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


bertrand-russell_02_7661The month of April 1970, if remembered at all, is remembered for two landmark moments in modern cultural history that made front pages around the globe – the drama of Apollo 13’s aborted moon mission and the news that Paul McCartney had ‘quit’ The Beatles; the former represented the apogee of the world’s fascination with the American space programme, whilst the latter served as pop’s final severance with its age of innocence. However, that month also saw another ending as significant in its own humble little way. April 1970 was just four days old when a controversial yet passionately cherished British broadcasting institution disappeared from the airwaves forever – the BBC Third Programme.

I was born a couple of months after the Light Programme and the Home Service were replaced by Radios 1, 2 and 4, so have no first-hand memory of them or their esoteric sibling, the Third Programme. Radio 3 may also have debuted on the same day as 1, 2 and 4, but contrary to popular belief (not to mention numerous online sources), the Third did not join the Light and the Home on the same shuttle service to the wireless necropolis in September 1967. It clung onto the evening hours for another two and-a-half years before time was finally called on a radio station unlike any other before or since. That the Third managed to receive a stay of execution when the rest of the BBC’s radio network underwent the most radical transformation in its history is testament to the friends it had in high places; but much in the same way that the sixpence survived the cull of £sd coinage in 1971 and remained legal tender for a little while longer, the Third Programme’s days were permanently numbered for the last couple of years of its existence.

The far-reaching conclusions of the report ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’ (published in 1969) failed to envisage a future need for the kind of service the Third had provided since its inception in 1946. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War there were many reflections on what precisely the Allies had been fighting for, and some concluded culture ranked high on the list of western civilisation’s worthwhile achievements. Such a view had also flourished during the war itself with the formation of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts, which was renamed the Arts Council of Great Britain following the end of hostilities.

As well as heavy government investment in public events such as exhibitions, opera, ballet, the theatre and the 1951 Festival of Britain, there was a widespread belief that the most widely accessible medium of the era, radio, also had a part to play in this promotion of culture. Despite the opposition of the BBC’s ex-Director General Lord Reith – who had always been against segregation in broadcasting – the BBC Third Programme was launched on 29 September 1946 with a specific remit from the start.

The opening night included a 45-minute Bach recital on the harpsichord, an address by the Prime Minister of South Africa, some Monteverdi Madrigals ‘on gramophone’, a concert of choral music from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and a discussion that promised to contain ‘issues of current interest as well as recurrent abstract problems’. Quite a contrast with the likes of ‘ITMA’ and ‘Variety Band-Box’ over on the Light Programme that same evening, but a clear message of intent that here was something brave and deliberately uncompromising in British broadcasting. When the legacy of the post-war Attlee government is discussed today, it is mostly the social reforms that are focused on, but belief that the Arts mattered was also key to the Left philosophy; Education Secretary Ellen Wilkinson even spoke of a ‘Third Programme Nation’.

The Third Programme may have featured traditional ‘classical music’ as part of its schedule, but it also gave airtime to the increasingly experimental and avant-garde strain of contemporary classical that would have caused British industry to grind to a halt had any of it interrupted the jolly soundtrack of ‘Music While You Work’. It also facilitated the birth of the iconic BBC Radiophonic Workshop, whose influence can still be discerned throughout electronically-based music to this very day. Yet it was the spoken word that the Third revelled in – and not in the Talk Radio sense of giving disgruntled gobshites in love with the sound of their own voices an opportunity to host phone-ins about immigration or the EU.

Lectures and discussions from the likes of Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus and other heavyweight intellectuals of the day were crucial to the Third’s identity and reputation, but so was giving exposure to the works of radical playwrights such as Beckett and Pinter, and poets who had no other broadcasting outlets such as T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath; Dylan Thomas wrote ‘Under Milk Wood’ for the Third, such was the station’s standing within the artistic community, not to mention that it was the prime source of copyright payments for poets.

Of course, it didn’t take long for accusations of elitism to be levelled at this unashamed highbrow presence on the nation’s airwaves, despite the fact that it was catering for audiences (albeit small ones) that hadn’t been catered for by radio before. Similar accusations are often levelled at BBC4 today. Who do these cultural types think they are – demanding that their own erudite tastes be funded by the licence fee? The fact is that devotees of the Third paid the same amount as devotees of ‘Housewives’ Choice’, regardless of the vast chasm between listening figures, and were just as entitled to have radio representation.

However, some of the criticisms aimed at the Third predictably had an impact when the BBC instigated one of its occasional pruning exercises. After eleven years of transmitting between 6.00pm and midnight, 1957 saw the Third cut in half, with the early evening segment taken over by the wonderfully named Network Three, an educational strand sounding more like a clandestine government department. Then, in 1965 the BBC Music Programme began broadcasting classical music during the day on the Third’s frequency, paving the way for Radio 3.

When the BBC belatedly woke-up to the need for music radio to reflect the dramatic changes in listening habits during the 60s and recruited a crew of pirate station DJs in time for the launch of groovy Radio 1 in 1967, it also decided to rebrand the Light Programme and the Home Service as Radio 2 and Radio 4 respectively. The Third Programme was a trickier proposition. Its audiences may have been small, but its place at the heart of the nation’s cultural life was so beloved that attempts to axe it met with fierce opposition. A compromise was reached that saw the Music Programme become Radio 3 during the daytime hours whilst the Third and Network Three continued to occupy the evening hours.

However, as many began to express dissatisfaction with the rebranded radio stations, the report that came to be known as Broadcasting in the Seventies was commissioned and its findings resulted in a clearer division between the functions of the respective stations that have more or less defined them ever since. For the Third, the writing was on the wall and it finally disappeared for good in April 1970; plays, documentaries, discussion and education were shunted to Radio 4, and classical music overtook the majority of Radio 3’s extended airtime.

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Third Programme/Radio 3, and the institution remains contentious, with many questioning the cost of running a service that appeals to such a minority audience. Having enjoyed a weekend on BBC4 in which Keith Richards took over the channel for three consecutive nights, I was aware that the masses were tuning in to ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and ‘The X Factor’ and that I was a member of an exclusive club seeking televisual stimulation of a unique kind elsewhere. But as I pay my licence fee (unlike most people I know), am I not entitled to an alternative? Last time I looked, we weren’t residing in a Communist Paradise and having to endure a collective schedule. In today’s homogenous society, it is more vital than ever that square pegs have their entertainment too.

Yet, even now, over 40 years after it was laid to rest, those who remember the Third Programme maintain Radio 3 is a poor substitute for its predecessor, a station that prefers the easy option of a music schedule with occasional spoken word interludes rather than the more challenging and adventurous remit of the Third.

Perhaps the Third Programme was destined to be a short-lived heroic failure, a product of a period when the Arts were regarded as important to the nation’s wellbeing as health, housing or education, an admirable concept that now appears quaint to the defiantly philistine, anti-intellectual ear of the 21st century, when culture is viewed as more suspect and more elitist than ever before. Maybe the Third Programme was elitist, but as Paul McCartney once said of ‘Silly Love Songs’, what’s wrong with that?

© The Editor