Radio 3 Controller Alan Davey on how he’s bringing the Proms to the people

Alan Davey, controller of Radio 3

Alan Davey, controller of Radio 3 - Credit: Archant

The unashamed music fan tells Michael White he wants to present music in fresh ways that engage audiences - and why we should pay our licence fee.

Sitting in a meeting room at Broadcasting House that feels uncomfortably like a location shoot for “W1A” (and probably was), Alan Davey beams with pleasure at the prospect of the new Proms season starting next week. He’s an enthusiast, and not afraid to say so.

“I love music” is a frequent comment. And he clearly loves the Proms, which is as well because he’s now in charge of them – not in a hands-on way, because the previously joined jobs of running the Proms and running Radio 3 are now divided. But as Radio 3’s new Controller he has overall command of the 92 concerts in two months that comprise the world’s largest music festival. It puts him under a spotlight that he doesn’t relish, although he accepts that “it goes with the territory”.

When he took over as Controller five months ago it was an unexpected appointment. Previously chief executive of Arts Council England, he was seen (if at all) as a back-room bureaucrat: a quiet policy-maker rather than the dynamic mover-and-shaker of the music world that commentators were looking for.

But as he says, “I was a back-room boy who brought the outside world in”. He was good at identifying problems and finding the right people to help solve them. Which is one useful skill he brings to Radio 3.

Not that Radio 3 is a broken structure that needs fixing - it’s doing OK - but recent years have raised questions about its function, future and tone. There’s been a desperation in its efforts to attract a bigger audience. Classic FM chit-chat has adulterated its once pristine presentation standards. And that sin of evangelical enthusiasm, the pretence that something serious, complex and sophisticated is in fact quite easy, has drawn widespread criticism. Not least from the Friends of Radio 3, whose friendship has been equivocal.

Davey hasn’t too said much as yet about all this, but his few statements have been encouraging. He talks fondly of the values of the old Third Programme, Radio 3’s Reithian precursor, and has already taken measures to police the chit-chat. But more interestingly, he cites as a role-model “the intellectual generosity of what Neil Macgregor has done at the British Museum - not just being a custodian of precious objects but finding fresh ways of looking at them that really engage people.

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“Radio 3 has a custodial role, and the music we present IS complex. But I believe that if we present it authentically, in ways that reflect the composers’ intentions, people will go for it. Simple enthusiasm isn’t enough. We should be saying: this is good because…”

Something else he thinks he should be saying, loudly, is that Radio 3 and the Proms rank high among the greatest cultural institutions this country can boast – and are one of the best arguments going for the BBC licence fee in times when its future is threatened. Like now.

“Without the licence fee, the Proms and everything packaged around them couldn’t happen” says Davey, who knows the arithmetic well enough. Over and above box-office receipts, those 92 concerts - with orchestras, conductors, choirs and soloists flown in from across the world – cost £5m. And for the joy they give to millions, you might think them worth every penny.

When I ask what Davey’s most looking forward to in the coming weeks he says “the party after the last night”; and given the enormity of effort and resource involved, you can believe it.

But it’s this year’s celebration of Carl Nielsen’s 150th anniversary that fires his spirits. There are also complete cycles of the Beethoven and Prokofiev piano concertos, copious quantities of Sibelius (for HIS 150th), new symphonies by James MacMillan and the fascinating Chinese composer Raymond Yiu. Starting Friday 17th, full details are on the website: Or hear it as it happens on Radio3.