The various people who have run the BBC’s main classical music station, Radio 3, during the last 50 years have often worried that they need to make its audience bigger and younger. That has led to setting up programmes of music which is associated with a younger audience – in other words, the various sub-genres of what we still tend to call pop and rock music.
45 years ago, in the days of my early music discoveries, they had Sounds Interesting, presented by Derek Jewell. 20 years later, there was Mixing It, with Robert Sandall and Mark Russell, which metamorphosed into Late Junction, with Verity Sharp, Fiona Talkington and others.
The latest version of this development includes the programmes Night Tracks and Unclassified. Like all the previously named, these are scheduled for late at night – although of course that means little in this digital on-demand radio world beyond the signal that the station management expects them to get a smaller audience.
Neither programme appears openly to define its ideal audience as “young” or even “people who don’t normally listen to classical music”. Night Tracks aims to be “adventurous” and “immersive”. It does include famous classical composers but also less well known names from that genre plus “pop” people like Tom Waits or Tim Buckley or Kraftwerk.
Unclassified suggests its listeners will be people who have “curious ears” and be willing to “get lost” in sounds which are “soothing, serene and strange”. Its music belongs in a “grimy” basement venue or a “quirky art-house” cinema as much as a “prestigious” concert hall. In practice, that means music which is often electronic and synthesised and sampled, with sparing use of conventional instruments. Also ambient and gentle and delicate more often than loud and dense and fast.
The broadcasting of pop/rock music tends to give most attention to the performers, who may also be the sole composers, but are not always. In contrast, classical music broadcasting foregrounds the composer who is rarely the performer – although contemporary composers often write to commission for particular instrumentalists or work regularly with the same groups of instrumentalists.
The artistes featured on Unclassified tend to fit that former pop/rock composer/performer category. So it is always puzzling to me that their work is crammed into specialised programmes on Radio 3, sometimes annoying many of its long-term loyal listeners, rather than played widely to a younger audience on the “cutting-edge” BBC Radio 6 Music. However, the quality of the product is probably more important than the source from whence it comes.
Most of the names who have featured on Unclassified were previously unknown to me. But nowadays composers and performers like Carolina Eyck and Erland Cooper and Julia Holter and Oliver Coates and Edmund Finnis and Shiva Feshareki and venues like Café Oto and festivals like Dark Music Days all have websites to provide valuable context.
In Elizabeth Alker, Kate Molleson and Sara Mohr-Pietsch, Radio 3 have presenters who combine their youth, knowledge and enthusiasm in a deft manner which doesn’t make me feel too old. So I look forward in 2020 to be further educated and rewarded in the way I always felt by Late Junction.