Those of you who take note of the time of day these posts are dispatched will by now have gathered I’m prone to burning the midnight oil; living in a household where neighbours are a thin wall away, however, requires a degree of tact in terms of background sounds. The usual routine has always been to leave the World Service on come the Radio 4 closedown at 1.00am, though the volume is so low that what the voices are saying is generally inaudible. Of late, I’ve been switching over to Radio 3 to soundtrack my jottings in the wee small hours instead. As an alternative, it’s refreshingly soothing, comprising piano pieces in the Erik Satie mould, string quartets or choral music. They’re loud enough to absorb, but quiet enough not to disrupt anyone else’s slumber; I only wish my recently departed ‘Club DJ’ neighbour had considered a similar course of post-midnight audio action.
As a child, Radio 3 was the national radio station I knew the least about; Radio 4 was almost as alien to my ears, though I do remember my dad regularly listening to ‘Brain of Britain’, from which he no doubt sourced questions and answers for the pub quizzes he organised. In old-school terms, Radio 1 was for the terminal working-classes; Radio 2 was for the working-classes whose social mobility scooters had steered them away from the backyard privy; Radio 4 was for the middle-classes; and Radio 3 was for…well, who? The aristocracy? Pipe-smoking dons in tweed jackets? It had an enigmatic mystery to me because I never heard it, though no doubt its previous incarnation as the Third Programme would have been just as mysterious to ears weaned on Tony Blackburn.
It’s a measure of how much of a special case the Third Programme was that when BBC Radio underwent its great rebranding shake-up on 30 September 1967 and added Radio 1 to the long-standing trio of stations it was really only the daytime Music Programme, occupying the Third’s frequency since 1965, that became Radio 3. In the evening, it was business as usual with the Third continuing to provide cultural riches as well as Network Three’s educational ‘Study Session’; the station also retained its Sports Service strand on an afternoon (which included ‘Test Match Special’). As far as Radio 3 after dark was concerned, however, the impression given was that the station remained a highbrow night-school behind the various doors of which were numerous means of self-improvement; it was still the worthiest of broadcasting endeavours.
There had been more opposition to tinkering with the Third than accompanied the facelift of the BBC’s other two radio stations in 1967; it was viewed by many as an artistic oasis that deserved preservation. Even the ‘hit’ classical music composers like old Ludwig Van and Mozart were more familiar on the Home Service than on the Third, which revelled in the esoteric and uncommercial; there were also fears the station would lose its high proportion of spoken word programming when rebranded as Radio 3. Concerns that Radio 3 would effectively become Classic FM a quarter-of-a-century early were perhaps responsible for the compromise that kept the Third intact for another two-and-a-half years. However, the impact of 1969’s ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’ report finally saw the Third vanish from the schedules in April 1970 and a full-time Radio 3 at last.
The station did gain ‘Choral Evensong’ from Radio 4 in 1970, with Radio 3 being a more fitting home for a series that has been on air since 1926; in return, political coverage became the exclusive province of Radio 4; any spoken word broadcasts on 3 would henceforth focus solely on the Arts, including plays and poetry. Many had worried the latter would be lost, as the Third Programme had been a major platform for contemporary poetry – virtually the only one in the field of radio. Periodical panic over Radio 3’s future wasn’t helped by the fact that the BBC’s monopoly of the airwaves was coming to an end; but there were few signs the ILR network (which spread across the country from 1973 onwards) intended to compete with Radio 3; as a consequence, its unique status seemed secure.
The station was an early beneficiary of VHF stereo broadcasting, something its playlist could have been designed for; its extensive coverage of the Proms and other major classical music events also often went hand-in-hand with simultaneous broadcasts on BBC2, which at the time was the nearest BBC TV had to an in-vision Radio 3. To the casual radio listener, the Third Programme may have had the reputation of being unfathomably intellectual, but Radio 3 retained the ‘elitist’ tag in the popular imagination simply by virtue of specialising in genres of music that wouldn’t threaten to gatecrash ‘Top of the Pops’. It’s worth noting, though, that Prog Rock would occasionally surface on the Radio 3 schedules in the 70s, paving the way for widening the musical scope that eventually encompassed ‘World Music’. Jazz has also been a key component from the beginning, as it had been in the latter days of the Third.
The arguments for and against the continued existence of a radio station with a relatively small (albeit passionate) listening audience are the same as those that surrounded Radio 3’s predecessor. One former managing director of BBC Radio had described the station as ‘a private playground for elitists to indulge in cerebral masturbation’ during its early years, while those to whom Radio 3 remains the same artistic oasis as the Third was before it are quick to protest whenever a new controller of the station implements ‘controversial’ changes, such as the arrival of Paul Gambaccini as a presenter in 1995; his presence was regarded by some as a populist move to prevent migration to Classic FM.
As we all – well, most of us – contribute towards the funding of the BBC, I think it only right some of that licence fee is diverted into niche broadcasting that doesn’t have the audience of a ‘Strictly’ or a ‘Bake-Off’. If we all pay in, we should all have our own tastes catered for, even if the tastes of the many naturally count for more in respect of how the money is dished out than the tastes of the few. The Third Programme or Radio 3 was never destined to be a ratings winner, but so what? Some things in broadcasting (and life) count for more.
© The Editor