Radio 3: slaying the nay-sayers

I was interested to learn from the Daily Mail that Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and Digital Economy never listens to Radio 3 yet is happy to endorse the accessibility of its nearest musical rival. OK, let’s admit that you may or may not like chat in the early morning, phone-ins, news bulletins or trails … one man’s meat, etc. But what cannot be denied is the herd of elephants in this particular room, the scores of great works played on a weekly basis (not least on Composer of the Week), live concerts, the rarities, the informed critiques (oboist Sarah Devonald trawling through countless versions of Strauss’s lovely Oboe Concerto last Saturday), the sensitivity to performance values, the dramas and poetry programmes – and damn it, the high level of culture. Yes, I am a Radio 3 presenter and it’s my job to elicit views rather express them (on this particular topic), but fair is fair – it is after all my blog!. There’s nothing else in the world quite like R3 and too many critics ride roughshod over its many virtues … no worse than that, don’t even mention them. Please discuss.

40 thoughts on “Radio 3: slaying the nay-sayers

  1. trevorharley

    I agree. And I saw that letter too. And did you see the letter a few days later from a woman saying what she wants from Radio 3 is “A man or woman with a posh voice just presenting good recordings of well-known masterpieces without any interaction”? I’m not sure about the precise wording, but the “posh” but stuck with me. I’m afraid many young people see Radio 3 as elitist, boring, and specialist. Then I talk about what’s on Late Junction and they’re amazed …

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    1. Absolutely Trevor. As I think I’ve said elsewhere here, I give talks to students at the Guildhall, ‘Performance Practice’ we call it, and these youngsters are especially responsive to vintage recordings – because although ‘old’, age-wise, they’re so ‘new’ in terms of style and vision. As to ‘posh’, I just don’t get it. Not many composers were posh, and there are plenty of great musicians who weren’t either – why the hell ask for posh presenters?
      We’re only message boys (or girls) on a mission, why dress it up as something it isn’t? I suppose that for some listeners it’s a case of who you would (or wouldn’t) let into your home.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. trevorharley

        I would let you into my home IF you’ve stopped carrying piles of CDs around in an old rucksack and have bought a smart phone instead.

        There were many strange things about Mr Vaizey’s comment. I don’t see how he could possibly argue against Radio 3 if he never listens to it. And he said “A multi-platform approach and a strong social media presence is essential for radio to increase reach and engagement with new audiences” – which is exactly the criticism often thrown at Radio 3 now. So Radio 3 can’t win. Personally I think it steers a pretty good path between extremes.

        The only thing you say that I disagree with is that you think it’s your job to elicit views and not express them. I disagree – you know more about classical music than I do, so why shouldn’t you be informative? Isn’t part of the BBC’s charter to educate and inform?

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  2. Isla Dowds

    well said Rob, I also saw that letter and just shook my head in despair at how one-sided it was. It also disturbed me with its harking back to a view of music that seems to require a ‘posh boy or girl’ – I remember listening to Radio 3 in the early 70s and feeling that those even posher than now presenters (because lots do sound rather posh let’s be honest even on the breakfast programme which seemed to be the main focus of the letter writers criticisms) must be dressed in full evening dress so distant did they seem from my world! That actually became a real problem for me and ever since I’ve tried to reduce the elitist trappings of the classical music world where I can! It also seems to ignore the fact that there is an off button – what station could possibly provide anyone with a 24/7 perfect listening experience? Diversity in programming is vital, and should not be confuse with a lack of quality!

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    1. Isla. Many thanks. I can reminisce a little here. Years ago when my eldest daughter was studying for her ‘A’ levels she centred her attentions on the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton (favourites of mine too, as it happens). So we visited the British Library to hear Plath reading. The ‘announcer’ introductions were nothing short of terrifying, sort-of ‘come on, old chap …. you have no business listening to this – go out and buy the Daily Worker” (I exaggerate, but not by much). Once over that hurdle, the readings made for an inspiring listen.

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  3. I’m curious. I’m curious about my fellow man, so I ask people about themselves. I’m curious about the world I live in, so I try to travel around it. I’m very, very curious about music – so I try whenever I can to listen to Rob, to listen to the other presenters who are of the calibre to present a CD review on a Saturday morning, and will always prefer to hear something new if it has something to teach me. My late father would play the “innocent ear” game with me in the car on the way to school, when I’d have to guess the composer – so I really, really love the Brainteaser (which I know isn’t everyone’s bag!).

    So I’m disappointed when I’m assumed to be incurious; “it’s raining today so here’s some Water music from Handel”. Or vapid, “tell me what music changed your life?” (You haven’t got time, can I just give you a short list of the pieces that didn’t?).

    Live performance is a luxury that I hope we can continue to afford for as long as possible. Words and Music is often a voyage of discovery, I know of nothing like it anywhere else in the world of broadcast media. The Early Music show, taking me into dusty corners, and Composer of the Week taking over where my father sadly had to leave off.

    What I value most of all in Radio 3’s team, though, is the person who has broad aesthetic experience and the language to describe it. Please don’t ask me to make an economic case for that, or I may come over all Jelly Roll Morton – if the powers that be don’t know, I can’t tell them!

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  4. Stephen Kenny

    Just when I think I know everything that radio 3 has to offer, I went to a talk at the proms this year from the show Free Thinking (which I didn’t know existed) and got to meet Martin Amis. As a 24 year old it’s hard to get more inspiring (and not boring) than that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bendor Grosvenor

    The Vaizey comment was interesting, even provocative, but the fact that it hasn’t prompted more widespread reaction is, I fear, indicative of Radio 3’s slow decline in the public’s affections. I say this regretfully, and as a dedicated fan of the station. In fact, some years ago, when I was advising the Tories on cultural and media policy, I took great pleasure in squashing someone’s daft idea that Radio 3, with its shrinking audiences, should be abolished altogether.

    The figures were higher in those days, however. Almost all you say in praise of Radio 3 is true; I can’t but share your enthusiasm for things like the mighty Composer of the Week, the live concerts, and the, ahem, Essential Classics. And yet, even I frequently find myself turning over, like Vaizey, to Classic FM (or, instead, reaching for Spotify).

    Here’s a few reasons why: a sudden burst of off-key squeaky gate stuff just when you least expect it; a random bit of poetry/music mash-up; or one of those depressing dramas. These all undoubtedly represent high levels of culture, as you say, but I suspect it’s not what the great majority of potential listeners are looking to hear when they tune into Radio 3. Not so long ago, there was a burst of advertising on the telly portraying Radio 3 as a haven of calm and beautiful music. The trouble is, it quite often isn’t. And because people like me, and those that the telly adverts were directed at, have short attention spans and limited time to listen, we instead tend to tune into stations like Classic FM, because we know more or less what to expect. In this day and age, it should be possible to put the more obscure Radio 3 programming online, or on something akin to a Radio 3 Extra.

    Now, this isn’t to say that Radio 3 has to play Barber’s Adagio fifteen times everyday. In fact, the recent attempts to, shall I say, popularise some elements of shows like Breakfast (with those dreaded clip-ettes at 8 o’clock) are even counter-productive. The answer is not to try and mimic the presenting style of Classic FM. The recipe for success is in fact very simple: play more music, stick slightly more to the mainstream stuff, and recognise that there are certain times of the day when people expect a certain type of music. For many people, ‘Smooth Classics at 7’ is often an easier listen in the kitchen at supper time than Opera on 3, even with the ads.

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    1. trevorharley

      I must admit I usually find myself turning off Opera on 3. There are times even I dread on Radio 3 – and Saturday evening is one.

      Mostly though I just wanted to second what you said about the clippettes about “Still to come” at 8. I’m a pretty liberal kind of guy, so if I find something annoying, it must be really bad.

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      1. Steven Swalbe.

        Opera on 3 is one of the hits for me. To listen to the Rossini neglected operas from Pesaro is a joy. It’s so wonderful easy listening. I miss Saturday Met, although I can record “Dad’s Army”. Watch x factor instead.That won’t exert your brain.

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    2. STRUCTURING YOUR LISTENING DAY
      Thank you Bendor for that considered response. ‘Certain times of the day when people expect a certain type of music’. Might this be the answer? I mean, have a plan so that people know when to tune in or out, and so that we know when a particular strand has found a maximum of takers? Now I can’t jump too far in at this point – I’m not the new controller, or an editor, or a producer – but I’d be most interested to learn the broadcasting areas that annoy, stimulate, or prove a consistent draw. Another option is to structure the day so that it peaks with a certain kind of repertoire, with other types leading towards it and away from it … in other words, attempting the sort of musical shape that’s part and parcel of the works we play. A bit nebulous I know, but I hope you get my drift. Please discuss.

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  6. Sue Black

    Dear Rob, I agree with you and all those here who have supported you. Having said that, ( and please bear in mind I have it on all day and without it my soul would wither and die) I have lost my temper once or twice and sent a furious message esp when I was getting fed up with all the interminable advertising over the proms. But there’s a point I’ve wanted to make for quite some time and that is that I think you (and R3 itself) are too defensive. Look at all the tweets and retweets. All of them praising the music, the programme! ALL of them! Don’t tell me you don’t get emails and tweets criticising or otherwise negative. Why not retweet a few and put the unflattering points out there and let people argue with them. Much more entertaining than the endless boring oh what wonderful music you’re playing today messages filling our tweet boxes.
    While I’m on the subject, what’s wrong with announcers criticising the music? they always see the best in (especially) new works from live concerts. What about saying (as many are thinking) “Well I wonder if that’ll ever get another airing!” it would be so refreshing.
    So i say, lighten up Rob and R3 and know you are indispensable and wonderful but lets have a bit of controversy, a bit of provocation and a bit more humour on twitter!

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    1. Wonderful Sue! If you’d heard all my links you’d know full well that I’ve quite often criticised things I’ve played. Once, on a Sunday, after a piece of Philip Glass, I said “well, I don’t know what you thought of that … I hated it!” (not that the producer was terribly happy). The great thing about being frank is that it places praise in a truer perspective. But there’s another way of looking at it. Some people will say, if you don’t think much of it – why play it at all. Then again, throwing in the odd negative listener reaction is essential – I’ve often done so myself. Balance is the thing.

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      1. Sue Black

        Yes sorry Rob, I meant to exempt you from the generality of the point I make. And of course you are always criticising performances. And i remember someone you were interviewing who was at pains to explain that Dvorak’s 8th symphony was inspired by Native American folk tunes and after she’d finished a long speech about this and you played the music you said to her “Well that sounded completely Czech to me” Ouch i thought. Good!

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      2. Sue Black

        Hello Rob, next time you’re landed with a piece by Philip Glass, the following Limerick might come in handy by way of a comment:

        There was a composer called Glass,
        There was a composer called Glass,
        There was a composer,
        There was a composer,
        There was a composer called Glass.

        (not mine: forgotten where I heard that)
        Cheers!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Steven Swalbe.

        If anything shatters my day, it’s Glas. Why play the piece? I discard anything I dislike. tell the producer what to do with Glas.

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    2. Steven Swalbe.

      Sue! If anything makes me seethe, It’s the invited Prom guests. They are like politicians: they don’t tell the facts as they are. During an interval, I have never heard one say:”That was turgid stuff. Won’t listen to that again….. He played that so wrongly. All the tempi were incorrect. That was an insult to Mozart.”. Must not forget the drivel they come up with. Rob’s right! Dvorak 8 sounds totally Czech to me.

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  7. Giancarlo Gemin

    I wonder if we are over-reacting. The fact that Vaisey admits that he doesn’t listen to Radio 3 but fails to acknowledge its place and its need, probably means he won’t be the Minister of Culture for very long.

    The only times I’ve switched to Classic FM is when in the car and what Radio 3 is offering jars, for whatever reason. If I hear adverts I’ll switch again.

    How many times has Composer of the Week switched time slot? But wherever it goes I follow. The obvious changes that have occurred in recent years on 3, to draw in new listeners of the Classic FM crowd, don’t hurt me – I get it – but let’s not go too far.

    Someone mentioned Saturday eve is a turn off because of Opera on 3, which is fair enough, but that’s a time when I tune in (and it’s not every Saturday anyway).

    No one is going to stop listening to Radio 3 because the slots move around, but they may stop listening if Radio 3 stops catering for the wide spectrum of listener’s tastes, OR if the programmes offering the more obscure tastes in music are moved to the middle of the night.

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    1. ‘No one is going to stop listening to Radio 3 because the slots move around, but they may stop listening if Radio 3 stops catering for the wide spectrum of listener’s tastes, OR if the programmes offering the more obscure tastes in music are moved to the middle of the night.’ Giancarlo, thank you. That spectrum and the sense of adventure are crucial.

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  8. Longinus

    I think this posh/elitist thing is a red herring. I came to R3 back in the late 60s when I was 15. I was the son of a garage mechanic and a policewoman. I went to a direct grant grammar and then Oxford. I didn’t care one way or the other that Patricia Hughes was posh. I didn’t listen to R3 because I wanted to be thought posh. I listened to it because I was crazy about Rachmaninoff and Haydn and Verdi. I don’t believe for 1 second that the under-30s who will form the core audience of R3 in 10, 20, 30 years’ time are deterred by the accents of Petroc or Christopher Cook. R3 will always be an elitist channel, but as long as it’s an elite anyone with the requisite passion and dedication can join, window dressing will be neither here nor there. But as soon as R3 thinks it ought to act like a commercial channel in order to justify its share of the licence fee the sooner it lays the ground for its demise since that is not its remit. It strikes me as weird that since the creation and success of ClassicFm, R3 has become *more* anxious rather than less so, since it can safely leave unadventurous programming to an agency which is set up to do just that (and they do it very well).

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    1. ‘R3 will always be an elitist channel, but as long as it’s an elite anyone with the requisite passion and dedication can join, window dressing will be neither here nor there. ‘ 🙂

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      1. Steven Swalbe.

        Excuse my butting in. I don’t think it’s an elitist channel. It’s for those who want to enjoy great music. Elitist works are those for the miniscule minority who want composers and compositions that are immediately out of the mind. 2 years ago there was an elitist ‘prom season’ containing so much dross. As a result people left in droves and did not return for the improved last season. You can’t have proms without WAM, Brahms, Dvorak etc. Elitist? Try getting a ticket for under £250 for Madonna! You can get them 4 c. £10 at CG. The turn-off is after the evening concert. I know of nobody who listens to R3 then. They turn to FM. That spot should be devoted to 2 hours of Chamber Music which not everybody can hear at 13hr. The mind boggles: Schubert D803 and D956 (with repeats) in ONE programme!

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  9. Sue Black

    Me again Rob, I have been reading more worrying things in the press about questions hanging over R3. It is a feature of those who love classical music that they have long attention spans. Works of great music are often measured not in minutes, but in hours. Soundbites, odd movements and very short pieces don’t satisfy. Ads, clippets and promotions for future programmes irritate. There isn’t a single lover of good music who can’t sit down for at least an hour and give full attention to the music. Play on that strength. Good luck to R3 in meeting its critics.

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  10. I honestly wouldn’t worry Sue. The majority of airtime that Radio 3 uses is made up of precisely that, music that’s measured in hours, or half-hours at the very least. That said, there’s a plethora of quality repertoire that falls into the ‘soundbite’ category – orchestral preludes and overtures, shorter tone poems, Chopin Preludes, Mazurkas, Waltzes and Nocturnes; Bach Preludes and Fugues; Scarlatti Sonatas; English songs, German lieder and French mélodies, and goodness knows what else. Everyone can be happy and compromise need not be an issue. Best. R.

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  11. It’s good to be able to communicate with other R3 listeners here , and so far I agree with most of what’s been written by Rob et al. Regarding all the recent negative press which seems to have stemmed from Vaizey’s remarks, have any of you written to that particular newspaper in defence of R3?? I have several times but my views never get printed . Re structuring the day and playing specific music at given times, I’m not for this as I enjoy the present mix of music and guess that most of us apart from lucky Sue are not able to listen all day , many have to get to work so would miss out on the music they particularly enjoy unless they had plenty of time for catch up or whatever it’s called. Giancarlo, I hope you are right about Vaizey , Rob, I know what else …those lovely violin miniatures!!
    Happy listening to you all, Evelyn G

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      1. Steven Swalbe.

        Which German radio station? Bayern 4 Klassik, HR2, SWF2. They are all German FM stations. You can get them on the net.

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  12. Steven Swalbe.

    I know you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you, but I lived in Germany and Austria and every day one had top class international recordings and not so much of the national stuff. I actually heard Marriner there more times than here. I learnt all my chamber works there. ALWAYS before midnight. None of the zzzs we have here after the Evening concert. 1 series was the COMPLETE Toscanini: Most people today would think he plays for Juventus. Let’s have 3 hrs. of the greats daily. They don’t have to be the scratchy ones. Another was COMPLETE Haydn masterpieces aka as string quartets, many of which are unrivalled in my opinion + loads more. How many R3 listeners have heard Böhm, Jochum (Bruckner, Haydn)? R3 tops: Opera, 13hrs. I said they should be repeated b 4 midnight, Composer of…Some Essentials, CD review,14hrs and some evening concerts, after I and others switch over to FM for complete works. Find Sat. afternoon less inspiring, . Very little on Sunday. Any chance of my suggestions being discussed?

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    1. Sue Black

      Thank you so much! I have found two of those with terribly serious German announcers with funny accents! I am now braced for the Proms season and if they start up again with those endless self promoting ads I’m ready to switch over for my daily music ration of at least 6 hours! I know we have to submit to the argument that the ads may bring in new listeners and concert goers but it’s beyond me how they can think that the shrieking cacophony we got last year in those ads has anything to do with the music being advertised.

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      1. Hi Sue …. good you’re here, as ever. The problem is making sure that no-one misses a concert that he or she might otherwise overlook. I know the trails vary in style, but I think it’s terribly important if there’s, say, a premiere coming up, or a major performer, that we flag the fact on the station well in advance, especially in these days where there are multiple opportunities to listen (via the Iplayer, etc). You can plan your listening that much more effectively. Nest. R.

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  13. ‘1 series was the COMPLETE Toscanini: Most people today would think he plays for Juventus’ Love it Stephen. We have a new controller, Alan Davey, who I am sure will not only be responsive to fresh suggestions but will have plenty of his own. Although we did a whole Furtwängler evening in 2004, the 50th anniversary of his death, my suggestion for a similar Toscanini evening in 2007 was turned down. To be honest Stephen the potential for programming ‘greats’ – both celebrated and unsung – is limitless. I do after all try and promote as much recording ‘greatness’ as I can (Cherubini’s Symphony under Toscanini is scheduled for a forthcoming Sunday programme). But please don’t feel shy about making these suggestions. If people feel that strongly about great repertoire in great recordings they should be communicating with the BBC direct – in their hundreds! There’s nothing as powerful as listener support, but it’s down to you. I’m trying to do my bit here ( which I hugely enjoy). Act!

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  14. Steven Swalbe

    Hi! Rob. Heard the WF evening in 2004. Why was your Toscanini suggestion in 2007 turned down? He did many great things, apart from the 9th and Haydn’s 94 th. I have him with the Cherubini Requiem. On 16th Jan. I mentioned the great SQs of Haydn and Jochum (most underrated, as is Fricsay). Haydn is in many ways as great as WAM. What speaks against him is the fact that he was no child composer. You know each one of his brilliant masses. Why he flopped in his over 20 PCs (bar possibly 2)is an enigma. Heard my recording of S 90 (Unjustly neglected; maybe because it wasn’t a ‘London’ one) with Gardiner (tempi were perfect!!) As in Berlin with Rattle, the audience was caught out twice by the long pause (similar to ‘Die Uhr’). As for your Haydn this week: everything was fine apart from GG and the Eb: 1) He rushed the 1st movt and omitted the expo repeat, as was his wont.
    If I were boss, I would have a complete historic artiste week, or even month.These musicians weren’t great for no reason. Only recently heard Cortot, Petri, Busoni, Levine,Hambourg (who?) C’est encore suffit. Pardonnez moi!

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  15. Well Steven you may recall that back in the early 2000s I co-hosted (with Jonathan Swain) a programme called CD Masters (doing three week stints at a time), where we focused on different ‘historic’ artists each week (inc. Petri and Cortot – I covered both myself). We had a ball and the reaction to the programme was excellent. 2017 marks another big Toscanini anniversary and I’ve already proposed to the powers that be that we devote an evening to him, much as we did to Furtwängler. I have some rare, revelatory material (some with the Vienna Philharmonic) that would shed a different light on his art. In fact given that Viennese evidence the stylistic divide between the two conductors isn’t that wide! Best. R.

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    1. Steven Swalbe.

      I wish you would bring back CD M. Why was that taken off? Preferred it to EC. Unbelievable! AT will be 150 years old in 2017. Suggest a whole day devoted to him. We won’t have much of a chance to celebrate him in 2057. I agree that the stylistic difference in many works was not so apparent. It was in his twilight years that AT got faster. ‘Parsifal’ with him was the slowest on record. Regards

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  16. Well, I’ll be working on it Steven, rest assured. Nowadays I am managing to programme the odd ‘historical’ (singers like Schumann, Lisitsian, Seefried, Nash – with Melchior and the wonderful Aafje Heynis coming up, hopefully) … so do have faith. Toscanini though is an absolute must. I’m hoping to do a Building a Library on Beethoven’s 4th before the year is out and his versions of the Symphony (three, as I recall off the top of my head) will be part of the mix. a Best. Rob

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    1. Steven Swalbe.

      Sounds great!Just about heard of Lisitsian and I think I heard him sing out of ‘Onegin.’ Never heard of of Heynis. Sounds a bit Dutch (Scandinavian).to me. What about LuisaTetrazzini and Galli-Curci (Rosina, Lucia, Violetta, Gilda), Rob? As for the 4th: are Felix Weingartner and Walter on the your list with AT?

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