25 years of Classic FM

Classic FM celebrates 25 years on-air this week.

I remember tuning in to listen to the station on the first day it broadcast – 7 September 1992. My birthday. The day I was doing a long shift on my holiday job at nearby Centre Parcs in Elveden. (I was a kitchen porter, if you’re interested in the detail.)

There was a sense of excitement about the launch of a new radio station, similar to the buzz when Channel 4 started ten years before. A moment in broadcasting history.

I don’t remember ever listening to Radio 3 before Classic FM started. Orchestral music was a big part of my life thanks to County Youth Orchestra and my university studies, but that hadn’t translated into dedicated Radio 3 listening. I didn’t start listening to Radio 3 in earnest for another 13 years.

Approachable, undemanding, and glossy

Classic FM started as it meant to go on: approachable, undemanding, and glossy.

We didn’t strike up an especially strong relationship. Listening to commercial radio – Classic was the first national commercial radio station – seemed like another world with different rules, the equivalent of a long-lost aunt turning up to a family reunion in an outfit that looked entirely out of place.

As a new listener, I wanted to form as tight a bond with Classic FM as I had done with Radio 1 during the summer of ’87, when I’d ended up listening to the station religiously throughout the day from Simon Mayo at breakfast until I’d heard the end of Newsbeat at 6pm.

But, Classic failed to win me over. It wasn’t an instant friend. It seemed to dart around everywhere. It sounded shiny. It overlooked the sense of occasion I had thrilled at whenever I played in a concert. It all seemed a bit brutal and throwaway. Reading presenter Petroc Trelawney’s recollections of Classic’s first station manager Michael Bhukt’s direction regarding how to back announce works on-air, perhaps my reaction as a listener wasn’t entirely surprising.

I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was worth investing in as a listener. Should I make more of an effort or just abandon it?

More radio stations means more exposure for classical music

When I was working with the English Symphony Orchestra in 1995, then the value of Classic FM became more apparent.

Janet Ritterman’s Arts Council of England National Review of Orchestral Provision acted as a primer for anyone joining orchestral management in 1995. It became clearer to me then reading it just how broadcasting and recorded music was vital in the classical music ecosystem. The addition of Classic FM in 1992 had clearly provided a much-needed outlet for a wider range of recorded music.

More radio stations playing more classical music meant the classical music ecosystem was supported. Playing music that didn’t make too many demands on the listener made it possible for that ecosystem to exist. Listeners wanted to listen. Advertisers wanted to advertise. Performers wanted exposure. Everyone’s a winner.

Those that snipe need to stop

I will always be a big advocate of Classic FM. I admire the way it knows exactly what it is, and that it’s messaging to the wider industry is resolutely unambiguous. In being present on the scene, it’s opened up a genre to a much-wider audience.

The challenge it faces is the same as the challenge it faced when it launched: those that snipe at it compare it to Radio 3 making the implicit assumption that Classic should be the gateway to cultural enlightenment, and berating it because it rarely is.

It’s an unfair and unrealistic assumption.

Ivan Hewitt wrote about the station in the Telegraph on 28 August:

“For many classical music lovers, the success of Classic FM is a sign that we’ve lost our cultural bearings. We’re no longer sure what classical music is, so millions of listeners can accept the rag-bag of classical lollipops, film scores and video games that Classic |that, it peddles the idea that classical music is good only for making you feel relaxed. It’s a retreat, a rest home of the soul, when the hard living of the day is done.

What really rubs salt in the wound, is that a much better alternative lies at hand, a mere twiddle of the tuning dial away. That alternative is a magnificent state‑funded classical music broadcaster, in the shape of BBC Radio 3.” 

The quote appears harsh, but Hewitt’s piece goes on to present a reasonably balanced view, giving a platform to the entrepreneurial Station Manager Sam Jackson, and his former boss and now Arts Council Chief Exec Darren Henley. They clarify the point that most misunderstand. Classic FM isn’t in competition with Radio 3 – both stations are going after entirely different audiences who listen for different reasons. Classic is far more closely aligned to Radio 2.

More importantly, Classic FM tells its listeners how they’re going to feel when they hear a piece of music. That means there’s a guarantee on the listening investment, even if that is at the expense of discovering our own individual and often complex emotional reactions to a work of art.

A powerful brand

Recognise too the power of the Classic FM brand.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will be playing the station’s 25th anniversary concert on Thursday this week. After that the station is partnering with the orchestra in a series of Friday concerts later in the year.

Seeing the Classic FM branding next to a concert listing gives a potential ticket buyer an easy way of determining whether the event is for them. Ticket selling is made easier with that branding – more powerful than any concert synopsis.

In digital terms too, I’ve always been impressed with Classic FM.

Knowing what you are makes creating content to support that vision a whole lot easier than trying to be something it knows it’s not. Radio 3 has done the latter on-air frequently (though less so now), and is still partial to doing so online. When Classic FM tries to do the same it never really feels quite so awkward.

Now for the honest bit

Full transparency though. I don’t listen to Classic FM that much. I did a few years back – mornings mostly, when I was interested in understanding the different ways classical music was ‘sold’ to different audience groups. I listened again yesterday and had a similar experience listening as I did when I first listened to it 25 years ago. I recognise that its not really for me. I need to form some kind of relationship with a radio station, and I’m not entirely sure we’ll ever be a lasting partnership.

But the important thing is, that’s OK. The fact it’s celebrating its 25th birthday proves it’s doing something right for its 5.8 million listeners.

So, happy birthday Classic FM. There’s room here for everyone. And, I forgive you for the shonky job interview experience I had. Still, the tour was nice, and I do rather like that rooftop garden you’ve got.

Classic FM’s 25th Birthday Concert with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is live from the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool on Thursday 7 September, 7.30pm 


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