Radio daze: Classic FM grabs record wiz from Radio 3

December 6, 2017 by norman lebrecht


BBC Radio has lost Rob Cowan, its most knowledgeable presenter of classical records, to its commercial rival.

Rob is part of a general talent and producer exodus from Radio 3.

The station will replace him on Essential Classics with Prince Charles’s speechwriter, Ian Skelly.



Comments (64)

  1. Will Duffay says:

    He might as well chuck out 90% of his record collection now.

    1. ROB COWAN says:

      As it happens Will I’ll now need it more than ever …. I have plans to pursue a pretty broad repertory brief even though the tried and tested will have its place.

      1. Elizabeth Smith says:

        That’s brilliant Rob!

  2. Henry Rosen says:

    Let’s hope Classic FM are going to allow him and his taste in music to be continued to be broadcast. Already, their online presence is fantastic and doing so much for the promotion of Classical Music and serious classical performers..good on them!!

  3. Jackyt says:

    But why is he leaving? I was just listening to his interview with Tony Pappano this morning on Essential Classics. Radio 3 without Rob Cowan – unthinkable!

  4. Robert King says:

    A real shame for BBC R3 to lose someone so unique, with such an encyclopaedic knowledge of classical music, whose enthusiasm for music comes across so warmly, and who can interview so well. Rob will be a big loss to R3’s listeners. That said, in our household (amazingly enough, our children usually turn on R3 of their own volition, so we hear a lot of it) Ian Skelly is one of the R3 presenters we all really like.

    1. Alan says:

      I’m afraid to say I won’t miss him at all.

      1. Geoff says:

        Nor me. I can’t stand the way he talks down to the listeners as if we are six year olds.

        1. ROB COWAN says:

          You must know some pretty bright six-year-olds Geoff if they’ve heard of Klemperer, Hartmann, Ligeti, Bartók, Golovanov and Svetlanov, and what made them tick. Still, maybe it was in their genes. Best. Rob

          1. Geoffrey Bernstein says:

            I was referring to your presentation as being appropriate to six-year olds, not the content

        2. ROB COWAN says:

          Regarding the six year old theme – in a way, you’re right, I mean me being like a kid let loose in a sweetshop. That’s how I feel, and maybe that’s how I sound – ebullient and wanting to share. In that sense you’re better off with middle-aged sobriety, of which there is a great deal to choose from elsewhere … much of it excellent.

  5. Alan Turtle says:

    You all seem to be forgetting that Rob Cowan co-presented the weekly Classic FM CD review show for several years in the 1990s before he went to Radio 3.


    1. moonpavilion says:

      My first thought

  6. Yossel Murphy says:

    Much joy!! At last!!

    1. Nik says:

      That statement is a bit puzzling in isolation. Are you pleased that R3 is rid of him or that CFM has him? And why?

      1. Yossel Murphy says:

        I’m ecstatic he’s leaving Radio 3 and couldn’t care less about him moving to Classic FM, as he’ll still be a pain on that station and I rarely listen to it anyway. As soon as RC comes on, it’s enough to make you fall asleep…….he’s an utter bore! Is that clear enough for you?

        1. ROB COWAN says:

          I wish it was clear to me Yossel! 🙂 Might be helpful …

        2. Hilary says:

          He’s brilliant.

  7. Rog says:

    The news about Rob Cowan is confirmed by press releases from both Classic FM and Radio 3. I have mixed feelings about it. Mr Cowan, for all his encylopaedic knowledge of classical recordings, has never struck me as particularly discriminating, and I find his broadcasting style increasingly grating (in contrast to that of Ian Skelly, in fact) – though of course this is a matter of personal taste.

    Your suggestion that ‘Rob is part of a general talent and producer exodus from Radio 3’, however, is unevidenced by you, and I can only suspect you of mischief-making, given the extraordinarily and inexplicably spiteful animus that you directed towards Alan Davey on his appointment.

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      Alan Davey obtained his last two jobs by means of patronage. That is not spite; it’s fact. As for the Radio 3 defectors, I may compile a list.

    2. norman lebrecht says:

      Alan Davey obtained his last two jobs by means of patronage. That is not spite; it’s a matter of public probity. As for the Radio 3 defectors, I may compile a little list if I can spare the time.

      1. Rog says:

        A matter of fact, or a matter of public probity (whatever that means), Mr Lebrecht? Make your mind up.

    3. Jackyt says:

      Where is the press release from BBC about Rob Cowan leaving? I have hunted on the BBC website, and on the Radio 3 website and not a mention. I, for one, will miss his warmth, knowledge and enthusiasm greatly.

  8. Peter Phillips says:

    “Most knowledgeable presenter”? What about Sarah Walker with her PhD in performance practice? Or the excellent Martin Handley, a professional musician?
    I will not miss Rob Cowan’s unctuous tones, nor his indiscriminate over praising of everything he plays, though he is not alone in that.

  9. ROB COWAN says:

    Thanks for your responses, both favourable and unfavourable. As for myself, I’m looking forward to bringing both rarities and tried and tested greats to CFM though I shall miss R3 and the wonderful team that works there.

    Rob C

    1. John Groves says:

      Looking forward to hearing you on Classic FM, Rob! You will be a loss to R3, but at least you are being replaced by someone who is knowledgeable and has an excellent ‘radio voice’!

    2. Ruth says:

      I remember being introduced to all sorts of interesting repertoire on your programme in the early days of CFM. I appreciate your dignified response to some unkind comments posted here and wish you well in your new role.

      1. ROB COWAN says:

        Thank you Ruth and everyone else. I so appreciate your positive remarks. Regarding Mr. Philips, and in spite of his justifiable praise for Sarah and Martin, both of them first-rate presenters, I might point our that aside from my journalistic work I have lectured on performance practice at Trinity, the RAM, and the Guildhall, as well as giving pre-concert talks on the same subject (Barbican, RFH, Wigmore). I may have been a poor cellist and violinist, but I did at least have a bash and I regularly find my way around full scores. No I’m not an academic but I’ve been listening to classical recordings for some 55 years which I hope lends my views some credibility. I suppose you can’t please – or convince everyone – but I thank most people here for their kindness and generosity.

        1. John Bloxam says:

          Dear Rob I can’t stand the clipt dynamics of classic FM which is probably designed for car driving. sorry to see you go but all the very best

          1. ROB COWAN says:

            John – do have a gander at Steve Shaw’s post below …. might be of help in the old ‘clipped’ sound department. Very best. Rob

      2. Professor Richard Goldberg says:

        Spot on Ruth. Rob is the most outstanding classical music broadcaster of his generation. I feel shocked to read some of the gratuitously nasty remarks of some on this thread. It reminds me of inadequate sophomores bitching about their lecturer in a questionnaire.

        1. ROB COWAN says:

          Thank you Professor Goldberg. I can never understand that sort of attitude.

    3. Professor Richard Goldberg says:

      I have you to thank for my enriched love of classical music over the last 20 years, whether on the Radio or reading Gramophone magazine. So I’ll be listening in to you on Saturday evenings in the same way as I have done CD Masters and Essential Classics all these years.
      All best wishes to you on this new venture
      Professor Richard Goldberg

    4. Mr Waggles says:

      Is the Classic FM pay and conditions way better than R3? Pension or have you it all offshore?

      1. ROB COWAN says:

        nothing to do with that (same difference) and the only thing I have off shore is a toy boat I sailed as a kid

  10. Andrew Smith says:

    Just why are you leaving, Rob? My wife, though she of course wishes you well in your new role at Classic FM, is devastated by the news of your departure. We both have fond memories of meeting you at the pop-up studio at the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago.

  11. C Porumbescu says:

    An engaging presenter, a thoroughly nice person and a mine of expertise, freely shared with his colleagues and audience. As to the question of how “discriminating” he is, I’d only say that the role of a professional radio presenter is not, necessarily, to act as an unbending arbiter of taste: they’re a chairman, not a judge. And I’d add – from personal experience – that when you discuss music with Rob one-to-one, his judgements are firm, fair and grounded not just in an extraordinary depth and breadth of listening experience, but a profound musicianship. Radio 3’s loss is Classic FM’s gain.

  12. Stephen Munslow says:

    I shall miss Rob Cowan, because apart from his taste in music, he just seems a good-natured, down to earth, unpretentious, friendly bloke.
    I turn over to Radio Orfei – a Russian classical music internet station – more often now, because I’m tired of R3’s increasing SJW flavour, where it frequently stated that such and such a composer is this ethnicity, that gender, that skin colour, this sexuality and so on. I’m not interested in all this – I just want to hear classical music. With Rob Cowan gone, I’ll be switching over even more frequently

  13. Rob says:

    Hi Rob, wish you well at CFM. I remember you there in 1992, infact somebody played all the movements of Rattle’s new Mahler 7 over a period near that time, perhaps it was you?

    I hope you get round to listening to a new recording of Louis Glass’s 5th Symphony conducted by Daniel Raiskin on the CPO label. It’s excellent! The symphony has a subtitle: “Svastika”, but it has nothing to do with the Nazis. Norman, how about a review from you too?

  14. FJW says:

    It’s good for Radio 3 to evolve, and great to hear the likes of Suzy Klein and Ian Skelly given more prominence in the key morning slot, but just downright rude and completely unnecessary to say anything other than a huge ‘thank you’ to Rob Cowan (and Sarah Walker also), for all that they have contributed to Essential Classics in recent years. I would like to thank them both personally for the many mornings I have hugely enjoyed, accompanied by coffee and crossword puzzles, over recent years. Many’s the time I have hastily scribbled the details of a particularly lovely recording, often then buying the CD… Presenters clearly feel a loyalty to their listeners, but also have their own career paths to forge, and personal circumstances to adapt to. So from time to time they may change programmes or stations, for whatever reason. Let’s just say a heartfelt ‘Thank you’ and consider them part of the extended Radio 3 family, wherever they may be broadcasting from in the short term.

    1. ROB COWAN says:

      What a lovely posting FJW – a Christmas treat, and no mistaking. Doubly so because you seem to have taken EC to heart exactly as Sarah and I (and the team that produced us of course, including the studio managers) intended the programme to sound. Choosing quality recordings of great works (some of them) from all eras was a joy among our tasks and it’s great that people like you ‘got the message’. Have a happy and healthy Christmas. Rob

  15. Robert Cutts says:

    Maybe Rob will return to R3 one day. Hope springs eternal!
    Meanwhile, my thanks go out to him for 17 inspiring years.

    1. ROB COWAN says:

      Many thanks Robert!

  16. Evelyn Gottlieb says:

    Rob’s was the first voice I heard when tuning in to R3 some 5 years ago after a long gap in radio listening. I was immediately captivated by his warm, friendly style of presentation and of course his vast knowledge of a huge range of music. He has been a wonderful guide and I’ve learned so much from him as has my son. My family, friends and I were devastated to learn of his departure from R3 and all of us are missing him. Some of the snooty remarks on this site are disgusting , you don’t need a degree to be a superb presenter as Rob was/is. All good wishes in your new post at CFM, we’ll be tuning in for sure. A very happy new year to Rob and all his followers.

    1. ROB COWAN says:

      Thanks so much Evelyn
      As it happens the CFM sequences are proving every bit as interesting as the ones I was involved in for R3, except that I curate them myself – which in the long run I hope will prove a good thing. Haitink’s 2017 Munich Bruckner 6 tonight and a Philip Glass ‘sure shot’, not a composer I’m consistently enthusiastic about but a good piece. Very best to all for the New Year.

  17. Kevin Franz says:

    News travels slowly to this northern fastness but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to express my thanks to you. I’d like to associate myself with all the generous and appreciative comments others have made. Thank you for all you brought to your time at R3. You helped me develop as a listener, whether it was in opening up new repertoire or in listening afresh to what I thought was familiar. It’s that blend of knowledge, passion and the invitation to listen with ‘an innocent ear’ which I shall miss. I may have to break the habit of many years and listen now to ClassicFM!

    1. ROB COWAN says:

      Thank you so much Kevin. Do try Cowan’s Classics – if you can’t listen on Saturday (7-9pm) go on the CFM website, click ‘Listen’ in the top right hand corner which opens a new window; after the advert, you’re then clicking onto ‘Listen Again’ which brings up an alphabetised list; and you can see Cowan’s Classics with Rob Cowan. So far I’ve brought Reger, Bruckner, Glass and many others to the programme and have received some appreciative comments – so hopefully the formula is working. I’m certainly enjoying myself! With very best wishes, Rob.

  18. Martin Bailey says:

    With Christmas chaos and a long brush with Australian Flu, I somehow missed the news that Rob was going to CFM until today – I’d just not heard him for some weeks. I note some very unpleasant, superior, and grating comments by some unpleasant, superior, and grating people – and can only say that I’m missing Rob’s warm personality, deep knowledge, and thoroughly comforting presence in the morning slot.
    I can only say good luck on CFM and let’s have you back on Radio Three sometime soon.

    1. ROB COWAN says:

      That’s extremely kind of you Martin. Thank you …. but do try and listen to my CFM slot if you can, if not as it goes out then on listen again. Hope you’re better now.
      Very best

  19. Paul Liggins says:

    I am among the big fans of Rob Cowan and I will miss him greatly on Radio 3. He is too polite and diplomatic a man to say what really caused his departure and I suspect ( without any evidence ) that it was some change in BBC management ( a touch of ‘W1a’ possibly? Who decided to add the ‘relaxation’ spot into the morning shows for goodness sake! ). Rob has both depth and breadth to his knowledge and I still have his Building a Library overview of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony on ‘tape’ as an example of his art.
    Any chance of the occasional return to Radio 3 I wonder?
    I wish you all the best Rob

    1. ROB COWAN says:

      Thank you so much Paul for that. Most kind of you. The truth of my departure from Radio 3 is very simple: Classic offered me an alternative presentation job on Cowan’s Classics, 7-9 on Saturday nights at and I took it. I was very sorry to leave Radio 3. In my heyday there I had a whale of a time: I ‘curated’ my own programmes, included all manner of interesting novelties/rarities and was able to broadcast great performances, both new and old, of complete masterpieces. I think I’m a fairly friendly presenter but I’m more earnest/enthusiastic than relaxed. Great music is a serious business and although you don’t have to serve what you play with a furrowed brow or with the voice of a toff, you do need to give the full facts, without compromise and with plenty of genuine passion.The goal posts on Essential Classics had changed – understandably, given the fresh brief – and I was too far from the newly placed goal to land a forceful kick. At Classic I am, and I seem to be picking up a keen audience, which I’m very grateful for. Incidentally, regarding BAL – I covered Beethoven 2 and 4 but not 3. Could it be one of those that you heard? Best wishes, and thanks again, Rob.

      1. Andrew Smith says:

        I’m intrigued by Rob’s comments about Essential Classics’ moved goalposts. Although there have been a few tweaks to the format recently, I had thought its tone and remit were largely unchanged. Comments, anyone?

  20. Elizabeth Smith says:

    I love your new Classic FM show, Cowan’s Classics, Rob. However, I have but one negative comment – it goes so quickly!!

  21. ROB COWAN says:

    Lovely to hear Elizabeth. Thank you! 🙂

  22. Paul Liggins says:

    yes, your right. I meant Beethoven’s 4th. I was too intent having a grumble at Radio 3 ( which I love!) that I got 3 stuck in my head.
    I just miss the combination of your passion and knowledge!
    I do like the current presenters in fact Ian Skelly has me laughing out loud at times.
    It’s just that there’s a feint whiff of them having to make the program ‘more accessible’ unless I’m mistaken.
    You might not thank me for this suggestion but have you considered setting up a web site where we could find your recommendations for listening to exceptional recordings?
    Since the demise of the thick CD recommendation books, it might be a hit!
    Anyway, good luck to you Rob and I shall just have to record your CFM show and play it back during the week!

    1. ROB COWAN says:

      Thanks again Paul. I’m sure Norman won’t mind if I also direct you to my blog rob’s retro classical at where I often discuss new issues, reissues and the like – in fact there are a couple of strands on the go just now. Please do join in. Best. Rob

  23. D. Kustra says:

    I’m late to the party here, but I feel compelled to write that I’m genuinely appalled by the gratuitously nasty and spiteful comments that have appeared on this thread. Though there is certainly no end of bitchiness in the classical music business, many of these comments are quite simply beyond the pale. I do not know Rob Cowan personally, but a few years ago was in touch with him professionally, regarding an orchestral recording project in Vienna with which I was involved. He was gracious, supportive and genuinely interested, qualities which come across in his announcing and writing. His vast, insightful knowledge of the repertoire is indisputable, and is the reason I continued to tune-in to Radio 3 after I moved to Austria from the UK. I wish him all the best at Classic FM.

    1. ROB COWAN says:

      Thank you so much for that. A hazard of being in the public eye I suppose, having a radio ‘personality’ that people either like or dislike – in that one respect Radio 3 is as much a lifestyle station as Classic FM. People read things into your presentation that aren’t there or ignore things that are. But there you are. Very best. Rob.

  24. Robert Cutts says:

    In spite of having read the two previous posts, I’ve decided, with some hesitancy, to add a small note of adverse criticism. But, for goodness sake, don’t take it the wrong way, Rob.
    Ever since you switched channels, I’ve been regularly listening to your CFM program and have enjoyed it. However, my wife recently listened to it for the first time and said that you were very slightly talking down to your audience in a way that you never did on R3. With that in mind, I listened more carefully to your program last Saturday, and came to the conclusion that she may be right. Perhaps it’s got something to do with your having a feeling that – right or wrong – the musical standards of the CFM audience are not quite up to R3’s. For all that, it’s not going to stop me listening every Saturday evening when I can.

  25. ROB COWAN says:

    All constructive criticism is welcome Robert, and I would never be offended by anyone with well-reasoned views. I never consciously talk down but what you may be picking up is more a sin of omission than a change of tone. I simply say less, just give the basics and ‘let the music do [the rest of] the talking’. Even more than with Radio 3, on Cfm the crucial thing is what I play and how the sequence is built …. slipping in the odd ‘silver thread among the gold’ (ie, a vintage track here and there) and some more unusual repertoire. It seems to have worked, so far, but ‘tone’ is important and I’ll keep and eye on it. Best wishes. Rob

    1. Steve Shaw says:

      Hi Rob. I speak as someone whose name you read out many times apropos of the daily brain-teaser over the years! I listen to both Radio 3 and Classic FM avidly and will look forward to your shows. If you can have any influence at all over such things, perhaps you could get your new bosses to do something about Classic FM’s generally awful sound quality due to the crude compression used on everything they broadcast. Great in the car but terrible for home listening!

      All the best, Steve Shaw

      1. ROB COWAN says:

        ‘Car and kitchen’ is my take on it Steve – and I’ve already made the point at HQ. Funnily, some programmes come across as fine, whereas others seem more compressed. But I’ll have words again. Thanks for the prompt. Best wishes. R.

        1. Steve Shaw says:

          Thanks, Rob. After a bit of googling I’ve discovered the HD streaming for my iPhone, which sounds much better. Ironic that I can access much better sound quality through my tinny little Bluetooth speaker or headphones than through my home hifi with FM stereo aerial…!

  26. ROB COWAN says:

    That’s extremely valuable Steve. Thank you! Even I didn’t know that! Will investigate further myself.

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