Music Australia News

Moving forward with classical radio – optimism overseas

Graham Strahle
| August 15, 2016

With rumblings on the future of classical music radio in this country as witnessed by concerns over ABC Classic FM and Radio Adelaide, we might turn our attention briefly to developments overseas.

In the UK, BBC Radio 3 has achieved its highest audience figures in five years. Its reach is now 2.2 million people, according to the latest industry survey. Growth has been led by the station’s Breakfast and Essential Classics shows, and new programs including Jazz Now and Journeys in music, an eclectic “ancient to future” listening experience that is intended “for adventurous listeners”.

The spread of Radio 3’s current 32 weekly programs is impressive. They range from guest interviewees sharing their “musical loves and hates” in the show Musical Passions through to expertly presented record reviews and close-to-the-ground industry commentary (in the form of The Lebrecht Interview).

Meanwhile in the UK, the experience of the commercial player Classic FM in successfully challenging BBC Radio 3 is instructive. The station’s listening figures continue to climb, with its More Music Breakfast program still being the UK’s biggest commercial radio breakfast show.

It seems more than ever time to look afresh at the possibilities of classical radio in Australia. The danger may be thinking its future is terminal when in fact it is not. The vigour of Limelight magazine, which the ABC divested in 2014 and now operates as an independent business, attests to this, and points to how a similar station to Classic FM in the UK could potentially operate in Australia.

In years to come we may look back and see that one of the most retrograde steps was the ABC’s sudden dropping last year of the prestigious Young Performers Awards. Having been championed by ABC Classic FM via its many live broadcasts over the years, this was just the type of event radio needs in order to move forwards and capture the energy and enthusiasm of young people making music.

And on the subject of broadcasting concerts, live or recorded, one idea could be to extend coverage to the many musicians and groups who rarely or never get a look in. A favourite few usually get all the airtime, but the stories, experiences and performances of others can make equally great radio. BBC Radio 3, for example, is making a four-part series called All Together Now: The Great Orchestra Challenge, “in which five amateur orchestras compete to be crowned Britain’s most inspirational amateur orchestra”.

Neither does it have to always be about concerts that follow the traditional format. The director of Canada’s Music and Beyond festival, cellist Julian Armour, says we just need to think more inventively.

“Classical music only exists when it’s heard,” he says. “Because people don’t hear it that often on the radio you see live audiences dwindling… Presenters everywhere are seeing audiences diminish. I’m trying to reverse that a little bit.”

Accordingly, his Music and Beyond festival, held in each summer in Ottawa, seeks to present classical music in a multiplicity of combinations with visual art, drama, poetry, dance and other artforms.

“A major part of its mandate is building new audiences for music and the arts, with a special emphasis on young people,” says Music and Beyond’s website. CBC Radio has broadcast some of its events, and the festival’s box office has been increasing in the last two years by 34.7%.

Surely there is room for positive thinking in that.

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