Classic Turns 20
As Classic FM celebrates its 20th birthday, Melonie Clarke went behind the scenes to speak to the presenters, press some exciting buttons and discover that its airwaves are open to all
I was lucky enough to enjoy a day behind the scenes at that now-not-so-secret club – the most successful classical music radio station in Britain today. I got the chance to meet the founders, the presenters who were there from the start – and, yes, press lots of interesting buttons, too.
Darren Henley has been at Classic FM almost from the off. Starting in 1992 as the overnight news reader, Darren would travel down from the University of Hull where he was a student, read the news on Sunday nights, then sleep on the sofa in the chief executive's office (not that he knew that at the time) and get the first train back on Monday morning. Quite a start to life at Classic FM. He really is a veteran.
When talking to Darren about how Classic FM came to be, he talks about the station, and classical music, with a sparkle in his eye. 'Our founders believed that classical music could be there as part of everybody's life. The vision was that classical music can and should be a part of everyone's life,' he says. 'My favourite saying is that we play hit music, but instead of it being from the past four weeks, we play the last 400 years – the whole of musical history's hit records.'
So, 400 years of music. It may all be classical, but there is still a huge variation from Mozart to Einaudi (who has Classic FM, and particularly Nick Bailey, to thank for his phenomenal success in Britain as the station was the first to play his works in the UK). And with a wide variation in music comes a wide range of listeners – everyone from the over-65s to teenagers, doctors, judges and white van men. But is it possible to keep such a wide variety of people happy?
'We're always doing things to try and broaden that range,' says Darren. Indeed, the team at Classic FM believe they 'have a responsibility to take that music out to as many people as possible. We tend to play music mainly by dead guys. Mozart won't be in HMV signing copies of his new album next week, but we want to find ways of making his music relevant today.'
Making the connection with listeners is important to Classic FM and helps the station keep its broad range of listeners. 'Antenatal classes often suggest that women should listen to us – and a large number have us on in the background when they give birth. When people get married, there is also a sudden interest because they want to decide what to walk down the aisle to.
'When people come to classical music for the first time, sometimes they think it isn't accessible but we can say "you're wrong". Film scores are important because they are a way in for lots of people. We want to find what the barriers are and eradicate them, and we also want to find the bridges into classical music and build more.'
Darren is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the station, but the best way for me to get to know Classic FM is to sit in on some of the shows. Luckily, John Suchet and Jamie Crick were kind enough to let me join theirs.
Joining John Suchet's show is a delight. As Mozart fills the airwaves I watch Suchet hum along and bang on his desk in time to the music. I can't help but smile. He tells me that he is a 'failed musician': 'I was a mediocre trombone player so I went into journalism.'
But despite spending nearly 20 years as a newsreader, his heart was still in classical music.
'I love it. I was at ITN when Classic FM started and I thought I'd love to work for them one day, and here I am.'
Jamie Crick's request show follows Suchet's, and this is where I get to make my radio debut. Very kindly, Crick shows me how the studio works, and more excitingly lets me cue the music – my chance to press some exciting buttons had finally arrived.
The most interesting thing about Crick's show is that it can be quite seasonal. From January to May, 50 per cent of music requests come from students.
'They are doing their dissertations and they might have listened to rock or pop, but they just need something that calms them down and suddenly we get a huge influx,' he explains.
I reminisce about slaving over my own geology dissertation with Classic FM on in the background – Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture is the ultimate soundtrack to any geology report.
One of Classic FM's main goals is to be at the front of people's minds when they think of classical music. Who knows where the station will be 20 years from now, but whatever new technologies come along, it's clear that Classic FM will make the most of them. u
Classic FM celebrates its 20th birthday on 7 September. Nick Bailey, the first Classic FM presenter, remains there today and makes the birthday announcement at 6.03am.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918