BBC Radio 3 is down 8% in a year

BBC Radio 3 is down 8% in a year


norman lebrecht

February 08, 2018

The Rajar audience figures for the fourth quarter of 2017 make grim reading for the BB’s classical team.

Radio 3 lost 0.6% of its listernship over the last three months, but a massive eight percent over the whole year, despite a policy of dumbing down and easy bites.

Classic FM, by contrast, was up 4.4% on the quarter and 5.7% year on year.

Classic FM has a weekly reach of 5.7 million against R3’s 1.95 million.

Jazz FM was down 10.7% on the quarter.

Read theraw stats here.


  • Steve says:

    nothing but talk…
    + becoming more and more like classic fm.. doesn’t seem to be helping anyway.

  • erich says:

    Most embarrassing for the ‘Mekon’ Alan Davey…another one of those BBC apparachiks seemingly incapable of utterance in anything but officially sanctioned ‘Tony Hall’ platitudes and W1A-speak…..

  • Sanity says:

    Mind you, I know a great number of industry professionals outside the UK who rely on BBC Radio 3 to source opera broadcasts from around the world…

  • mr oakmountain says:

    Does this take into account that some listeners might tune in without fail to listen to their favourite BBC Radio3 programmes while having on FM Classic as a backbround filler for doing the kitchen and the laundry (as this particular listener frequently does …)? Different stations for different functions, perhaps?

    • Sue says:

      What a dystopia!!

    • Bill says:

      Mr O is right. Classic FM is great for (mostly) pleasant music which you can listen to with one ear or fully. I’m also male and listen to it while cooking ,cleaning etc!
      The one proviso is that you have to be within range of the mute function or the adverts will drive you insane.
      Radio 3 is still mostly my preferred territory. The morning programming is much like Classic FM without the dreadful ads. Ian Skelly’s new presence is a delight.
      R3 falls down badly in that it still has to educate and inform. Who really listens to those late evening shows with some poor orchestra having to join electro pop styles or play with a “turntableist” or some such nonsense?
      There will always be Classic territory and R3 territory and let’s not worry too much about the overlap.

      • Tim Cleal says:

        Do I care about Demidenko playing on piano what was composed for organ or harp. No! Do I care about presenters’ solecisms and affectations and accents? Not much! There are loads of straw man complaints that the BBC will air but the real important moan from me is that I DON’T WANT JAZZ AND POP on radio 3. Jazz has designated shows; I can avoid them. But I find it vile when my prior sound world in my head is rudely shattered by the presenter’s damned warning, “I thought I’d play you this….” I don’t understand why they and many listeners don’y understand that in a pluralistic world, why therefore is it not possible to incorporate a mono-culture(small ‘c’)

  • Antony Walker says:

    I would be quite interested to know the background as to how the data is collected. It must be quite difficult to determine who is listening to the radio at any given time. Also, I live in the USA, and listen to Radio 4 at least five times a week streaming from the internet, often backing up a couple of hours on their stream for programs that I have missed due to the time difference, and then also listen to podcasts such as the In Our Time archives. Does this count in such a survey, or is just when one listens live on an actual radio not a computer?

    • Robert Holmén says:

      In the US, the Nielsen company gives people a device they wear that listens and tallies “sub-audible” codes in the broadcast that identify a piece so their listening is tracked without needing to remember it or write it down.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      You don’t count since it only counts people listening to the radio in the UK.

      The point of the survey is to help advertisers know the reach of radio stations, and for those government to know the listenership of the BBC radio stations to see if the licence fee is being well-spent.

  • John Edward Bain. Halifax, Nova Scotia says:

    Perhaps BBC 3’s change to FLASH exclusively several months ago;whereby they lost me online. FLASH is soon to be phased out by Adobe themselves , as more and more sites accommodate HMTL-5.

    All too typical of bureaucratic bungling.

  • Jon lewis says:

    Playing far too much music from past eras which have lost in time. Boring, unexciting and elitist. Also opportunist – how often do we need to hear a presenter demonstrate his super grasp of ancient German and his devotion to the mysterious almighty

    • Sue says:

      I enjoy their Prom Concerts broadcasts via the internet and selected radio documentaries which can be heard later.

  • Scott MacClelland says:

    Years ago, I listened to Radio 3 every day. Then they gutted some of my faves. Now I rarely listen, even though I had myself a 35 year career as a classical radio presenter in California.

  • David Ralph says:

    Radio 3 just needs, more promotion, after it more than just classical music.

  • Philip Treloar says:

    But radio 3 must not dumb down in the question to increase the number of listeners. It’s still the best in the world for quality and serious music. It should stick to classical even if people may then label it elitist – and have less talk. It doesn’t need awful gimmicks like ‘mixtapes’. The live concerts are simply wonderful.

  • Derek says:

    Classicfm may have increased listeners but I think that is because it is comfortable and familiar.

    You know that you will hear the predictable limited set of popular classics etc. over and over. The SAME movements from the familiar Beethoven, Handel or Tchaikovsky pieces, endless Einaudi, Vaughan Williams, old warhorses and film music.

    However, no Bruckner, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich symphonies; limited Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Verdi etc., lesser known pieces (you can think of you own examples) or contemporary classical music.

    I am bored by it because it is so repetitive! It could be so much better.

    In my opinion, Radio 3 has some very good content but has become confused, eccentric in some respects and has lost its way.

    • Derek says:

      Will and Bill make the points on Radio 3 better than me.

      I only have concerns over minor aspects (as pointed out nobody will always be happy and there are only a few negatives).

      The concerts, reviews, proms, etc. etc. are excellent.

  • Bill Perry says:

    Hi. I think Radio 3 is wonderful with only a few negatives. It is much better than classic fm which is full of kitsch when it stops telling all and sundry how wonderful it is.

    I love Ian Macmillan & the Essay but I feel that Late junction is not as good as it was
    It remains my fallback station and I love it

  • Hugh Kerr says:

    Radio 3 is a jewel in British culture and is respected round the world, don’t knock it the phillistines ie Murdoch et al are at the doors of the BBC and would happily kill it off so defend it. As for Classic FM it’s schmaltz with adverts!

  • Will Duffay says:

    I don’t understand why people thing that R3 figures are down because it’s more like ClassicFM, while CFM figure are up. If what CFM is doing brings in listeners and R3 copies it, why isn’t R3 doing better?

    My guess is that radio figures are very difficult to judge and thus highly variable. I would be very interested to know what the margin of error is. 10% wouldn’t be unreasonable, so an apparent 8% fall wouldn’t be statistically relevant.

    On the whole I think R3 does an excellent job. Yes, some presenters grate, but that’s always going to be the case, and nobody will always be happy. (Personally I could live without Sean Raffety, Sarah Walker and Elizabeth Alker’s sibilance, but others will disagree. Conversely, I could listen to Petrok, Sara M-P and Clemmy quite happily.)
    R3 still challenges and expands and surprises, and yet is still also happy to play the familiar. I think it’s doing okay.

    • Steve Alker says:

      I love Elizabeth’s morning show. Great variation of styles and classes of music and a lot of surprises.

      But then again, you might expect me to think like this from my name alone!!

      If it is her accent, I am the posh member of the family. I like Rochdale and Manchester for its sweet melodies in the spoken word.

  • Stephen Diviani says:

    Do the figures include iplayer listeners? I genuinely don’t know. As to ‘dumbing down’, what does it mean exactly? I’m 62 and have been listening to R3 for many years and am not entirely persuaded by Mr Lebrecht’s assertion. Let’s take one programme, ‘Essential Classics’, which seems to have morphed upmarket, is a lot more intelligent, demanding & interesting than the earlier format & the opposite of dumbing down. Operas, concerts, talk programmes do not strike me as being anything like ClassicFM. So I think R3 is a tremendous asset and something of which we should all be proud. After all, remember the days when there would be a heated discussion about whether a Greek Tragedy should be performed on the Third Service in ancient Greek or an English translation. I’m not sure we want to go back to those days, much as it appeals to me.

  • John Groves says:

    By far the best programme on Radio 3 is ‘Through the Night’ – six hours of almost uninterrupted music, much of it rare or in fascinating performances. There is far too much ‘talk’ and reliance on the tried and tested elsewhere: boring!!

    • Will Duffay says:

      Not sort of thing to appeal to the casual listener, though – the sort of listener who is apparently being attracted away to ClassicFM (if Norman’s summary above is to be believed).
      Personally I think Building a Library and in particular Words and Music are the best programmes, and I really like the half-hour mixtape at 7.00.

  • Michael Turner says:

    I feel that Radio 3 has lost its way. In many areas it is just a poor imitation of Classic FM, except that, with a few notable exceptions, the presenters that are fronting the programmes are capable of much better things.

    Focussing purely on the music output (I’m not ignoring the rest but I do want to keep this post relatively short), the live concerts, opera on three and afternoon on three are excellent, while record review is still a very good listen.

    That said, why do I have to listen to a patently knowledgeable R3 announcer trying to build a tenuous/tortuous link between the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony and a Byrd Mass? If they’re forced to have to introduce bleeding chunks of pieces, why not just say “and now some Byrd”? However, better still, don’t just play bleeding chunks!

    Elsewhere in these comments, folk have complained about the limited repertoire to be found on Classic FM. That’s right, of course. However, while R3s repertoire spread is much greater, I am amazed at the number of times I might end up hearing the same piece three times in a week. It gets played on Essential Classics (from a recording), it is then on afternoon on three (from the BBCSSO’s latest tour overseas) and is then played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in a live concert relay from Poole. Does nobody check the schedules?

    R3 needs to return closer to its roots. The old-style R3 was not elitist. A ‘general’ R3 announcer talking about the structure of a piece (which I can’t really remember happening much anyway) is no more elitist than a football pundit discussing the offside rule. Knowing that Herbert von Karajan is most unlikely to have recorded any Dutilleux is no more ‘sniffy’ than someone thinking that the late, great Dolores O’Riordan would have recorded a cover of “I’m a pink toothbrush”.

    Let’s get back to informed talk (not just the opinion of the announcer). Let’s get away from the ludicrous use of over-the-top, faux foreign accents when introducing Gianandrea Noseda or Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – it’s like something out of a Peter Sellers skit but nothing like as funny. Why would I want to know that someone thinks that Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance” links, in their mind, to Vaughan Williams’s “Wasps Overture” because of the buzzing trills. Play me complete pieces, perhaps following a theme from time to time (the Vaughan Williams evening of the past or the more recent Bach day were splendid), but they need to get away from contrived nonsense such as ‘The Maestro’s favourite colour’, ‘Concerto Corner’, ‘Afternoon Arias’, ‘Toast and Rutter’ and ‘Crazy Cadenzas’.

    Whether we are talking about world music, jazz, film, early, contemporary and the other multitudinous genres and sub-genres that are covered by R3, just treat them with the appropriate respect and us, the listeners, like adults.

  • Derek Bacon says:

    Radio 3 is exceptional for me. There are huge strengths (Building a Library, CD review, Composer of the Week, Radio 3 in Concert, Breakast on 3, Essential Classics, Afternoon Concert, Late Junction) usually presented extremely well. Obviously, there can be moments of pain when they play pretty unbearable things that require turning down or off and the daily late-afternoon ‘fawning’ over guests in the studio tends to grate horribly but I remain totally loyal to R3 having spent 60 years enjoying it and learning from it. And the on-demand archive is amazing and wonderful.
    I can even almost forgive R3 for ignoring the music of Allan Pettersson. A real shame but …….
    I recall having having listened to the other station. I see no point in making a comparison. They serve different audiences.
    Am I really writing on Slipped Disc? Yuk!

  • Bob Goldsmith says:

    The decision made by Rob Cowan to leave his weekday morning programme, after the ‘Artist of the Week’ theme was dropped, sums up why audiences are switching off now. I loved following a great artist of yesteryear through the week, and Cowan often linked it to his Gramaphone ‘Replay articles there. Also gone is the 9.30am competition (such fun), while the interviews with weekly guests are now hacked to pieces.

    What remains is an aimless mess, so I for one rarely listen. Like the 7pm listening tapes that switch so madly between musical styles that I just feel sick – and again switch off. As for Sunday mornings the new mellow relaxing piffle is just nauseating.

    Someone behind the scenes is messing badly with Radio 3, so I for one am not suprised numbers of listeners are down.

  • Zaman says:

    I practically learnt my craft from Radio 3. By the time I arrived at university I had a complete and deep aural memory of the entire repertory. This was in the early 1990s. I stayed awake in bed as a little boy and listened to Stockhausen, and James Wood, and felt a bit naughty, but also exhilarated. I remember discovering Morton Feldman one evening by just turning on the radio.

    Those days are long gone and we are left with a struggling channel that is governed by anodyne, superficial gloss. It’s very sad.

    Classic FM, which turns classical music into pop music, is a disgrace.

  • asteven says:

    R3 has indeed lost its way. Very dull This Week’s Composers followed by gimmicky presenters with ill-thought through items. The worst of which is relaying a dawn chorus of mindless boredom. Mark you new depths of banality were hit recently with recordings of the movement of an iceberg on the Breakfast programme. R3 gets it money to play music!!

  • Hugh Kerr says:

    An hour of Boulez this morning won’t have helped it’s figures!

  • Paul Davis says:

    I’m not surprised at all, hardly any of my wide circle of erstwhile R3 enthusiasts listens these days. One needs to have sharp reflexes for the “Mute” or “Off” button to avoid the jarring, jangling jingles, and the Volume control to moderate the yak-yak of computer-speak, juddering ungrammatical nonsense spouted endlessly between any music which survives the barrage. The listings often give no information which i actually need, (composer, works, performers…), but the padding that i don’t need, (the BBC3 presenter, the programme’s “title”..), is sometimes given twice! So rather than trawl thru endless guff, i give up and rediscover my CDs.

    I’m not expecting everything to be perfect, or always to my taste- there are many admirable aspects remaining if one has the patience, but in my opinion, the original “core” listener wants lots of pure music and the dumbing down with yakking “presenters” is a huge obstacle. Classic FM doesn’t provide an alternative; it has an honorable but different function, and the jingles don’t jangle so badly cos one expects them in a commercial radio station, (i’ve rarely listened- sometimes in the car, cos reception is infinitely better than the Beeb). I fear the damage is done; R3 will never recuperate its losteners.

    I still watch out for live concerts and the Proms, little else.

  • Steve says:

    What they do do well though are the live concerts/operas (also with intelligent coverage)… but usually at dinner time so I, for example, have trouble listening to them. They could for example repeat them the next morning and do away with all the talk and the playing of just individual movements (which is a bit tacky and by necessity gives rise to excessive talk…)…
    This would be a reason to tune into Radio 3 in the mornings. They need to get back their knowledgeable listeners.

  • John Sullivan says:

    I’m not surprised that listener figures are down, when people like Elizabeth Alker are employed to annoy us with her little girl, story telling to children, approach. She is sickening and a poor replacement for martin Handley. She is certainly not Radio 3 material, in my view. I do not listen to her, preferring instead, to get my classical music fix on Classic Fm, stupid advert and all.

  • Herbie G says:

    During my long career in Information Technology I learned an adage that served me well: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. There’s another popular one that states: ‘If you are in a hole, stop digging’. Then there’s Aesop’s fable ‘The Miller, his Son and the Ass’, the moral of which is ‘He who tries to please everyone pleases nobody’. Alan Davey, Controller of Radio 3 and the Proms, is either oblivious of these or thinks he can prove them wrong.

    To be fair, Davey did not inaugurate the dumbing down of Radio 3; it was well underway when he took on his role at the BBC in January 2015. So, R3 was certainly in a hole, but by extending the dumbing down he continued digging. At that time, there were still some vestiges of serious content on R3, such as Record Review, the afternoon and evening concerts and principally Essential Classics which, under the stewardship of Rob Cowan and Sarah Walker had achieved close to one million listeners – a stunning testimonial to their outstanding presentation and the repertoire selected by their supporting team. Clearly R3 was not ‘broke’ and didn’t need fixing. But Davey’s mission was to fix it nevertheless.

    Davey’s demonstrable policy is to eradicate any semblance of ostensibly elitist intelligence and make the station fun for all – in other words, he wants to please everybody, especially those with short attention spans. Essential Classics is now reduced to a series of ill-assorted excerpts and snippets, virtually nothing lasting more than fifteen minutes. The content includes jazz, world music, music for computer games, pop music and facile, irrelevant chatter from a ‘time traveller’ and other banal contributions from assorted celebs. ‘Building a Library’ is now a chuckle-filled chat and then there’s the truly appalling ‘Mixtape’ – a cheap way to waste half an hour with anything from Bach to Dolly Parton with no demonstrable connection or purpose. And am I the only one who has noticed that in the interests of political correctness, virtually every day’s programmes feature a mandatory ration of music by women composers?
    It is therefore unsurprising that Davey’s attempt to ape Classic FM has failed, with the R3 audience having plummeted year on year ever since he took over. If he had achieved a similar performance as a Team Leader on The Apprentice, he would have been fired immediately.

    Before appointing Davey to his role, I am sure that (Lord) Tony Hall carefully studied his CV and concluded that he was the best choice to run Radio 3 – after all, he had been an Administration Trainee in the Department of Health and Social Security, Private Secretary to the Minister of State for Health, head of the National Lottery Bill Team and Principal Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Head of European Business at the Medicines Control Agency and Secretary of the Royal Commission on Long Term Care. In short – to mix Gilbertian roles – he was not only a veritable Pooh Bah but the very model of a musical supremo.
    One can only speculate on the motive for placing Davey in this role. The fact that he is still there seems to indicate that the motive was to ensure that the R3 audience dropped until the BBC could justify its being axed to save money.

  • David Rees says:

    We remain committed followers of Radio 3 because classical music transcends the current limitations of the channel. There is little chance of a reduction in presenters’ chat and their painful attempts at ‘banter’ but Elizabeth Alker’s role as a regular presenter must be reconsidered, her speech is genuinely difficult to listen to. Her voice may well be affected by deafness or some other problem which would be very regrettable but national radio presentation requires much more than she can give.

    • Evelyn Gottlieb says:

      I’m only just seeing all this, and agree that Elizabeth’s role as regular presenter should be reconsidered. I’ve nothing against her, however, it’s her choices of music on Saturday Breakfast which irritates me, especially the now regular feature of ‘croissant corner’ , I tune in to R3 to hear a broad mix of classical music and not French chansons of e.g. Brell and Piaf.

  • Chris Matic says:

    Too much inane talk. Too many self promo ads. Far too many songs from inane musicals etc. There’s dumming down (e.g.R1) and then there’s R3 attempt which appears to be done by dummies! It may have been too stuffy in the past but now it is painful to listen to the attempts at DJ banter and if I want so many news updates I can listen to R4

  • John Eden says:

    On Radio 3 this morning Elizabeth Alker plumbed new depths when she played a listener’s recording of himself cooking popcorn. She followed that up by commenting that she and her producer had been debating which flavour of popcorn best accompanied film viewing at the cinema. I suspect that wasn’t the irony that we once might have expected from Radio 3 presenters, but in fact a demonstration, not only of the witlessness of certain of the station’s staff, but also of the witlessness of certain of its listeners.

  • Roland Jeffery says:

    Radio 3 remains one of the things that makes life in the UK that bit better. And where else on the planet is there something like it? Classic FM in the UK and the classical channels in the USA, for example, are too safe, too concerned to act as a comfort blanket, too worried listeners will flip stations if they play something lastings longer than 8 minutes. At a time when music has been completely stripped out of schooling in the UK for all but a handful of (mostly private and elite) schools, R3 is one of the threads by which our musical culture hangs on.

    There are annoyances, of course. Some of the newer hyper-keen presenters are patronising to confirmed listeners and plain annoying for new adopters. Late Junction, which used to be eclectic and unexpected, has become too much a world music slot; though the rich mix of its early years has been stollen by the Mixtape, which is surely a formula that could be built on. The quality of R3 drama is patchy and needs a shake-out; perhaps more dramatised readings of established but neglected works? The serious music talk is rather ghetto-ised into Saturday morning and would benefit from being spread around the schedule.

    But we do need to campaign for R3. If it goes, the orchestras will go next, and so many of the spin-offs like New Generation Artists, lunchtime concerts, then the Proms, at any rate as we know them. The vultures are circling Broadcasting House and after we emerge from the exceptional circumstances of Covid-19, when music was so important to so many, they will be very hungry.