22 June 2012

Abu Dhabi Classic FM

Radio is, for me, an intimate medium.  Rarely do I ever listen to it in public or, indeed, when I have company.  It travels with me in the car – which is where most of my listening is done – and has made bearable many thousands of long journeys.  My preference is for talk radio, where intelligent conversation or knowledgeable voices broaden my intellectual horizons and stimulate my thoughts.  Listening to music in the car I try and avoid, simply because I cannot concentrate on that and the driving; and both deserve my fullest attention.  However, when BBC World Service is not available on FM or there is no decent local substitute (which is, sadly, the usual state of affairs), I scan the channels for something musical.  If I’m lucky I hit on a jazz channel or something broadcasting harmless middle-of-the-road stuff which serves as background sound to blot out the silence of a long solitary car journey.

A two hour drive through the desert to Al Ain, the other day, however, netted a jewel.  As the Dubai transmitter for the BBC World Service disappeared behind the sand dunes, I eventually found the scan button on the hire car radio and set it off.  Suddenly it stopped and I heard the magnificent strains of the Gordon Jacob Trombone Concerto; the whole thing – from beginning to end – not just the tuneful bit in the middle.  A relaxed voice (more Welsh than Arabic, it must be said) told us what it was, who was playing, and then introduced the next piece, the Ritual Dances from Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage.  We also had all of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and the Nielsen Aladdin Suite, all in absolutely first-rate sound and nicely introduced with pertinent information and minimal chatter (although there were some informal anecdotes since the presenter was a former orchestral trumpeter – Alan Cuff).  Good, intelligent and listenable stuff.
It ran into the next programme just as I reached my destination, which seemed to offer back-to-back “relaxing classics”; but none of the mindless 2-minute extracts from Dvořák 9 or The Pearl Fishers. I caught a large slice of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and while the segue into Taverner’s Protecting Veil was decidedly disarming, it was both clever and effective for those who just wanted background classics while they prepared lunch, and offered some worthwhile music for those who like such things. True, there was no commentary here, and possibly the programme was bought in from one of the many companies who provide such services, but it was scheduled to last just two hours and was followed by a live “drive-time” which I did not hear since I had someone with me on the return journey.

Intrigued by what I had heard, and unable to pick it up in Dubai, I investigated Abu Dhabi Classic FM (http://www.adradio.ae/abudhabiclassicfm) and discovered it was the pretty near ideal classical music radio station (I also discovered I could pick it up in Dubai – but I also pick up the World Service, so it won’t be with me on car journeys around town).  It offers proper music in nicely packaged programmes with intelligent, knowledgeable and genuinely musical presenters, it organises itself to suit the different listener profiles of the day, it never dumbs down even when the “back-to-back relaxing classics” takes to the air, and manages to give local colour and information alongside a worthwhile listening experience.

There are few countries which boast a really good classical music radio station - I count Hong Kong, Australia, South Africa and the UK among them – but many more who make an absolutely mess of it.  When I wrote on this blog about the paltry state of classical music broadcasting in Singapore I received a huge amount of feedback supporting my views and going quite a bit further.  I received just one long and vaguely offensive email from one of the Singapore station’s supporters; a presenter telling me I had got my facts wrong (the usual cliché for those defending the indefensible – especially when the original comments are based on opinions rather than facts) and that, as a fact, Symphony 92.4 was regularly praised around the globe for its broadcasts (a stated fact I treat not so much with scepticism as with downright disbelief).

It is perfectly possible to run a very successful classical music radio station in a country where classical music is not high on most people’s lists of priorities and to run it so that it meets the demands of classical music aficionados as well as those who just tune in for some light background music.  It is possible to people it with intelligent, knowledgeable and personable presenters who are musicians rather than personalities.  It is possible to focus it to meet the unique requirements of the country and the listenership. 

In Singapore, a country where the potential audience is generally both more musically literate and informed than that in the UAE, it is little short of scandalous that the classical music radio station is so utterly abysmal.  Frankly, to judge from what you hear from the local radio stations, musical life in Singapore is pretty near dead compared with the exciting things going on in the UAE.  The reality is dramatically different, but you’d never guess that from listening to the radio.

1 comment:

  1. Amen to that! Symphony 92.4 FM sucks, plain and simple. I cannot believe how insular, empty and self-congratulatory it has become over the years. It will continue to run in its merry moronic way because its has a higher listenership than it previously had when it was more serious, less slick in outward appearance and more cerebral. Who can argue with "success", it seems.

    Unfortunately, that giant of broadcasting that is MediaCorp has simply no clue as to what constitutes quality even if it pukes in its face. While the classical music scene in Singapore is progressing, its only classical radio station is regressing. Music lovers are getting a very poor deal indeed. The sad truth is that nobody who is in the position of changing things (ie. clear out those self-satisfied execs and bring in some real quality) really cares.