Twenty years ago this September, to the strains of Handel’s Zadok the Priest, Classic FM went on air. The BBC pretended to be indifferent although Brian Johnston was apparently admonished for saying on Test Match Special how much he liked the test transmissions of birdsong.
Lots of people were sceptical about the station. It would not be serious, it would broadcast only bleeding chunks, it would take classical music down-market. CM even ran a Colemanballs column of presenter gaffes in which Henry Kelly featured large. ‘There was an accepted wisdom at the time of how classical music should be broadcast on radio,’ recalls current managing director Darren Henley, who joined the station as a weekend newsreader two months after it opened while still a student at Hull University. ‘There were even people within the advertising community who didn’t really understand how it could be successful commercially. But there was clearly a gap not being filled by other broadcasters. We created a different style of broadcasting. Our choice of music, the sort of people we put on air, actually connected with people. We took classical music to a wider audience.
‘Before Classic FM came along there was definitely a perception that some parts of the classical music world weren’t always very good at sharing their love of classical music. If the cupboard was locked, we wanted to dynamite off the doors.’ Within a matter of months Classic FM had broken the 1 million listener barrier. Its weekly reach is now over five million.
As part of its birthday celebrations, the station is revamping its website so that listeners can find out more about the music being played. It is also staging a concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 24 September, as well as promoting birthday events in collaboration with its partner orchestras: the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Opera North orchestra, the Northern Sinfonia, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and the London Symphony. These partnerships are not financial but involve finding ways of attracting audiences of all ages and backgrounds into the concert hall.
Looking back over the first twenty years, is there anything of which Henley is particularly proud? Yes, he replies, ‘the Classic FM Hall of Fame. I produced the first one in 1996 and it has since become shorthand in the classical music world for the most popular pieces of music. When I go round the country and meet artistic planners, it’s interesting how many of them have the top 300 list with them. I’m also proud of the relationships we’ve built with the orchestras and I’m very proud of the new music we’ve commissioned, in particular Enchanted Voices which we did with Howard Goodall, our current composer in residence. Half a dozen sopranos, a cello, a keyboard and some handbells doesn’t sound like something very interesting, and yet it became the best selling core classical work of the year.’
And the next 20 years? ‘It would be foolish to break a winning formula but arrogant to presume you don’t need to change and develop as time goes on. The exciting thing about this industry is we don’t know what is around the corner. The means of delivering music will probably continue to develop and change. But great music will continue to be great music, great performers will continue to be great performers. That’s the really exciting thing.’