Who listens to Classic FM?

Article by Natalie Wheen

It’s the new rock ‘n roll.

It’s the best music played with the least fuss.

It’s truly the people’s classical music station – the biggest commercial station for classical music in the world – nothing short of astonishing that 6.7 million tune in to Classical across the week, millions more across the month. Those figures are just for listeners in Britain, there are countless more tuning in via the Web…How many concert halls foes that fill every week?

Remember how everyone howled with mirth ten years ago when Classic started? Me included? ‘Classic ephemera’ I snorted the very afternoon of the launch, doing the Twilight Home for Music’s desperate attempt at getting ‘with it’ for ‘drivetime’. And my goodness am I pleased now to eat my words: for the first time for years, I find myself back to enjoying classical music – even listening to it, maybe even to making it again. The fiddle’s just come back from a major refurbishment, the piano has had a heart transplant and I find myself singing a lot.

Thank you, Classic FM.

There is a very simple foundation to Classic FM’s success. It likes its listeners – and so everyone is welcome. ‘Hello’ is what Classic says.

People reel back in amazement whenever I say this: ‘too pat, too cheesy’ I read in their faces. Lips curl when the words ‘family’ or ‘inclusive’, get put into the pot as well. But the Classic FM essential is that you don’t have to join any club to get on with us – the entrance is open: no previous knowledge requited, no tests, no introductions from established members, no social connections – and absolutely no chance of getting the cold shoulder form cliques and cabals who fancy themselves.

Thousands discover the pleasure every week.

It’s a holistic process that works from the moment you walk into the building: you’re greeted with an openness which is quite shocking when you’ve experienced the tight security procedures that cordon off the chattering classes from the real world. People smiling, introducing themselves, being helpful and supportive. Good God! What planet had I landed on? I remember thinking on day one.

Frank, who guards the security at the front door, knows all about the guests who come in to the station – who they are, what they do, why they’re there, what they’ve come to talk about. Upstairs at reception, you will be warmly welcomed into the heart of the operation: with the meeting area right beside the broadcast studios, you find yourself right by Henry Kelly, or Jane Jones, or Nick Bailey or Jamie Crick – whoever – mid show, live on air…At any moment they might emerge and offer you a coffee.

Sitting at the next table it could be Sir Colin Davis, John Williams of film fame, Ceilia Bartoli, Steven Isserlis, the Planets, even Sir Harrison Birtwistle has been seen in a Classic FM studio. Probably not all at once or all together – but a steady stream of the world’s top artists also mingles in our daily bustle – as do sales reps, people up for job interviews, young things on job experience, and the Classic FM Listners’ club who regularly arrive to see round the shop and have lunch with us.

I love going in to work at Classic: it’s high pressure, because we don’t have the luxury of endless assistants and secretaries and managers, but there’s no possibility for tantrums and temperaments – and certainly not time wasting. And because we’re so small and tightly knit as a team, no backstabbing, no sabotage, no competitive queering the pitch.

We play hard too: when a long day is done, we relax at the hostelry next door. In fact a plaque there marks the spot of some memorable Classic evenings. Of course there’s whingeing and griping, but more than balanced by a lot of laughter and fun and chat. We know who’s in love, and who’s out, we celebrate success, and we mop up the tears. When there’s a party (and Classic gives the best parties in the business) everyone gets invited, whatever their level in the hierarchy.

Actually the teamwork is quite moving to experience. On September 11th the station was in shock like everyone else, gathering round the TV sets in horror: then quietly, without any fuss, the production team just got on with changing the tone of the tunes. There were no conferences or directives, we all of us knew what would be inappropriate on air that day and just made it work – staying on, incidentally, far beyond the given hours, to make sure things happened properly.

With the Queen Mother’s death, all the production details on music and tone were well worked out and prepared, so that on air, all we should have to do was concentrate on how the news unfolded and tailor the tunes to that. But it was interesting to experience how it wasn’t quite as easy as that in the event: I was at the mic at the time, and there had to be a great deal of small but essential adjustments as the minutes ticked on – and within half an hour or so, the station had filled with key players from music and production as well as news, to make sure that Classic would properly reflect the mood of the moment – and go on doing so, considering what the listeners might need to hear from us.

It’s never what listeners OUGHT to have broadcast to them. When I joined Classic FM three years ago, I found it very salutary to discover how carefully the station relates to the listeners and how much it works to interact with listener response. There is a brilliant understanding of how people use music – which may sound a strange way to consider a high art form – but there are many more people than admit it, who have trickle of music on at all times to keep an echoing emptiness at bay. Music as companionship, music to keep you awake in the car, music to remind you of occasions and places and people. It plays so many parts at all kinds of levels in our lives, and what responses it energising effect. We all have our desert island disc list don’t we?

So there’s a partnership between Classic FM and Classical FM listeners – this doesn’t undervalue the artistry and seriousness there might be involved in the making of the music, but on Classic FM you never get terrorised by it – the art I mean. I hope that no one ever feels inadequate, that they don’ know what on earth that station is banging on about.

At the same time, there’s a partnership between the station and those artists who make the music: They come and talk to us, tell us about the music, tell us their enthusiasm for it, what’s interesting, the buzz, building a relationship with the audience so that when people hear their performances they make a very immediate connection with it. Not so long ago, people were of a nervous disposition when it came to counter-tenors, but these days Andreas Scholl and David Daniels are hot musical properties for Classic listeners. Magdalena Kozena introduces us to Gluck and Myslivecek, Bryn Terfel seduces with Wagner. If you join the two and a half off million listeners who regularly tune in to Lunchtime Requests, you could be surprised by the diversity of music requested.

What’s fascinating to me is how Classic FM listeners manage to embrace such a wide spectrum of experience: at one end the station keeps people company in the best arty circles – so clearly we’re not annoying the cognoscenti. If we don’t talk about opus numbers and modulations to the sub-mediant in the development section, people don’t feel deprived of their essential vitamins.

At the other end, the nervous beginner feels safe enough with us to take their first sips of our strangely intoxicating kind of music. ‘Relax’, goes the slogan: ‘It’s Classic FM’. You won’t ever get a nasty surprise.

We don’t mind either if you want to take ‘Relax’ as an invitation to slump into a musical stupor: why not, if it clams you down and smoothes out the day? It’s a time-honoured response as can be seen night after night in concert halls around the world, which have the very best class of snoozers in their expensive seats.

Of course, a national commercial radio station wouldn’t exist without an audience and wouldn’t continue to prosper if that audience wasn’t carefully nurtured and tended: that’s business sense. Commercial push is, for some, part of the beyond-the-pale-ness of Classic. But commercial awareness brings all sorts of strange senses of responsibility since we have to understand value for money. We don’t have the luxuries of organisations funded by tens of millions of license payers’ pounds, or arts council grants, or council taxes – every paperclip that’s used at Classic has been earned by the sales team bringing in the wherewithal – so pilfering the papercilps, snaffling the cellotape and such minor perks just aren’t an option. It’s funny how one notices these little things.

Yet it would be too easy simply to spin the CDs, offer tempting prizes and leave it at that. There is a very strong push to bring added value to Classic’s listeners: the CDs we publish – particularly the triple bills, which offer an easily accessible, but ever increasing range of music with the Classic FM guarantee; Classic FM concerts invite newcomers to their first live concert experience – so popular now that tickets sell out within a few days of the box office opening. Even at the Royal Albert Hall, packed to the rafters at the last event, even to the standing room in the topmost gallery.

‘Do more with Music’ is a slogan you hear a lot on the station, urging folk to go out and support music making in their own neck of the woods – particularly to support the local organisations – there’s an astonishing wealth of events going on around the country every night every week – none of it ever reflected in mainstream press coverage. It’s a free service to the community – people can just write in with their presentation. Of course the better the story line, the better the chance of getting air-time – and the challenge does make for improving the marketing of music.

The on-going award of ‘Music Teacher of the Year’ brings recognition to those unsung heroes, not necessarily, indeed most unlikely to be music specialists, who daily struggle to keep music and the experience of music alive and electrifying in the school classroom so that everyone can have experience of it, regardless of their family background and income. Students are asked to make the nominations – and often have to battle with their head teachers even to let the schools take part. Isn’t that the most depressing hurdle of all?

New partnerships are the buzz of the moment, most excitingly, with national organisations which understand there can be benefits in aligning themselves with the Classic FM brand: if people can trust what they hear from us on air, they might be very likely to take that trust across into real events – and of course when Classic talks about it on air, the reach is a possible 6.7 million across the week. The Royal Shakespeare Company, the Barbican, the V&A – Cadogan Opera Holland Park – and many more all understand that.

We’re taking it a stage further to develop new ideas specific for the Classic FM audience with partners like the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Symphony Hall Birmingham where plots are cooking nicely for events designed to bring new people, first-timers, into the concert hall to experience the live event, and to get more live concerts on air for the wider Classic FM audience. It has to be possible to translate the Classic FM recipe for success into tangible benefits for the music makers.

Ten years ago, the pundits in the music business sneered that Classic would never work. The music minded people who started Classic proved those ‘experts’ so very wrong. The same expert opinions get it wrong so many more ways with Classic: that the adverts crowd out the music (six minutes in the hour), that we never play complete works of music (full works in the evening concert every night of the week and what about all those pieces that don’t outstay their welcome beyond twenty minutes?), that we only play a handful of tunes, repeated incessantly (repetition is the secret of memory – and if you remember it well, it might be why you might think you’ve heard it a lot). If you listen carefully to Classic, you discover there’s a constantly evolving and developing music plot on the station across the weeks, with an astonishingly catholic spread of repertoire.

I had a spat the other day with an old drear of a singer, mildly famous in his day (long past) about the merits of some of the musicians and music that’s made today: film soundtracks, where the music ‘plunders’ the best of everyone and funnily enough roars into the top twenty on the classical charts, or cross-over artists who mix ‘rock and roll’ techniques with hallowed treasures of the opera stage – or even great classical stars who dare to wreck their talents on the cheap music from the other side of the tracks.

What about the concept of the window that opens to let you peek inside, I ventured. If people aren’t born and brought up in a concert going culture, they have to start somewhere. What about the Three Tenors doing the World Cup opening the doors for millions, John Williams and his music for the Star Wars movies, Kennedy doing Hendrix, Caballe with Freddy Mercury and Barcelona, Bond, The Planets, Filippa Giordano even possibly for yet more. Once in the door, there’s plenty of opportunities to explore – but let’s get people in first.

‘Ah yes’, sneered the drear. ‘But will they ever be able to tell the difference between Filippa Giordano singing ‘Casta Diva’ – and Rosa Ponselle?’

‘Rosa Ponselle’ I said; ‘is long dead.’

However wonderful she was a singer, there’s acres of music to discover before getting down to that kind of refinement, and no-one gets anywhere without taking a first step – which certainly isn’t straight to Rosa Ponselle.

And, I thought it’s people like you and the clerisies you created which made Classic FM inevitable and essential. After thirty years of broadcasting from within the old tradition and mindset, the business, the style of Classic FM was a revelation. Going on air, the first essential I learnt, was to smile, to have a greeting in the voice. To say hello. It took months to learn and be comfortable – and natural with it – after all those years dishing out cod-liver oils does of information to comfort the exclusive classical music establishment, preaching to the converted.

How liberating it is to drop all that one-upmanship, the PhD theses of irrelevant information in the scripts – to say only what you need to say and no more – and if you don’t feel the need to say anything – well then don’t. we only need to know what was the tune, who was playing – and remember the station ident; ‘Relax! It’s Classic FM’.