Discuss the impact of Classic FM on Radio

Radio in Britain was started on the ‘principle of public service’ (p12 Scannell 1990). It was fundamentally a public utility, which promised to be a cultural, moral and educative force. These were the founding ideals of the BBC, which remained paramount during their formative years. However, as mass media became more readily available, particularly with the impact of television, the BBC was forced to popularize its service. At the same time they were facing competition from commercial radio stations. These stations were financed by advertisers and thus were more interested in adhering to popular taste to ultimately make greater profit.

The impact of Classic FM on Radio 3 is an excellent example of this process. Radio 3 provided a mix of serious classical music, fused with other forms such as jazz, folk, new music (etc). They interspersed the music with serious documentaries – creating an all round “educational experience” (Independent 1992). In 1992, Classic FM was introduced to our airwaves. They played ‘popular classics’, including film music and requests from the public. Primarily, they were interested in classical music that could be recognized and ‘enjoyed’ by the masses, which ensured that listeners would want to tune in again and again.

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This undoubtedly had a huge impact on Radio 3, a fact that is emphasised when you look at the listenership figures. Radio 3 now has a third of the listeners of Classic FM. However, although this highlights a revealing statistic, it is necessary to consider the wider sociological issues. We are living in a society where ‘mass media’ is an everyday concept. The industry, particularly the music business, is fundamentally capitalist.

Money making – giving the consumer what they apparently want, is fundamental to life in the twenty first century. The BBC’s public service manifesto fails to hold much weight in a consumer society. The license fee is now fighting against the technological advances of cable and satellite television, where the small array of terrestrial channels makes way for hundreds available on sky. I would essentially argue that although Classic FM are succeeding in bringing classical music to the masses, but at the same time, they are only interested in providing the most popularized form in order to attract listeners and make money.

Talk about the media, and people very often first think of television, then newspapers. Sometimes they acknowledge radio, but it is not uncommon for it to be ignored. However, a close look at radio reveals its vitality, its economic, political and social importance, as well as its power to remain in the communication field. In recent years it has been forced to take a back seat – hiding in the shadows of the communications industry. Yet for years, it has served as a powerful cultural force. In Britain the BBC has been at the forefront of this media development. Looking back at the history of the British Broadcasting Corporation, John Reith was a key figure. He was the Managing Director from 1923 to 1926 and the first Director General from 1927 to 1938.

In Reith’s brief and trenchant manifesto for a public service broadcasting system there was an overriding concern for the maintenance of high standards and a unified policy towards the whole of the service supplied. The service must not be used for entertainment purposes alone. Broadcasting had a responsibility to bring into the greatest possible number of homes in the fullest degree all that was best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement. (Scannell 1990 p13)

These Reithian principles are still at the heart of the BBC, despite huge technological, cultural and social changes. The BBC was and still is financed by an annual license fee and thus could be seen as utility similar to electricity or water. With this in mind the BBC was eager to provide a service that was valuable, educative and enjoyable. The war years forced the structure of the BBC to alter and it was criticized for acting as a propaganda tool for the government. The definition of broadcasting as a public utility, and the mandate to develop it as a national service in the public interest, came from the state (Scannell 1990 p13)

However, there was a marked return to Reithian ideals in the forties, with people eager to embrace culture and education. The look of the BBC in previous eras is not dissimilar to the service we receive today. The ‘pyramid of culture’ is still evident. Radio 1 and 2 provide light programming associated with more popular taste. They form the base of the pyramid and thus attract a greater audience. Radio 3 and 4 are consequently more ‘high brow’ and are concerned with issues deemed more ‘cultural/serious’.

The BBC have justifiably been criticised for delivering a service that is elitist and middle class, particularly in their formative years. Under the management of Reith moral conduct was of utmost importance. Regional accents were banned and presenters had to use Received Pronunciation. Programming in the early years focused on educating, yet subject choice strongly instilled middle class values. The influence of the government on broadcasting was problematic, but this was remedied in the forties with the establishment of the Art’s Council.

The BBC, despite its ‘positive moral intentions’, has frequently encountered problems in the form of competition. The earliest threats to the BBC were from Radio Normadie and Radio Luxemburg. Both stations broadcast the more popular music of the time, the type that was heard on many American Radio stations. However, the most significant threat came not from another station, but from another technology – television. As television became more popular and widespread, it was described as ‘radio, but with visuals’. Many households turned off their radios and turned on their televisions. Not surprisingly, television became the most popular form of entertainment. Radio became a medium that was enjoyed whilst doing something else.

Technological advancements have undoubtedly changed the face of radio. Television, video, DVD, home computers, the Internet – are all other forms of possible information or entertainment. Both cable and sky television, provide a service, based on a monthly premium, which broadcasts a huge array of channels. Digital television plays many of the major radio stations; you can also listen to just about any station via the Internet today, there are even specific Internet radio stations. Perhaps these advancements will force an end to radio, as we know it?

However, the BBC has continually broadcast new and innovative programs that have provided education and enjoyment. Radio 3 has served as a base for many of these programs. As a station it has concerned itself with a variety of different broadcasting combining …the new-music showcases, the explorations of period performance, the specialist documentaries, the interval talks, the concert and opera relay, as well as the plays and poetry readings (Clements in The Guardian 1998) Radio 3 itself, was introduced in the early seventies. It was widely accepted as a replacement to the ‘Third Programme’.

The third programme broadcast a combination of approximately half speech and half music, both being given the general labels of ‘serious’ and ‘cultural’. (Whitehead 1989 Intro) The third programme enjoyed twenty-four years of broadcasting, but with listening figures dwindling, it was decided that BBC radio would be re-structured. The third programme, in an effort to attract more listeners gradually increased the amount of music it was playing… …dismantling the Third’s image as an ‘all round’ cultural programme. (Whitehead 1989 p227)

The eventual result saw the emergence of both Radio 3 and Radio 4. Current affairs would be moved onto Radio Four, and music would encroach even more on the evening territory of the old Third Programme. (Whitehead 1989 p232) Radio 3 is a purveyor for some of the most positive aspects of the BBC. It offers unbiased commentary, it is not trying to make money and it offers a broad array of programs that refuse to preference one type of music/subject over another. It definitely caters for a minority group – an idea very much central to the BBC. However, as a result, it fails to attract a huge listenership. It could be argued, that this is perhaps more positive rather than negative. As the MP Terry Boston remarked, public serving broadcasting has a duty to serve minority interests as well as mass audiences.


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