio 3's first day – is the expansion to 24-hour broadcasting. Not just insomniacs, but shift workers and foreign stations which share the service, are grateful for Through The Night – an eclectic compendium of classical music broadcast with minimum presentation, and drawn from concerts recorded throughout Europe and elsewhere.

Again undreamt-of in 1967 was the international expansion in the listenership brought on by Internet streaming via computer, the ability to time-shift your listening with the iPlayer, the chance to carry some of your favourite programmes around with you in the form of a downloadable podcast, and the availability of digital radio via satellite TV.
These technical innovations herald the possibility that in future, listeners will be able in effect to create their own radio schedules. If listening becomes the audio equivalent of taking a pile of books home from the library, than Radio 3 remains better placed than ever to stock those shelves with material both known and yet-to-be-discovered.

© Graeme Kay/BBC

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