Review: Scala Radio’s First Day

Scala has a warm feel with some strong presenters, gentle fun and some engaging musical choices. Notwithstanding some playlist tweaks, they’re a more palatable listen than Classic FM and a good deal more with it than Radio 3 is with its latest schedule changes 

What Scala achieved on its first day (that Classic FM never really has) is that I’ve been able to listen to to the station all day.

That’s partly because I’ve wanted to test it (and me).

I know it’s not targeting the likes of me, but if I could enjoy listening to it for an extended period of time then that would say something: it must be doing something right.

It’s warm. It’s honest. It’s carefully .. oh so carefully .. curated too.

Nothing has been left to chance. And from the off that carefulness did pay off. The juxtaposition of classical pops with instrumental pop seemed to work, even if some of the pre-recorded hyperbole about classical music’s part in the history of the UK jarred. 

An uncomfortable conversation ensued between Simon Mayo and late-night presenter William Orbit as Scala’s owners Bauer sought to re-define classical music as anything (effectively) that had an orchestral instrument in it.

There was also a painful howler (or was it a gentle poke?) when Mayo read out composer Mike Batt’s email to the station, praising Scala as the egalitarian response to classical music’s snobs and cliques (an email in which he was effectively pitching his own compositions for playout). One wonders why Scala hadn’t sought his oeuvre out already.

Similarly, playing Einaudi within 33 minutes of the station’s start did much to make the challenge I’d set myself at the start of the day something not worth pursuing. I hear little joy in Einaudi’s music. What we heard today – his latest release – was ponderous. Rick Wakeman too. I remain unpersuaded.

Deft production saw a home-educated kid phone in his request to Simon Mayo close lunch time.. But this, like the genuinely warm chit chat and enthusiastic feedback from the audience was overshadowed by one glaring reality for me: an advert for ‘the world’s most beloved tenor Andrea Bocelli’ and his various arena gigs. I’m not the target audience, I had to remind myself.

What the station does underline however is that people like me are in the minority. That the majority of people are prepared to give classical music (and their definition of the genre) a go is what is more important here than keeping the likes me of me happy.

Scala has adopted a softly-softly approach without being apologetic. The fact that presenter Sam Hughes was happy to read out one listener’s email saying how they were ‘just happy you didn’t talk about relaxing music’ was enough for me to know that Bauer are reasonably knowing about what they were offering.

Mark Forrest at drivetime is well pitched. He has that gentle warm end-of-the-day thing going on that makes the end of the day less of a reason to feel guilty and more something to feel warm and cosy about. One or two moments of hyperbole and mindless inaccuracies, but still I was hooked. Why?

Because there aren’t that many adverts. I assumed I’d hear endless adverts. I assumed that the adverts would wrest me from what I was listening to to make the whole thing a rather sordid experience.

So I’ve spent very nearly the day listening to Scala. There are some good things about it too. It has defied my expectations. Stylistically, its less annoying than Classic, with some strong voices, and some sound scheduling choices. Sure, there are things about it that made me shout at the radio, but the difference is that they’re trying their best and I’m not really paying for them. So they offer an alternative. And I think they might just offer a reasonably solid and entertaining introduction to the genre.

Someone’s paying attention. Clearly.

Picture credit: Brett Spencer

Ooh, Scala Radio

Good on Bauer Media announcing the impending arrival of the UK’s third ‘classical music’ radio station – Scala Radio – yesterday early evening.

At various points overnight when I’ve woken up to go to the bathroom, I’ve pondered about the announcement with uncharacteristic excitement and not a hint of cynicism.

And I’m not being sarcastic, either.

Scala Radio. It’s not a bad name. Not shiny. Eclectic. Like those independent pubs set up in former post offices. All mismatched cutlery and old steel tube office chairs with taught woven backs.

Why invest so much effort to start up a third classical music station? Does the UK need another classical music radio station? I thought radio listener figures were dwindling anyway. Can the industry sustain another station?

Looked at from another perspective, all Scala Radio really represents is the reassignment of bandwidth from one music genre to another, complete with the marketing costs necessary to raise awareness about it.

It would be all too easy to see this through rose-tinted public service specs, but the reality is that like Classic FM’s owners Global, Scala Radio is part of a commercial media organisation in direct competition with Global. And since the BPI’s announcement about an increase in streams for classical music last week, the industry as a whole sees an opportunity. A market worth investing in.

There is then the possibility of Scala Radio illustrating a canny strategic move to exploit a perceived rise in mainstream popularity of ‘classical music’ and raise advertising revenue.

It seems like a bold move to take. Classic FM’s dominance is, as far as I can see, unassailable, in no small part down to its considerable digital strategy which is much-loved amongst the audience it tirelessly serves (or should that be relentlessly pursues?)

Maybe it’s not just about making a dent on the audience share in a bid to please shareholders. Maybe it’s also about driving streaming requests and giving the mainstream labels ‘classical’ properties more exposure. I’m not sure. The figures seem so low as to be inconsequential.

Whatever the strategy, that classical is even being seen as a viable enough genre to support a fledgling brand, says something about how perspectives have changed. My assumption is that the playlist will be pretty similar to Classic FM’s so it probably won’t divert my attention from my preference for discovery and curation via streaming services.

I’m interested too in the possibility of ‘entertainment’ and classical music. I don’t think Classic FM does this in an especially authentic way – or at least not in a way that makes me able to listen to it any longer than an hour or so. There is then an opportunity to create the as yet unattainable: an engaging combination of classical music and speech that doesn’t sound awkwardly knowing.

In this regard, Simon Mayo’s billing makes that possibility a little more likely. That Mark Kermode joins the line up too only reinforces that point. I don’t believe Kermode would do something he thought was potentially a bit shit, for example.

And whilst the sight of one member of the presenter line-up pictured above throws me into an uncontrollable rage, I do think the reappearance of Goldie and what Bauer says he’ll be contributing to the output is an interesting proposition.

I am intrigued and .. though I hate the use of the word … excited by what Scala sounds like when it arrives on 4th March.