The demise of Brian Kay’s Light Programme
has once again focussed attention on the sorry state of
Light Music broadcasting in Britain. We pay the piper –
it is now time that we called the tune, argues David Ades.
BBC RADIO : TIME FOR A RADICAL RETHINK
Early last November rumours started circulating that BBC
Radio 3 would be axing Brian Kay’s Light Programme in February.
This is the only national programme which Light Music admirers
can rely upon to let them hear recordings of the kind of
music they enjoy, so the thought that it was to disappear
from the schedules filled many of us with alarm.
Letters, telephone calls and e-mails started to reach me
even before I had alerted members as to what might
happen through our website, and it was clear that you were
all concerned at the news. I say ‘might’ deliberately, because
for many weeks the BBC fended off letters of complaint saying
that a final decision had not been taken.
Of course, this was far from the truth. Having already
decided on a big reorganisation of the afternoon schedules
it would be naïve to expect the Controller of Radio
3 to make a U-turn and bow to public pressure. Such things
don’t happen at the BBC.
The national press quickly picked up on the story. Paul
Donovan in the Sunday Times urged readers to complain to
Michael Grade about Brian Kay’s departure. Roger Wright
(Radio 3 Controller) told The Guardian that concerts lasting
from 2.00 to 5.00pm introduced by ‘consistent voices’ would
fill the time vacated by the programmes being cancelled
– presumably this means that money would be saved replacing
presenters with staff announcers. Gillian Reynolds in the
Daily Telegraph said that she loved Brian Kay’s programme
and would miss it.
Our last London meeting was held shortly after the news
had broken, and by then a number of members had asked us
to organise a petition against the decision to end Brian
Kay’s show. This was duly signed by most people present,
and forwarded to the BBC; it was never even acknowledged.
Just as the groundswell of anger was steadily building
the BBC’s boss Michael Grade defected to ITV, leaving the
Corporation with other matters to contend with. A separate
letter I had sent to Michael Grade a few days previously
(in my private capacity) made the point that many of us
have grown up enjoying light music provided on the old Home
Service and Light Programme which is now almost completely
ignored by today’s programme makers. Millions of pensioners
find little to interest them on the radio, and turn to their
CDs for their musical entertainment. Radio 2 is hailed as
a great success, yet it is merely a carbon copy of countless
commercial stations around the country. I further suggested
that present Radio 1 and Radio 2 should be merged, and that
a completely new Radio 2 should be aimed at over 55s.
No one of importance would ever have seen the letter. The
reply from BBC Information in Glasgow merely said that it
noted my comments and that it appreciated feedback from
Other RFS members were also not slow in writing to the
BBC. Alan Bunting (a retired BBC employee) told Michael
Grade that he was very disappointed at losing the 4.00pm
programmes on Radio 3, and bemoaned the fact that Radio
2 had completely deserted the over-55s.
James Cahall e-mailed the BBC from the USA saying that
one hour per week devoted to light music out of total broadcasting
time of 168 hours was hardly greedy. James also emphasised
how many people overseas listen via the internet – something
that the BBC is unable to measure.
In a separate letter to me as secretary of the RFS, Roger
Wright admitted that "Brian Kay's Light Programme has
been a splendid part of our programming but we are responding
to other listeners who want to hear more classical music,
rather than a dedicated light music programme. I realise,
frustratingly, that pleasing one group of listeners potentially
disturbs others. There will still be some light music included
in our other programmes but not a dedicated focus as in
Brian Kay’s Light Programme." Personally I think that
very few of us will want to endure the majority of Radio
3’s usual output in the hope of occasionally hearing a piece
of light music.
David Daniels began his letter to Roger Wright with the
words: "what the hell is happening at the BBC? I cannot
believe that practically the only programme on the national
network devoted to quality light music is to be axed. Once
upon a time this material formed the largest part of the
BBC’s output, indeed many pieces of light orchestral music
formed the top selling recordings in the 50s and 60s and
the generation who bought these still enjoy it given the
chance." David’s letter went on to denigrate two particular
"complete morons" who appear on Radio 2, and ended
by saying that the BBC has a duty to serve the nation as
a whole, not just the under 50s. This letter prompted the
standard response from the BBC in Glasgow – in other words,
no one cares what the audience thinks or wants.
Steve Fish also wrote in similar terms. He received the
usual BBC reply, but in his case from the Managing Editor
of Radio 3 rather than the ‘anonymous’ BBC Information.
One suspects that there is a standard letter on a BBC computer
which can be readily accessed to deal with complaints from
Which leads us on to the important question: what can
be done to persuade the BBC to respect the musical preferences
of millions of potential listeners, and reconsider the structure
of its national radio stations?
First of all let’s consider the shortcomings and the problems
from the point of view of the licence payers.
1 BBC Radio does not fully reflect the wishes of the population
when it comes to the music played. There is too much pop
and plenty of classical music, with all kinds of ethnic
preferences receiving attention. But over 55s are almost
2 There are too many radio stations playing the same kind
of pop music that broadcasters admit is aimed at the 25-35
year old audience. What they seem unable to grasp is that
more of these people are at work during the daytime, leaving
the vast majority of the available audience aged over 55.
3 Britain has never had more radio stations, yet we are
only too aware that ‘more’ means simply more of the same
– not a wider choice (just like television, but let’s not
get on to that!). Next time you take a long car journey
press the ‘search’ button on your car radio. How many stations
will it pick up all sounding the same?
4 BBC Local radio stations have a few interesting programmes,
but these seem to be under threat from trendy young station
controllers. A lot of presenters seem to think they are
auditioning for Radio 1 most of the time, playing music
which is unsuited to the kind of people who might otherwise
enjoy listening to a magazine-type programme concentrating
on local news and events.
5 Radio 2 is generally regarded by most RFS members as
a great disappointment 90% of the time, and judging by comments
in other music magazines we are not alone in our views.
The BBC maintains that it is the nation’s most popular station
with the biggest audience, yet this is only because it broadcasts
over the entire country. Within radio circles it is known
(but not admitted in public) that in cities and large towns
where there is strong competition from a local commercial
station, Radio 2 does not win the battle for listeners.
Britain badly needs a national radio station that can be
enjoyed by people over 55 – and that means around 20 million
of us! Presenters should be freed of the restrictions imposed
by the wretched playlists (these are the recordings placed
on computer from which programme makers have to choose)
and be encouraged to share their knowledge and enthusiasms
with their audience. Of course, it does still occasionally
happen today (Russell Davies and Malcolm Laycock are two
prime examples) but one wonders how a new generation of
Alan Dells is ever going to surface amidst the mire of mediocrity
that suffocates and stifles any hint of quality among younger
And the up and coming presenters have to be made to realise
that they should be choosing and playing music to suit their
audience, not simply spin their own particular favourites.
The culture within the BBC must also change. It must be
a brave person in Broadcasting House who would admit to
enjoying Mantovani, and Bill Cotton jnr summed up the cloistered
BBC mentality in a recent excellent TV documentary on Vera
Lynn. Back in the early days of BBC 2, Bill decided that
they should present a major series of programmes starring
Vera, and he asked his best music producer to be in charge.
His response was: "what have I done wrong?"
If the BBC decided today to give 20 million listeners what
they wanted, and turn Radio 2 into a station playing quality
popular vocal and light music, interspersed with intelligent
spoken word programmes, one can imagine the problem in finding
a Controller who would be willing to stand up to the snide
remarks of fellow broadcasters and executives. Perhaps the
listening figures would eventually silence the critics.
Of course one must acknowledge that the BBC does have its
own problems. Although it is supposed to be free of any
political interference, it is the politicians who have the
last say regarding the level of the licence fee. If the
BBC does not have a large audience some politicians (usually
those with small majorities) are going to get their names
in the press by complaining that the BBC does not deserve
the money we all give it.
But the BBC is a public service broadcaster – something
that its critics (and even some of its own staff) seem to
fail to appreciate. We pay our licence fee so that the BBC
can broadcast programmes that commercial broadcasters will
avoid because advertisers dislike them. We do not pay our
licence fee so that the BBC can duplicate the kind of programmes
readily available elsewhere, which is why Radio 2 must undergo
a serious rethink.
Which brings us back to the reason for this article: the
termination of Brian Kay’s Light Programme. The Controller
of BBC Radio 3 does not deserve to be made a scapegoat over
this matter. It is his responsibility to keep his schedule
looking fresh, and it does appear that the classical lobbyists
have been putting pressure on him. If we are honest we have
to say that Brian Kay should have been on Radio 2, along
with the film, show and jazz programmes that are also being
axed from Radio 3. Of course, we are very sorry that Brian’s
programme has ended, but we should be grateful that Roger
Wright commissioned it over five years ago. It was originally
broadcast at an ideal time on Sunday afternoons and then
shifted to Thursdays when its audience must have suffered.
However the availability of the programme for seven days
on the internet helped to compensate, and we know that many
RFS members outside Britain have listened in this way.
Time will tell whether Radio 3 has lost listeners as a
result, and it may be pertinent to mention that the only
time in the week when Classic FM experiences a noticeable
dip in its audience is on Friday evenings while "Friday
Night Is Music Night" is on Radio 2. Someone still
enjoys light music.
What of the future? Clearly we cannot sit back and admit
defeat. The time has surely come when the BBC must be put
under pressure to introduce more enjoyable music on Radio
2, especially during the daytime. If you share this opinion,
please write to the BBC and the national press. It is probably
a waste of time to write to the Controller of Radio 2, who
will be under pressure from above to keep the status quo.
So your comments would be better addressed to the new Chairman
(when announced) or the BBC Director General, Mark Thompson.
It seems that a new Trust has taken over from the former
Governors, so the members should also be made aware of your
feelings. However one recent letter from the BBC stated
that it is the Executive Board which is responsible for
implementation of strategy and for the BBC’s day-to-day
operations and editorial decisions, so maybe the Chair of
that committee should be approached (at BBC, Broadcasting
House, London, W1A 1AA).
Your own comments will also be welcome for publication
in our next issue.
David Ades - from ‘Journal Into Melody’ March