BBC Radio 3 in desperate pitch for youth

BBC Radio 3 in desperate pitch for youth


norman lebrecht

February 25, 2019

The BBC’s ailing classical music channel – down 20 percent in two years – has signed saxophonist Jess Gillam, 20, as presenter of a Saturday show, This Classical Life.

The plan is that she will interview musicians of her own age. Among those lined up are Isata Kanneh-Mason, double bassist Sam Becker, sound artist Belle Chen and TV composer Ollie Howell.

Gillam, who is a bright spark with a Decca record contract, will go far. But the gambit of hiring a young musician presenter with a view to attracting young audiences has been tried over and over on Classic FM without in any way denting the station’s mature age profile – except perhaps to alienate some of the diehards.

We expect nothing original of Radio 3 these days.


  • Andy says:

    Sounds good to me. I’m going to listen to it. Easy to disparage it but is there an alternative formula that would work? Jess Gillam is great, and very engaging (as you acknowledge, to be fair), so it may be very good.

  • Viola da Bracchio says:

    “Flippin’ kids!” is the backward-looking attitude of the hardcore R3 audience – as witnessed on their ‘Friends of Radio 3’ website, where they gleefully talk of ‘keeping it elitist’ :((

    The Beeb have dropped the ball badly on this. Today’s generation of players and singers used to scamper home to be enthralled by David Munrow’s ‘Pied Piper’ – a show for young people that was smarter than their shows for grown-ups. Why do trombones symbolise death? What is basso continuo? How many kinds of bagpipe are there, and in which scores can we find them playing? Why was the structure of French opera dictated by The Jockey Club? I remember some of the episodes even now. Let’s wish Jess Gillam the best of luck with her task!

    Without an Outreach program in place, no orchestra, ballet company or opera house will continue to rake in subsidy. Finally the BBC have taken this on board too. But now sit back and wait for the Bufton-Tuftons to harrumph that it had better not chew even a precious half-minute off Choral Evensong 🙁

    • AndrewB says:

      To be fair Choral Evensong is probably one of Radio 3’s biggest audience winners , if not the biggest. It is a programme of a persistently high quality. Some Proms concerts and the live relays from the Met also do well apparently.
      I take your point about David Munro’s work too. It would be good if a renowned musician or conductor could host such a show today or head a youth outreach program.
      In terms of range of musical programming I find radio 3 does well over all, but some of the presenting could be a turn off for a younger audience, so perhaps it will be good to have Jess Gillam around.
      It is my experience that audiences really enjoy hearing about music from performing musicians – the ‘inside story’ of what is being performed. More of that is needed as it enriches the listeners experience.
      Record review is a well presented selection on Saturday mornings with a wide range of contributors.
      However there is one fairly high profile male radio 3 presenter whose style I personally find very hard to listen to and I am not sure how young people would enjoy listening to him either – to me he seems smug, self satisfied …..but I guess one man’s meat etc!
      It is valuable to have a BBC channel dedicated to covering classical music so I hope Radio 3 can find a way out of the audience doldrums.

      • Viola da Bracchio says:

        Your point is well-made about Choral Evensong, and I apologise if I may have sounded rather flip about it. There are indeed many enthusiastic practitioners around – performers, soloists, conductors – who are keen to share their insights with younger listeners. Jess should not find it too hard to find guest collaborators for episodes? Vladimir Jurowsky, for example, has thrown huge resources behind his Outreach programs, and ‘Vladimir Jurowsky Conducts & Talks’ programs.

  • Christopher Storey says:

    Desperate is right ! Jess Gillam may be engaging if you like that sort of thing , but with the best will in the world can she really be described as a classical musician ? Her instrument ( and it is noteworthy that she does not , as far as I know , double it with clarinet which might provide a basis for a classical career ) is used in just a handful of classical works. Radio 3 would get on far better if it tried, just for once, to please its core listeners, but the chances of that happening are, on past form, very limited. The future for Radio 3 looks bleaker and bleaker

    • Viola da Bracchio says:

      And there’s the problem – listeners who believe they are ‘entitled’ as ‘core listeners’… before anyone else is provided for?

      The Beeb is a state broadcaster, and their funding model doesn’t depend on numbers. They have a right to collect a Licence Fee, based on their Statute. There are no ‘core listeners’. Everyone – listener or not – should expect that there would be programming provision for them. That includes the under-20’s, Christopher.

      Flippin’ kids, eh?

      • Christopher Storey says:

        I have listened to radio 3 and its predecessor, the Third Programme, since I was 8 years old . I did not need teenage scribblers to induce me to listen, and nor would those in youth or childhood who are genuinely interested in music of this sort. The difficulty is that today there are so many more distractions and/or attractions for the young . But it is no good saying that R3 does not have a core audience. It is only a small minority of the population as a whole who are interested in its type of output – perhaps, in my experience, 5% at most and in reality probably more like 2%. The loss of even a small proportion of those by failing to meet their demands will destroy any public service broadcaster

      • Au contraire. BBC does need to know its core audience, the numbers switching on and the numbers switching off. It is part of the internal reappraisal as to how much finance the Corporation allocates to each network.

  • Will Duffay says:

    Oh do stop grumbling about R3. It’s damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Meanwhile, the curmudgeonly old men who complain are slowly dying out.

    • Terence says:

      Unfortunately “curmudgeonly old men who complain” never die out. Younger, less grumpy men slowly turn into ….

      One hopes that in some measure they then listen to classical music more.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      And the women? Aaaargh.

      Radio is being destroyed by streaming; radio services from all over the world are available anytime. BBC is just another casualty of this changing technology. This did their best for decades and I think we have to be grateful for that.

      As Ninotchka said in the eponymous film (1939), “won’t be long now, comrades”.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    We certainly don’t. Radio 3 and to some extent radio 4 desperately want to attract young audiences who are not interested and not bothering about the older age groups who are.

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    Maybe we septuagenarians should be a little less sniffy about the BBC or other organisations trying to attract a younger listening audience by actually having presenters nearer to their age than ours? Or maybe those who are sniffy about the ailing nature of classical music broadcasting could suggest how else to help it revive itself? Those of us in the twilight of our listening years were young once, when there was only the BBC and from what I remember the core audience then were more concerned about the decline in standards through popularisation they put down to chasing a younger more philistine listening audience than themselves. You can’t have it both ways.

  • Stephen Follows says:

    Nice to see that Su Pollard is still getting the work, so many years after ‘Hi-De-Hi’.

  • Peter Owen says:

    In my distant youth if you were interested in classical music you listened to Radio 3 because, good as it often was, that was it. But now there are so many alternatives freely available it’s not that surprising it’s floundering a bit. It would be interesting to know how many young people actually listen to any radio, BBC or otherwise.

  • PHF says:

    Well… we’ve seen worst things lately. People seems more attracted to nice and cute faces of the so-called classical-social-media influencers posting nice photos and some superficial pseudo-virtuosic videos. This is just a bonus.

  • Mark says:

    This new “scala” station will have presenters who are basically “ popular voices “ on other radio stations and can play clips of classical music when they need s break from talking ! Of course there nothing wrong with having younger presenters on R3 but it won’t boost audience numbers!

  • Mark says:

    Oh dear, not Jess Gillam. You might as well get Tess Daly and Claudia Winkelman. Radio 3 shouldn’t be about listener numbers nor popularity. The BBC might as well merge Radio 3 with Radio 1 and 2 if they want large audience numbers. Thank goodness for the France Musique app and other streaming services.

  • London Bach Society owes a great deal to Radio 3. This year we will have been broadcasting for 60 years, so have worked closely with the network on various Bach projects. BBC Radio 3 has always done its level best to engage Presenters who will not only deliver the continuity and narrative well, but also be a sort of ‘unseen guest’ in every home so to speak. That is and always has been a tall order, because some Presenters go down well, others are a turn-off – voice, manner(isms), are they too glib, too friendly or not glib or friendly enough. It is a tough call. Remember Tom Crowe, Patricia Hughes et al. By today’s standards these were/remain the ‘aristocrats’ of Radio 3 presenting. We have moved on so much now and I am not sure any more satisfactorily. Jess, Mahan and others (superb musical talents) are not only being asked to bring a more youthful air to Radio 3, but recruit young listeners too in order to boost flagging audience numbers. Yes, David Munrow, the late, great David Munrow, was a genius and bought into a growing enthusiasm for Early Music, these old instruments and the novel sound they made. But also spoke to a younger audience with music still firmly on the school curriculum as a basis and even entrée to radio listening. It is simply not the same world now. School music is in serious, I mean serious, decline. Fashion, taste and style has also radically changed – backpacks and ‘distressed’ jeans were once definitely not concert-going attire!!! So where are the young listeners to come from? Principally, Radio 3 will expect the new blood to bring on their fan bases first, using the programmes as a lever to engage more with them and kick-start a ripple effect. Otherwise it will simply be ‘preaching to the converted’ which is not what the network needs or (I think) wants. With so many competing ways of listening to music, is it also clear where to find Radio 3?

  • Kyle Wiedmeyer says:

    The only way to save something like a classical music radio station would be to get younger people interested in classical music, and unfortunately, I can’t think of any surefire way.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    Why should “young people” want anything other than competent and informed presenters who know about classical music and know how to communicate to this knowledge to the audience in a friendly and engaging why?

    Trying to “get down with the kids” is just patronising and counter-productive. In any case, winning middle-aged listeners is just as important as winning “yoof” listeners. Most people I know only become interested in listening to classical music as they get older.