Telegraph dumbs down its defence of BBC Radio 3

Telegraph dumbs down its defence of BBC Radio 3


norman lebrecht

February 09, 2014

With the regularity of a tax return, the Daily Telegraph has issued its winter assault on the BBC’s classical channel for allegedly dumbing down.

Roger Wright, controller of Radio 3, in a right of  reply, set out the case for original music and ideas that Radio 3 presents, as distinct from the limited repertoire and endless repetitions to be heard on its commercial rival, Classical FM.

Roger’s response was published in the Telegraph with, for some reason, a young woman’s picture on top.

So who’s dumbing down, then?

roger wright


  • Tim Benjamin says:

    Steady on – that “young woman” is Clemency Burton-Hill, one of Radio 3’s very good presenters and herself a decent violinist having been a prize-winner while a student at the Royal College, and having toured with Barenboim in the East-West Divan Orchestra. Oh and she’s one of the founders of the excellent Aurora Orchestra.

    Not exactly dumb!!! And maybe a more appropriate photo than yours of Mr Wright at what looks like a rain-soaked, half-empty cricket ground. For some reason! (unless that’s a clever metaphor of some kind – cricket without sunshine is like British classical music without Radio 3?)

  • Come off it, Norman (is that what we say?). The picture you refer to is, to my eyes at least, rather more ‘girl-next-door’ than the one Radio 3 itself uses, which is more Hollywood starlet glam. The Independent had some story that the (illusory) ‘increase’ in the Breakfast audience coincided with Clemency’s appearance on the weekday programme. Unlikely, since she started on 2 December, and the quarter ended on 14 December. The breakfast listening figures are calculations based on random samples, not measurements. So a ‘rise’ of a mere 9,000 indicates no more than that the figures are bumping along the bottom.

    As for the Hugh Bean violin prize that Clemency won, perhaps you could investigate whether this was the Hugh Bean Memorial Prize for under-12s? That’s not saying she couldn’t have been a very talented 11-year-old.

    We do love Radio 3, and – in appropriate contexts – we’ll defend it to the death. But it does no good to defend – or ignore – the indefensible.

    Kind regards,

    Sarah (Friends of Radio 3)

  • Mark Stratford says:

    She’s the daughter of Humphrey Burton. Has a great pedigree.

  • MacroV says:

    As an American who only listens to BBC 3 periodically on the web, I don’t know it’s programming especially well, but just from broadcasting (and archiving Proms concerts) I would take issue with the idea that it’s programming is dumbed down.

  • Violachick says:

    I really don’t think that we can class Clemency B-H as a “very good presenter”. She comes out with some of the most inane drivel I’ve been unfortunate enough to hear, and some of her proms interviews over the summer were, frankly, toe-curlingly embarrassing to listen to. I’d also take issue with Wright’s assertion that “Distinctive radio relies on intuitive, knowledgeable and talented producers and presenters….”. How on earth then do they justify their employment of the painfully obsequious Sean Rafferty (who, among his continuous and countless crimes of mis-information, last year sweepingly referred to Barenboim as being “The world’s greatest living pianist”) and Katie Derham who is also guilty of thoroughly brainless interviewing, and sounds for all the world as if she’s constantly reading out a script that someone else has written for her. Once a newsreader, always a newsreader, presumably. It’s very sad that Radio 3 values people like this over real musicians like Catherine Bott, who has – I believe – recently departed for Classic FM where she’ll presumably have better opportunities and salary. Let’s just hope their limited brain drain stops there….

    • Tim Benjamin says:

      Personally I used to like listening to Natalie Wheen. When there’s “world music” or some play or other on Radio 3, and nothing on Radio 4, and I’m imprisoned in my car with no Spotify (!), I sometimes listen to Classic FM and once or twice I’ve been fortunate to catch her on there. She’s still very good (in my opinion)! – shame about the compressed sound but it’s not so bad while driving, until you get to the adverts.

      I used to listen to Classic FM quite a lot, when it first started and “I were a lad”. Things like their “Contemporary Classics” programme were good competition for “Hear and Now”, which I admit to struggling to get through most weeks. They also used to have a “Morning March” at 7am which was a nice way to wake up!

      Everything seems to be “smooooth” and “relaaaaaax” now which I find quite annoying (apart from the aforementioned sound quality)

    • Dave says:

      Real musicians like Catherine Bott?! Have you heard her recently on Classic FM? You couldn’t get more dumbed down if you tried. (Which she did. Very hard.)

    • Mike Rose Moreno says:

      Radio Three keeps me sane, and although I wish that Sean Rafferty and Suzy Klein didn’t gush and fawn over their guests quite so much, I nevertheless find them overall highly appealing personalities and consummate broadcasters. I quite like Clemency Burton Hill, too, and would suggest their critics take a close look at themselves, and ask if perfection exists anywhere. There are few radio stations in the world which can equal the breadth, depth and intelligence of Radio 3.

  • MacroV: If you’re based in the USA you maybe don’t hear the morning programming which in the UK, certainly, is by far the most popular time for radio listening. The programmes have now been specially tailored to attract new listeners with, to quote the BBC, ‘little knowledge of classical music’. It’s hardly surprising if the long-standing listeners now claim to be ‘patronised’ and ‘talked down to’, and the programming – at least from their perspective, ‘dumbed down’.

    It’s not that, objectively, it is so ‘bad’: but there is a mismatch between the presentation and the expectations of the audience which has been listening for many years. This is why, also, Classic FM is so incensed – they were launched in 1992 to make classical music ‘accessible’ to a wider audience, while Radio 3 was expected to be somewhat more ambitious. Radio 3 gets public funding, Classic FM doesn’t.

    To add strength to the complaints, last quarter Radio 3 bucked the trend which saw radio listening figures rising. Radio 3’s reach and listening hours were both poor. That suggests that the station is losing more listeners than it’s attracting, and that listeners are reducing their listening. So the policy appears to be failing, even on its own terms.

  • Mark Stratfors says:

    There’s still great stuff in the Saturday evening ‘Hear and Now’ slot – Brian Ferneyhough, Boulez, Stockhausen, Haas and so on.

    I don’t think there’s dumming down.

  • Will Duffay says:

    Well that’s the Telegraph for you [redacted]

    What’s amusing is that as a vehicle for transmitting the thoughts of unrepentant capitalists, and thus ideologically opposed, bitterly, to the very idea of a public broadcaster, it presumably would prefer a privatised classical music station. Step forward Classic FM!!

  • There is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction here. Norman is not quite reasonable in describing it as the Telegraph’s regular ‘winter assault’ on Radio 3. It was actually triggered by a topical event – Classic FM’s submission to the Parliamentary inquiry on the BBC (did you cover that, Norman?). Currently, the situation is:

    1.Classic FM complains about Radio 3. Well, they would do, wouldn’t they? Always whinging about the BBC. And they should talk about dumbing down. Huh!

    2. The Telegraph responds to Classic FM’s submission. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Unrepentant capitalists putting the boot in public broadcasting. Huh!

    3. A Radio 3 listeners group puts in its own submission, and sides with Classic FM. What!? A load of elitist cranks. Always whinging and making trouble. Huh!

    4. Norman should declare an interest: a new series coming up on Radio 3 next month.

    • I have no interest to declare. It is public knowledge that I have presented several series on Radio 3 over the past 15 years. I am quite proud of them, and of Radio 3’s willingness to invest in challenging and ground-breaking issues that commercial broadcasters would never contemplate. I read Classic FM’s submission to the Parliamentary enquiry. There was not one original idea, phrase or word in it.

  • Paul White says:

    I just cannot listen to Rob Cowan anymore. His style of presentation, awkward and sycophantic interviews and over-opinionated comments on the music he plays is too much. It is the very worst style of presenting on the UK’s only true Classical Music station.
    As for the texts and tweets, please don’t get me started!

  • Tony Grocott says:

    I am amazed at some of the comments I have read here. Aged 80, I have been listening to Radio 3 and its predecessor since my late teens and find it much more accessible now than ever, without noticing any real dumbing-down. The main point is that I listen to it mainly for the music, not the presenter or the chat. Now, Sean Rafferty’s chat with Lesley Caron yesterday may not have been very highbrow but it was clear that they enjoyed each other’s company and charm, which made me happy to hear them, and the extract from Gigi. Radio 3 is a national treasure and the fact that audience figures are low is a problem for those not listening, not me. It has always been so, and always will be.

  • Roger Sell says:

    Sean Rafferty does fawn but rightly so over some wonderful live musicians. Alban Gerhardt is no exception heard today in the depths of rural Brittany. .Some superb Bach particularly. Sean’s sense of humour, sometimes bordering on irony, and his obvious enthusiasm for the artists and the music makes ‘In Tune’ with him presenting the highlight of my day

  • Carol Behr says:

    What’s happened to Sean Rafferty? I miss him!

  • Dee Williams says:

    Wow! When was all this going on? Radio 3 for music lovers is a national treasure. The scope, depth of coverage and musical archive cannot be heard anywhere.

    I spent time in Germany and the States and so far I have not found a classical station (ad free) to match it. I have tried to buy music heard on 3 and this has not been possible as they are studio recordings and not available. Beat that Classic FM. I am hoping that Auntie will release some special editions of those recordings.

    My day starts at 6.30 am with Breakfast and the easy Petroc and no thanks, I don’t want to hear a march first thing in the morning when my thoughts for the day are just condensing.

    Many a time, it is 3 all day, because the inspired schedulers have planned a perfect listening day, just for me.

    I am a minority listener and proud of it!

  • Denis Shields7 says:

    There is a lot of bland and mannered presentation on Radio 3

  • Denis Shields says:

    Sorry didnt finish my previous comment re “bland and mannered”.
    Also everyone is a “genius” and many pieces are “fiendishly difficult.”
    So much cliche spoken about classical music.Sarah Walker is so bland and uncritical,it feels like she’s reading from a script,and a fairly tedious one. Everything is sickeningly marvellous.
    Even poor old Michael Berkley sounding pompous and precious although I like the show.

    Sean Rafferty,Suzy Klein and others have a mannered diction.

    There are good things on Radio 3 (Words and Music,Late Junction-the latter being cut to one show a week-why?)

    I could go on.Lets have more spontaneous individuality amongst the presenters;real enthusiasm.
    Take a chance.Be controversial!