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Edward Blakeman, BBC Radio 3 (180x202)Making a Difference: Public Service Broadcasting and the Arts


Edward Blakeman Editor of Live Music at BBC Radio 3 in London and Executive Producer of the BBC Proms, laid out a number of answers to the question raised to him as the theme of his talk: "How do we make the cultural discourse of music audible for the larger audience?" Read on to learn more on Blakeman’s view on the role of the public broadcaster in today’s media picture.

By Edward Blakeman - BBC Radio 3

1. Introduction

Greetings and best wishes from everyone at BBC Radio 3 in the UK. And my thanks to Morten Walderhaug and his colleagues at the Norwegian MIC for their kind invitation to this most stimulating conference in the beautiful city of Bergen.

To introduce myself: I am one of six Editors co-ordinating the Radio 3 output, reporting to the Heads of Music and Speech, and to the Controller of Radio 3. My particular responsibility is for ‘Live Music – Evenings’. This covers opera, orchestral concerts, and the BBC Proms.

As an example of what I do, immediately before coming to the MIC Conference I produced a Radio 3 recording of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte at Glyndebourne Festival Opera. That will be broadcast throughout the European Broadcasting Union to twenty-seven countries, including Norway - just one of the benefits of public service broadcasting!

2. Why Making a Difference?

Public service broadcasting is publicly funded (by an annual licence fee in the case of the BBC) and therefore 'making a difference' has three interlinked aspects:

Process. Public service makes a difference to how I view and carry out my role in the media. It removes the commercial imperative, but brings responsibility and accountability with public money. A current keyword is 'compliance' - a constant process of checking and measuring against a broadcasting code of conduct, and the best interests of listeners.

Product. Public service makes a difference to what programmes I make and activities I am involved in. I was struck by a question in the paper announcing this conference: 'How do we make the cultural discourse of music audible for the larger audience?' The word 'discourse' there is crucial - it is what public service broadcasting does. It creates discourse and dialogue. It leads, not follows. It has to find a balance between giving the audience what they say they want, and enthusing the audience about things they never knew they would like or need. It asks the question, for example: 'How do you know your culture is best for you?' As a recent publicity slogan for Radio 3 puts it (playing on the similar sounds of the words 'three' and 'free' in English): 'Free your mind!'

Results. Public service makes a difference to, and an impact on, the cultural life of the country. That is the broad aim. Going back to the conference question: 'How do we make the cultural discourse of music audible for the larger audience?' I said that the crucial word was 'discourse'. That is only partly true. The 'larger audience' is also crucial. This means accessibility for those people who would otherwise not have free access to culture, and it means support for organisations that make culture happen. 'Large' may or may not mean 'big' in commercial terms (something that public service broadcasting always has to grapple with), but it certainly means 'extended' - the audience that otherwise would not be drawn in.

A little history at this point...

3. The BBC Contract

Lord Reith, the first Director General of the BBC in 1927 formulated three key propositions for what he called 'the highest interests of the community and of the nation at large':


The ideal is a balance between the three. But maintaining that presents a constant challenge. Generally there were few problems with the aims to inform and educate. To entertain has been more controversial. This is where public service potentially clashes head-on with commercial interests. It has been much debated recently in the context of the two main BBC TV channels, amid accusations of popularisation just to boost the viewing figures.

So where does Radio 3 fit into this contract?

4. The Role of Radio 3

History. Founded in 1946 as the Third Programme, and broadcasting during evenings only, it provided broadly cultural programming, not just music. In 1970 it became Radio 3, broadcasting daytime and evenings and retaining broadly cultural programming, but with the emphasis on classical music. Radio 3 then evolved through the 1990s to 24-hour broadcasting, including some jazz, crossover and world music in niche slots. The evolution has continued during the last five years, broadening the music and arts mix to include significant amounts of jazz and world music. There is a current reach of 2.3 million listeners per week. The challenge is to retain the ideals and values of Radio 3's history, but renew them for the 21st century.

Structure. Radio 3 is one of the interlocking entities in the BBC which together deliver cultural value in a broader context. Radio 3 works alongside the Performing Groups (five BBC Orchestras and the BBC Singers), the BBC Proms, Classical Music Television, and Live Events across the regions and four nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Provision. Cultural programming has remained a constant factor. Any pressure to narrow this and appeal just to the niche 'classical' music market has been resisted. At various times over the last decade or so this pressure has come both from without and within the BBC. It was particularly sharply focused by the arrival of the commercial station Classic FM in the early 1990s. But public service needs to be broader than simply rotating familiar repertoire.

As indicated above, the music programming embraces classical, jazz, crossover and world music. And the speech programming embraces drama, features on the arts and ideas, talks, discussions and debate. There is also a renewed commitment to youth programming and outreach (e.g. a weekday afternoon programme for school children called Making Tracks) and to exploring the challenges and opportunities of diversity - ethnic, religious, gender, ability and disability issues.

There is also a rapidly growing online provision - the internet is a natural complement to radio. All the broadcast output is simultaneous streamed on the Radio 3 website, there is audio on demand for many programmes (programmes available for a week after their original broadcast), and most programmes have extensive and interactive web pages.

Alongside this, general audience outreach is a lively issue, and a working party has recently been set up to explore ways of breaking down barriers and reaching potential new listeners. Unfortunately, the arts can still carry associations of elitism and class prejudice in the UK.

Meanwhile, radio broadcasting itself is being redefined in the new digital environment: digital radio, radio via freeview on TV, via the internet, via mobile phones. The encouraging thing is that consumption of radio is increasing, even in this visually-dominated world.

So there is a great deal of activity, but where is the Radio 3 focus in all this? Well, underpinning everything is a commitment to being 'live'. Over 50% of the material broadcast is live, and this takes Radio 3 out of the studio and into the world.

5. What does 'Live' mean?

Commissioning. Radio 3 has a long track record of commissioning new music and new drama. There are currently over fifty commissions per year. No other public or private organisation matches this. Much of it involves the BBC performing groups (the five BBC Orchestras and BBC Singers), but there are also many commissions for outside organisations, and these are all broadcast. Radio 3 has also just appointed a first Poet in Residence, Mario Petrucci, to produce original work for broadcast.

Broadcasting. 'Live' accounts for 55% of the output, broadcast either 'as it happens' or 'specially recorded' from live events throughout the country. There are several hundred outside broadcasts of concerts each year throughout the nations and regions of the UK. Some of these are BBC promotions, many are not.

Benefits. Concentration on live music and drama means a high level of support for the arts community, and a high level of access for listeners. Opera houses, concert halls, orchestras, festivals etc, all benefit with increased publicity for, and access to, existing events. In addition, the support of Radio 3 can also enable some activities and events that might otherwise not happen.

The key is establishing significant partnerships to make this happen.

6. Significant Partnerships

Radio 3 has many significant partnerships throughout the UK - e.g. those associated with the activities of the BBC performing groups, the London Jazz Festival, Womad, the BBC World Music Awards. Here is just a selection of those that I am directly involved in.

BBC Proms. A prime example of a partnership of the BBC with itself! The Proms were founded by Sir Henry Wood in 1895, and rescued by the BBC in 1927. Incidentally, that was not without opposition from some people in the music industry at the time who thought that music broadcasting would bring about the end of concert giving! Nearly 100 years later it's the very opposite. The Proms are now promoted by the BBC and ticket prices are kept at a reasonable level to ensure accessibility. The Proms programming also reflects the same diversity as Radio 3, with a wide range of classical music, plus jazz (this year from the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra) and world music (there is an 'East Meets West' focus this year, including Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble). All the concerts - eighty-two in total over eight weeks - are broadcast live, and there is complementary broadcasting of intervals, features, interviews and discussions. The Proms is also involved in outreach events - e.g. at Brixton in South London with BBC Symphony Orchestra in a pre-Prom for new, young audiences.

Opera Houses. Radio 3 audiences have access to the very best of UK opera. In particular, the BBC enjoys a special relationship with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. This is a coming together of two public service organisations with shared aims - the ROH also has responsibility for accessibility. This unique contract across radio and television guarantees a minimum of twelve radio broadcasts per year, so Radio 3 can broadcast every new production plus a selection of important revivals. There are also plans for a joint ROH/Radio 3 archive CD label to make available great recordings of the past.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year and its 10th anniversary in the new theatre. Radio 3 is collaborating with Glyndebourne on broadcasts of its new productions, plus a three-part documentary series, and a free promotional CD of musical highlights of Glyndebourne through the decades.

Opera North has a special project this season of 'Eight Little Greats' - eight rarely performed short operas. Radio 3 is broadcasting all the operas, therefore giving a boost to the project and enhancing its reach. Radio 3 listeners benefit, and Opera North increases its general profile as a company in the North of England.

Orchestras. Radio 3 has a commitment to regular broadcasts of all major UK professional orchestras, but in addition it currently has significant long-term contracts. These include the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Each contract guarantees nine broadcasts per year, and these partnerships have come at significant moments for each orchestra: the transfer from Simon Rattle to Sakari Oramo as principal conductor for the CBSO; the rebuilding of the Hallé under Mark Elder; and the raising of international standards and profile of the BSO with Marin Alsop. For all three, regional and national reach is vital via radio, increasing the profile and status of each orchestra.

Royal Philharmonic Society. Radio 3 has a fruitful media partnership with this musical charity. Founded in 1813, the RPS had a distinguished history (it commissioned Beethoven's Ninth Symphony among other notable works), but by 2000 its resources and influence were limited. However, it had an excellent set of independent musical awards, and under a new chairman it was actively looking for new initiatives. Collaboration with Radio 3 began with joint commissions of chamber music works for the BBC New Generation Artists. This was followed in 2002 by an ongoing media partnership for the RPS Awards which are now broadcast on Radio 3. Next to come is the 'Encore' project of concerts, broadcasts and outreach activities centering on fifteen specially chosen contemporary orchestral and choral works that have so far only had premiere performances. 'Encore' is a second chance to establish deserving works in the repertoire.

Listen Up! This is a new initiative for Autumn 2004 - a collaboration with the Association of British Orchestras (representing professional orchestras) and Making Music (representing amateur orchestras). It will be a six-week celebration of orchestras and orchestral music throughout the UK. Every facet of orchestral activity will be covered by Radio 3, from 'on the platform' concert broadcasts, to 'off the platform' outreach and education events in features, talks and discussions, including a weekly magazine programme. This will also be an important project for the new Poet in Residence, Mario Petrucci, who will be following the 'secret life' of orchestras, and the no less 'secret life' of audiences!

So, what comes next?

7. The Future

With all this activity (and more) the future looks bright, but public service broadcasting can never be complacent. Nothing is guaranteed.

Charter Renewal. The remit of the BBC is currently being debated in the lead-up to a decision in 2006 on the future funding of the BBC.

Public Value. This is a touchstone for the BBC and forms the basis of its vision for the future. Public Value has five main aspects: Democratic Value, Cultural Value, Educational Value, Social and Community Value, Global Value. Public service broadcasting must be seen to measure up convincingly in all these areas.

How do we continue to make a difference? Various areas of activity in the arts would undoubtedly suffer without public service broadcasting, in particular the commissioning and performance of new work and the active financial support of live performance. That is where public service broadcasting can go on making a difference, working alongside the artistic community, supporting a wide range of all that is best in the arts, and helping to lead and develop taste. If we believe that culture for its own sake is worth anything, if we believe that it should it should be part of the fabric of society, then public service support is vital.

8. Three Your Mind!

I talked earlier about a play of words on 'three' and 'free' and the slogan 'Free Your Mind!'. Well, as I left Glyndebourne the night before I came to this conference, the last thing that I saw was the Radio 3 digital music van with the current slogan painted boldly on its side: 'Three Your Mind!'.

Three... free... open and for everyone, quite literally.

The Radio 3 website will fill in the gaps of all the things I have not been able to cover - and there's music while you read!


Thank you.

Related companies:

BBC Radio 3

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Music Information Beyond Politics, Market, and Media

Related articles:

MIC conference summary

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