What are Radio 3 presenters for? Is guidance useful … or annoying?

I’ve poached this posting re the Breaking Free season on Radio 3 from Facebook


‘ I still defy anyone to explain convincingly how they can truly enjoy such agonising random noise.’ ‘Is it very sad that I am glad to have missed it? It takes so much hard work that it is as hard to appreciate it as badly written music’ – to quote just two posts to Radio 3’s Second Viennese School week on this strand. So the fact that you [the poster]  ‘cannot stand being told by Rob Cowan and his colleagues how [you] should respond to each piece of music, or performer, instead of being allowed to form [your] own judgement’ raises a vital question: what is a presenter for? IIn the old Third Programme days it was a question of reading scripts that were invariably written by someone else. They were announcers, we’re presenters – and therein lies the principal difference. Last week’s Viennese escapade is the perfect of example of music that needed explaining, at least for those who had yet to discover it. Performers too sometimes take interpretative options that call for some clarification (Glenn Gould, Horowitz, Huberman, Toscanini, Furtwängler), especially in view of today’s very different interpretative manners.  Throughout my life presenters, critics, commentators, historians and the like have helped nourish my responses to a thousand and one subjects. When that stops happening I will take myself off to bed and hope I never wake up. I will have stopped functioning intellectually. I especially like Nietzsche’s idea that having the courage to oppose your convictions is more important than simply having the courage of your convictions – and by entering into dialogue with our Radio 3 listeners (which on the whole we do very successfully) that’s precisely what we do. Please follow this up …  it’s an important topic.

37 thoughts on “What are Radio 3 presenters for? Is guidance useful … or annoying?

  1. From my point of view the guidance offered by presenters is invaluable. That is not to say that one always has to agree with what is being said – interpretation is often an intensely personal experience – but, just as in an exchange of opinions with fellow attendees after a concert, to do so is to enriche the whole event.

    The Breaking Free season has been a good example. I have enjoyed the concentrated approach but not in a search for ‘enjoyment’ or in some effort to reach for a ‘like’ button, but more to seek an understanding of what was being attempted by the composers. Programmers such as Tom Service’s Listening Service help immensely as do the comments made by you and your co-presenters. I now approach the music in a different way and I hope my listening skills have become better as a result. The analogy of the recently deceased John Berger’s Ways of Seeing comes to mind – one can glance at the surface lustre of a painting or one can really look and increase the depth of understanding – my experience of Radio 3 presentation is the aural equivalent.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much. Regarding ‘That is not to say that one always has to agree with what is being said’ Stephen Kovacevich once said to me precisely that but that he nonetheless enjoyed the programmes! An ideal reaction. Best. Rob

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think R3 generally is spot on. I have enjoyed the background information more than the subsequent music, but that is a start. Maybe, one day, I’ll get the music, too. I once heard one of your colleagues retort, ‘At least you now know what you don’t like!’ That was a mistake (and patronizing). The radio is amazing, but it can’t replace the concert hall. When I heard Stockhausen live I was spellbound. Listening to the same piece on the radio, I know I would reach for the ‘off,’ button. More music on TV would be a way forward.


      1. Good point Clive. ‘I have enjoyed the background information more than the subsequent music, but that is a start.’ A very important start I would have thought. Thank you.


  2. David Wood

    Guidance is nearly always appreciated, but Radio 3’s over-verbose presentation can go too far in the wrong direction – endless lists of names of people who get the right answer in unnecessary quizzes, adverts (trailers) for programmes that might be more appropriate in their style for selling washing powder.

    The Breaking Free season is one of the best things Radio 3 has done for a long time – much more informative than those unimaginative single composer saturation weeks, in that they introduce works not often heard and challenge the listeners in a way endless repeats of The Lark Ascending (a fine work) can never do.

    The point about reading scripts prepared by others – is this necessarily a bad thing? Surely this is better than a presenter with limited musical qualifications telling us the world premiere of Elgar’s Apostles took place at King’s College Cambridge, and then repeating the error a few minutes later. These moments are rare, but let’s not denigrate experts like Hans Keller.

    Most presenters are well-informed, but in recent years they have been working to an apparent formula which over emphasises the chat to such an extent that sentences run into one another, forcing the presenters to gasp for breath mid-phrase. Surely the listeners are not going to switch off the radio every time a full stop is required?


    1. That’s true David. I knew Hans Keller when I first worked at the BBC back in the late 1960s. He was a model communicator, on or off air. I take what you say about scripts but no presenter worth his/her salt would speak on air without having checked the facts first – even though it’s inevitable that errors sometimes creep in (even our sources aren’t entirely free of those). I think that the chat element has eased off of late but I wouldn’t say that a warming element of informality is necessarily a band things. Best.


    2. tippetian

      I make a distinction between an introduction whether to well known works or works that are rarely played that is factual and enlightening and gush. It is not the role of the announcer to tell us whether or not he or she enjoyed the work, after all it is rare that someone enjoys Palestrina and Wagner and Jazz and World Music and Musicals but announcers have to introduce them all, some times sadly one after the other! This is not a new problem Owen Wingrave was announced by BBC TV as a masterpiece before its first performance.

      Mistakes, far more common than in the past and emphasis on trivia all undermine the belief of the listener in the abilities of the announcer.

      Detailed Information does not put of the beginner, quite the opposite, and we all begin with no information. I went to my 2nd concert not knowing the difference between a Concerto and a Symphony and found out for myself that Rachmaninov’s 2ndSymphony is quite a different fish from his 2nd Concerto. We learn the basics ourselves and then start learning from those with more knowledge.

      I learnt all my music in the 70s on radio 3. My listening has reduced because of these irritations and because foreign stations on the internet are much more restrained, or I can not understand them! A real problem on Czech C Dur. but a great source of Czech music beyond the popular Dvorak. and a better playlist than R3. I would listen more if there were more programmes like the one on the 2nd Vienna School. So many areas that could be introduced, French Keyboard Music Couperin to Rameau,etc etc by some one who knows their subject. I miss ” Interpretation on Record”…..

      Radio 5 on football never talk down, they assume basic knowledge and try to add to it. They even say its a dull match from time to time. I don’t think R3 should go as far as to say the BBC Phil are dull even if once in a while they are but Radio 3 should not talk down.


      1. Thank you David. As it happens I think we should just occasionally say if we’re not liking something, if only to prove that the ‘trusted guide’ really is to be trusted – I’ve done it myself quite a few times (to the annoyance of some, no dount). Mistakes tend to happen – though not too often – because of the quick-fire nature of various programmes, but surely they’re no tragedy provided the error is subsequently corrected, no matter whose fault it is. What’s more difficult is defining the difference between ‘factual’ (which can be deadly dull) and ‘gush’ (which can stray way over the top). Surely there is a middle ground which both informs and serves as a sort of mild stimulant. I too miss Interpretation on Record but Building a Library on Record Review is still pretty good. Best.


  3. oldsomerset

    Rob, It’s not so much WHETHER there is comment by presenters (my view of Radio 3’s purpose is that critical comment is the value that Radio 3 adds to the music). It’s the quality of the criticism and how it’s communicated. A ‘possible’ problem is that ‘presenters’ aren’t always(!) as knowledgeable as the Radio 3 listeners. For some programmes they may not need as much specialist knowledge (music sequence programmes) but when they’re ‘spouting’ specialist opinion – that should be backed up by special knowledge, not just whether it’s ‘good/amazing’. And ‘special’ doesn’t have to mean having several doctorates in the subject.

    Above all – in my view – they should focus on the music and what they can say about it. Not whether they are being off-putting to timid newcomers. Once presenters begin to think that they know – in some general way – more than the lowly listeners, they insult the intelligence of those who know as much as they do, sometimes more – but who still appreciate and learn from informed critics who know their stuff. Radio 3 presenters should expect their listeners to be themselves very well informed about classical music (or drama or jazz).

    Golden rule: Presenters should aim to stretch their listeners – not pander to their presumed lack of knowledge.


    1. Very well put. The real issue is one of balance. On Essential Classics have a feature called Music in Time which contextualises a piece according to what else was going on in music history at that time. Some listeners will find the facts of interest whereas others no doubt just want to get on with the business of listening. But what is specialist opinion? If I play a new release and quote the CD label, that in some sense is a specialist fact. As to ‘spouting opinion’ I think it safe to say that most opinion is offered by presenters who do know their stuff. If they didn’t they wouldn’t have been employed by Radio 3. Many of our listeners are hugely informed and I for one respect that fact which is why I nearly always qualify a comment as being my own opinion (unless something is so damned brilliant that praise is almost a given). Thanks so much for writing.


      1. oldsomerset

        Robert – you should have booked two weeks’ leave before posting a blog like this! One comment on ‘opinion’. Music critics on newspapers are paid to ‘give their opinion’, not to educate. For Radio 3, a *critical* opinion is a conclusion formed after the consideration of various (objective) factors. The processes leading up to that conclusion are the valuable bits (and, arguably a listener, having heard them, may form a different opinion). So the shorty-cut of giving one’s opinion without the argument is what listeners resent as ‘telling me what to think’.

        As to what is ‘specialist opinion’, I would say: the opinion of someone who has taken a ‘special interest’ (albeit amateur or ‘hobbyist’) in the particular subject being presented: 2nd Viennese School, Baroque performance practice, Mahler, verismo opera &c. Sometimes it seems as if we’re being asked to believe that Radio 3 presenters (generally well-informed though they may be) are experts in all aspects of classical music. I don’t think Radio 3 can employ such people on a permanent basis.

        (I agree with the point above about written scripts: how they’re delivered matters. The relaxed, less formal delivery which has the appearance of being off-the-cuff is redolent of the thinking that presentation must be ‘easy to listen to’ , or ‘accessible’, for some sort of universal listener who doesn’t exist.)


  4. the point re: Breaking Free is that like so much of contemporary art you don’t have to ‘like’ something to appreciate it, and to want to find out more about it. The true listener would not want to dismiss anything which has or is having an effect or an influence on the overall culture. With music – as with art – we not simply ‘listening’ or ‘looking’ but
    ‘being with it’. Go and stand in front of a painting for one hour – not one minute. Try it. Then you will know something. That’s the state the true listener is in. The music becomes a part of us – and we absorb it. Of course it depends on exactly how ‘musical’ each receiver is. It’s important to be with music – all music. ‘Like’ doesn’t mean anything.


  5. Philip Anderton

    When the Third Programme was launched the Director General said “Its whole content will be directed to an audience that is not of one class but that is perceptive and intelligent.”

    Radio 3 still sticks to this principle in that it doesn’t just churn out music like some internet station but offers a variety of music with opinions. Recommendations always come with opinions – how can they not? If you play a particular performance of, say, a Liszt transcription, you’ll qualify your reasons for playing it based on your knowledge of other recordings. Building A Library has to be the best example of this. The top recommendation may well be the subjective opinion of whoever’s presenting it but it’s an informed and qualified opinion of somebody who knows what they’re talking about. We may disagree with the choice but, more often than not (and certainly as far as I am concerned) we are likely to learn from what we are being told. Oh that I was an expert. I’m not so I’m happy to be guided.


    1. ‘We may disagree with the choice but, more often than not (and certainly as far as I am concerned) we are likely to learn from what we are being told.’ That’s about as good a reaction as Record Review could hope for because it hits the ‘critical’ nail on the head.


  6. The reason I wrote that I’m glad I missed it is that I didn’t have to do all that hard work. A bit like I’m glad I didn’t go to the gym. It might have done me good – or enriched my understanding of music, but for me, it was too much.

    However, these people revered my favourite composer, Mahler, and people whose opinions – former tutors, colleagues – seem to appreciate or even revere the Second Viennese School that I’m sure there is something there worth knowing, having, experiencing or appreciating. In fact I think Mahler’s music often pointed towards Schoenberg’s experiments – just listen to the Violin and Viola solos in the 8th Symphony (Infirma nostri) for example, and that long expansive beginning in the 10th. (Cooke’s performing version)

    If I really want to engage with a subject like the Second Viennese, It is often necessary to have the guidance of a presenter, and if it isn’t necessary, it is still enriching. Music is too important not to engage with properly; it’s not just there as decoration.


  7. Listening to the Radio and listening to Music are entirely different experiences. Listening to music on the radio either illuminates or clouds the issue depending upon the listener. Who is the listener? Why are they listening? Radio Stations draw up all manner of sketches for the ‘listener”: ABC1’s, college educated, disposable income -all manner of conjecture. Radio broadcasters whether they be voices like you Rob (and me); or whether they be producers are then hit over the head repeatedly with “what the listener wants” “what the listener doesn’t want”. This Listener then soon morphs into someone much more omnipotent and tyrannical than any Stalin or Mao.

    Meanwhile, back on earth and in the real world and not the one of graphs and listening figures and trends and all that other guff, people continue to listen to the radio either for “company”, “illumination” or as just ambient noise.

    In the Classical Music arena however various filters and barriers are quickly in play. Many soon have have to know who has recorded the “best” Beethoven 9th; or Stravinsky Rite of Spring; or Bach Goldberg Variations. This is to ensure status, but also to ward off possible conflicting opinions. So nonsense like Furtwangler versus Toscanini; Markevitch versus Gergiev; Callas versus Tebaldi; Gould versus Tureck (or sometimes Gould versus Gould) and so on and on and on.

    The problem is that a Shostakovich 8th Symphony as conducted by a Mravinsky can make it difficult for one to listen to a Haitink or Previn or Petrenko, or even a Kondrashin.
    In this arena is where a Rob Cowan or Andrew McGregor stands out. Why? Besides knowledge, and love of the music is the most important thing of all on radio: integrity. That, I would wager, is what listeners prize above all: integrity. They can like/dislike, love/hate Rob Cowan or Andrew McGregor or whomever but they can never accuse them of being untruthful.

    The great Terry Wogan one night sinking nice pints with a then famous and now fallen young radio presenter said that: They either like you, or they don’t like you. It’s as simple as that.

    They either believe you or don’t believe you. If it’s the former everything flows from that: script, anecdote, opinion, comment – whatever.

    That’s my tuppence Rob. Remember when we met at the Gramophone Awards donkeys-years-ago: Plate of Chips. That’s what I’m talking about: junket with bought opinions and bribed comments; or a plate of chips. Plate of Chips!


    1. Great post Bernard – and lovely to see you here.’They either believe you or don’t believe you. If it’s the former everything flows from that: script, anecdote, opinion, comment – whatever.’ So true! Very best. Rob.


  8. Hi Rob,

    I too have been enjoying the Breaking free season. It is a very intense immersion into this lush, distorted sound world, without getting on my nerves like the single composers weeks, which can put you off Mozart and Bach for months after. At least there is enough tonal music in between to placate the naysayers.

    But on the matter of presenters: What else can you do? Just have wall to wall music or a terse reading out of the work at the end only? The few times I listen to Classic FM, there are those infuriating hours of bits of music which are only announced every four pieces or so, and often without clear performer information.

    We are not obliged to agree with presenters when they give their take on a performance or work. Essential Classics is a pretty good balance of repertoire and chit chat (you can always see through the guests who can’t stand classical music but have a book to plug) and there’s a lot to say when discussing a performer or unusual work. I know a lot but still find lots that I didn’t know from a presenter. God forbid that Cowan or Walker tell us something we knew already! The quiz really is too dumbed down though.

    It wasn’t always so great in the old days of Radio 3 with the austere, distinctly frosty, (and virtually all male) presenting style that Dead Ringers mocked so accurately. Gone are those weird moments where I would switch Radio 3 on only to hear utter silence, waiting for a voice to solemnly tell me what the piece I had just missed was. The chattier style is not all bad, although the pally sycophancy of In Tune grates. Just once I’d love to hear a guest who Rafferty didn’t think ‘brilliant, marvellous, and wonderful’.

    At best, presenting creates debate. Presenting, like criticism I suppose, is often deemed to have no point or role. As a free lance music critic, I have learnt that you can only be yourself and honest. People don’t have to agree with you or indeed like you (although that’s a bonus) but without engaged presenters or critics the world of classical music would lose yet another source of exposure and debate.

    There’s always the off switch or my CD collection when Radio 3 presenters offend my ears which can be fairly often.

    Keep annoying us Radio 3,


    PS To the Viennese 2nd School dissenters, at least we got to hear Brahms’ ‘5th’ symphony, Schoenberg’s fabulous (and very Brahmsian ) orchestration of the Piano Quartet opus 25. Surely no one could have hated that?


    1. Great Barney, thanks. Regarding ‘Three’ presenters of yore (or rather Third Programme) I remember when my oldest girl was studying Syvia Plath and Ann Sexton taking her to the British Library to hear some Third Programme readings by those specific poets. The ‘announcer’ intros were so formal it was positively off putting, sort of ‘what on earth are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be watching Benny Hill!’ (not that I don’t like watching BH – but you know what I mean!). ‘We are not obliged to agree with presenters when they give their take on a performance or work’. Absolutely. But isn’t it sometimes fun to disagree? Makes you think, re-think and re-think again.


  9. Without wishing to be unctuous, I have found that over time there are those whose musical tastes and judgments accord with one’s own, and those who don’t. You, Rob, fall into the first category and if you say something is worth listening to, I take it very seriously especially as I always seem to agree with your remarks on interpretation. That said, I sometimes thinks radio 3 has an enthusiasm which is pressed too far. Schubert is one of my favourite composers, but when the whole network was devoted to him at the exclusion of anyone else, I felt sorry for those who weren’t such devoted Schubertians. And I’ve often yearned for Through The Night to be replicated Through The Day because here you get whole works performed, often interesting live performances, with minimal comment. A joy. What I really don’t like is mindless chat in an effort to imitate Classic FM. But the recent attention given to the Second VIennese School has been very educative, and although I don’t get much beyond Berg myself, I think you and Radio 3 have done us a great service and hope you will continue.


    1. ‘What I really don’t like is mindless chat …’ No-one wants that Richard, although lively debate is useful – even stimulating – I think. I’m grateful for your endorsement regarding critical commentary. I value that enormously. I don’t think people appreciate just how much thought goes behind every critical remark, even those we think of while an actual performance is playing. Best. Rob

      Liked by 1 person

  10. evelyn gottlieb

    What are R3 Presenters for…………put simply, to enhance our listening experience, to educate, to provide just the right amount of background info. on the music and musicians they present, to encourage us to think about music in greater depth and to be critical listeners. As for the 2nd Viennese School Week, I’m glad it’s coming to a close, give me Schubert any day, however, I have enjoyed learning about the lives of the composers . All of you at R3 do an outstanding job, your depth of knowledge and sheer enjoyment of what you present are in evidence . You were greatly missed during the ‘River of Music’ day in late October, Keep up the good work.


    1. David Wood

      Well, the ‘River of Music’ day was an interesting experiment, but perhaps it went too far the other way. Less chat when it is not needed may be desirable, but no explanations of any kind, and no advance playlist in print or online was perhaps a step too far in the other direction.


  11. Of course presenters should proffer opinions as well as straightforward facts. It was partly by listening to you enthuse some years back about Schoenberg’s Second Chamber Symphony that I overcame my prejudices about his music and came to love much of it. As it happens I’ve just been revisiting (for the first time since seeing it as a teenager when it was initially broadcast) Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. His highly personal ‘guidance’ helped a butcher’s son develop a consuming interest in the arts fifty years ago, and was therefore instrumental in part in shaping my entire life.


    1. I’m with you 100% there Geoff. Talking of Kenneth Clark his book ‘Ruskin Today’ has helped me enter into the world of a thinker who has become an all-consuming passion, more recent than your epiphany into the arts generally (we more or less coincide there) but profound all the same. Perhaps Ruskin, whose birth bicentenary is in 2019, should be my next strand here? Best wishes.


  12. James Stark

    For me it is indeed a question of balance . I rather like the piece of advice I heard a presenter given in a very different field when having to deal with a very disparate audience ” Never overestimate the knowledge or underestimate the intelligence of your audience ” – so the fact that 99% of the audience may know of Beethoven 5 does not mean all listeners do .

    On the other hand I do deprecate the recent tendency especially after a Prom it seems of being told how marvellous a performance is by a presenter . I should much rather they personalised their comments as their opinion rather than presenting it as a statement of fact – just as you are thinking that was a rather dull or a very mannered performance .


    1. Interesting James. But doesn’t that go for audience reaction too, especially at a concert? You arrive at the close of a damp squib of a performance only to be greeted by thunderous volleys of applause. And yet what they’re applauding is too often not the actual performance but some extra-musical aspect of ‘the event’, be it the conductor’s/pianist’s/violinist’s/singer’s personality or the thrill of praising an underdog. Sorry, that sounds terribly curmudgeonly but I’m sure you know what I mean. Praise where praise is due, that’s what I say – both to audiences and to radio presenters. And to be truthful if the performance isn’t much good, be kindly by all means but not overly enthusiastic. If you are it invalidates genuine enthusiasm.


  13. John Tuffin

    I am very glad you’ve raised this question. Rather brave I think!
    Personally I am very glad of intelligent knowledgeable explanations, of which there are plenty and I’ve learned a lot from them, but I get very irritated with presenters foisting on us chat for chat’s sake. My pet hates are: quizzes; phone ins; uninformative fill-in woffle before and after concerts, and stuff that is more about the presenter than about the subject matter. Sometimes I wonder whether the BBC is trying to fill up the time because it can’t afford to buy any more CDs.
    It is wonderful that we have Radio 3, but I think sometimes the presenters forget that the reason we have switched on a music programme is that we want to hear music.


  14. BertieRussell

    Hello Rob !

    I’ve recently discovered a sample of Rodney Milnes’ shows on Utube, and I must confess that I’m addicted. Do you know whether his radio broadcasts are accessible on the web? Or whether they can be purchased ?

    Thank you in advance,

    All the best, Bertie


    1. eddfgyyhjurreewsdfghjuytrdfg

      This popped up in my news feed. Still relevant.
      Often the presenter has the opportunity to speak to and interview the composer/conductor.
      Invaluable insight especially if is a new work.


  15. I’ll go one further. The BBC at one point had a new and brilliant young member of the team: Sara Mohr Peitsch, who on occasion was brought in to present certain Promenade concerts on television. One was in no doubt as to her credentials and demeanour; not for her unwarranted superlatives and gurning at the camera lens. In her charge, one felt comfortable and confident of an assured, balanced perspective of the evening’s proceedings. Richard Baker in my early years of watching the Last Night, (then the only televised part of the season as I recall), would keep to a scripted narrative that didn’t deviate beyond keeping it about the music. Move forward and the importation of a somewhat glamorously adorned commercial television presenter, (and all that comes with such window dressing, not to mention a dose of ego), and SMP was suddenly nowhere to be seen again. Overnight, it became, “join me —— ——” and their somewhat pedestrian take on a given piece. The appointment was akin to a child who had been given a new toy to play with, rather than the previously measured and understated narrative about the up-coming programme of music and it’s background history.

    Further to this, another presenter has found me having to switch off the radio, as does a former editor of a longstanding hi-fi and music publication friend of mine, when given presenter begins to assert their own beliefs; regularly talking over the interviewee and telling them (a possible expert in their own field) what they know; as though wanting to tell all how knowledgeable they are too. I used to complain to the programme frequently in a bid to cutting out such dreadfully unprofessional a practice but it has not abated.

    For my money though, these are the exceptions and beyond possibly three personalities, (an apt nomenclature), Radio 3 is blessed with top-flight announcer/presenters who give a first-class presentation. I just wish we could have Sara Mohr Peitsch and Clemency Burton Hill exclusively as Radio 3’s front-line choice with BBC television duties such as the Prom season as theirs is beholden of a more academically informed approach, not to mention the undeniable elegance they each bring to such an occasion.

    While my views are somewhat direct on this topic, it would be best that others don’t follow suit as it only needs to be said the once otherwise it becomes the worst kind of distracting sideshow, but it had to be said all the same and I trust other people reading this will not take Rob to task for publishing it on his forum as I am sure he would always encourage a modicum of one’s right to expressing a viewpoint, even if close to home.


    1. More than a modicum Carl, and with Friends of Radio 3 up-and-running long term I doubt that Radio 3 would worry either. An open forum should be just that, ready to express criticism as well as praise (provided that neither is too personal). Having worked on both sides of the fence (station-wise), so to speak, I have great respect for my fellow presenters without wanting to ape any of them. The only excuse for wanting to broadcast about music is meaning what you say from the bottom of your heart. My advice is that if your agenda is otherwise, no need to bother. Best. Rob


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