Happy 70th Birthday to the “Third Programme”!

I’ve just got time for a quick post-prandial post to mark the fact that 70 years ago today, on September 29th 1946, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) made its first radio broadcast on what was then called The BBC Third Programme. The channel changed its name in 1970 to BBC Radio 3, but I’m just about old enough to remember a time when it was called the Third Programme; I was only 6 when it changed.


It was a bold idea to launch a channel devoted to the arts in the depths of post-War austerity and it was perceived by some at the time as being “elitist”. I think some people probably think that of the current Radio 3 too. I don’t see it that way at all. Culture enriches us all, regardless of our background or education, if only we are given access to it. You don’t have to like classical music or opera or jazz, but you can only make your mind up if you have the chance to listen to it and decide for yourself.

My own relationship with Radio 3 started by accident at some point during the 1990s while I was living in London. I was used to listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 when I woke up, but one morning when my alarm switched on it was playing classical music. It turned out that there was a strike of BBC news staff so they couldn’t broadcast Today and had instead put Radio 3 on the Radio 4 frequency. I very much enjoyed it to the extent that when the strike was over and Radio 4 reappeared, I re-tuned my receiver to Radio 3. I’ve stayed with it ever since. I can’t bear the Today programme at all, in fact; almost everyone on it makes me angry, which is no way to start the day.

Over the years there have been some changes to Radio 3 that I don’t care for very much – I think there’s a bit too much chatter and too many gimmicks these days (and they should leave that to Classic FM) – but I listen most days, not only in the morning but also in the evening,  especially to the live concert performances every night during the week. Many of these concerts feature standard classical repertoire, but I particularly appreciate the number of performances of new music or otherwise unfamiliar pieces.

I also enjoy Words and Music, which is on Sunday afternoons and Opera on 3, which includes some fantastic performances Live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and which is usually on Saturday evenings. And of course the various Jazz on 3 programmes: Jazz Record Requests, Jazz Line-up, Geoffrey Smith’s Jazz, etc.

It’s not the just the music, though. I think BBC Radio 3 has a very special group of presenters who are not only friendly and pleasant to listen to, but also very knowledgeable about the music. They also have some wonderful names: Petroc Trelawny, Clemency Burton-Hill, and Sara Mohr-Pietsch, to name but a few. There’s also a newsreader whose name I thought, when I first heard it, was Porn Savage.

I feel I’ve found out about so many things through listening to Radio 3, but there’s much more to my love-affair with this channel than that. Some years ago I was quite ill, and among other things suffering very badly from insomnia. Through the Night brought me relief in the form a continuous stream of wonderful music during many long sleepless nights.

I wish everyone at BBC Radio 3 a very happy 70th birthday. Long may you broadcast!


One Response to “Happy 70th Birthday to the “Third Programme”!”

  1. Yes, pleasant celebrations to everyone who contributes to Radio 3.

    I don’t remember the channel as the Third Programme, but started listening to Radio 3 around 1985 or 1986. This was when I wanted to hear in entirety some pieces of music, parts of which I had heard elsewhere. Many of the discoveries blew my mind.

    The highlights of Radio 3 for me are the concerts, particularly the evening concert, but also Afternoon on 3 and the lunchtime concerts. The listener never knows how a new performance will sound. It might be good, mediocre or indifferent. It might be magnificent. It might offer new insights into a piece. It is that unexpected character that gives a new performance excitement.

    The weakness of opera on the radio is that it lacks the surtitles of a live performance, making the drama difficult to understand, and the visual spectacle is lost. Words and Music is good, but the music is usually just short extracts.

    Through the Night is a little-appreciated jewel of broadcasting. It brings music to the listener that would never be heard otherwise, particularly from less well-known composers from across Europe.

    As for the broadcasters, I must mention the gentle, authoritative voices of Donald Macleod and Jonathan Swain. Then satisfyingly beyond received pronunciation are the excellent Tom Service and Sarah Walker.

    But in a different category again is that great broadcaster, Rob Cowan. He’s wonderful.

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