In this section we track the history of BBC Radio. On this page we look at Radio 3 and its predecessors. On other pages: Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 4, Radio 5/5 Live, digital radio, local radio and nations radio.
The history of the network now known as Radio 3 pre-1970 is probably the most complicated of all the BBC's radio networks!
The Third Programme opened on 29 September 1946, completing the pattern of post-war sound broadcasting on the BBC. With the Light Programme at the popular end of the scale, and the Home Service in the middle, the Third Programme was unashamedly highbrow, providing a diet of serious music and talks each evening.
For some years, the only programmes broadcast on the Third Programme's frequency were in the evening, but from 1957 onwards, a number of other services were introduced onto the frequency - and this is where things start to get complicated.
Network Three was introduced in September 1957 on the Third Programme frequency as a service of programmes covering minority interests, hobbies, education and some music. Radio Times, listed the two services under separate headings. However at some point in 1963, the name 'Network Three' disappeared, and 'Third Network' now appeared as an umbrella title for all services carried on that frequency, which also included Sports Service on Saturday afternoons (which had begun in 1961).
But to make things more confusing, 'Third Network' doesn't appear to simply be a renamed 'Network Three' - the earlier name refers to all services on that frequency other than the Third Programme, while 'Third Network' refers to all services including the Third Programme. Indeed, editions of Radio Times from early 1963 show the Saturday listings as headed up 'In the Third Network', while 'Network 3' is used the rest of the week. Some time after the demise of the Network Three name, from December 1963 the early evening minority interest programmes were grouped together as 'Study Session'.
Then as if things weren't confusing enough, in August 1964 yet another service began on the frequency, the Music Programme. Aware that many the overtly elitist image of the Third Programme was offputting to many, the Music Programme was designed to be a more accessible service of classical music broadcast throughout the daytime, initially on Sundays only and then extended to seven days a week by the end of the year.
Network Three and the Third Network experimented with Stereophony during the early 60s. Listeners were invited to spend their Saturday mornings rearranging their furniture in order that their radio receiver was to the left of their television, with the loudspeakers placed around six to ten feet apart. An hour of classical music would then be broadcast, with the left side of the audio transmitted on radio, and BBC Television (in sound only) transmitting the right side. Hear a clip at the bottom of this page. True stereo broadcasts in the Third Network commenced in 1966, the first BBC network to do so.
In September 1967 the Third Network was renamed Radio 3. However its constituent parts (Third Programme, Music Programme, Study Session (which became 'Study on 3') and Sports Service) continued to maintain their separate identities and editorial teams for a few more years.
It was when the recommendations made in the Broadcasting in the Seventies report came into effect in April 1970 that the barriers finally came down and Radio 3 became more of a cohesive whole. The sport was handed over to Radio 2 (apart from Test Match Special), and some speech programmes moved to Radio 4.
Although primarily a classical music network, in the 1970s Radio 3 also broadcast some progressive music in the series Sounds Interesting. There was also a series aimed at opening the minds of younger generations to the world of music, Pied Piper. A later series in the 1990s, The Music Machine was also aimed at younger listeners, covering music in all its many forms.
The wavelength changes in November 1978 saw Radio 3 inherit the poorest of the BBC's frequencies, 1215 AM, previously home to Radio 1. This must have been something of a shock to Radio 1 listeners who hadn't remembered to retune! However the Radio 3 audience was the most likely to be listening on the higher quality VHF/FM waveband.
Schedule changes in 1992 saw the introduction of new daily breakfast and drivetime programmes, On Air and In Tune, designed as 'entry points' for new listeners. It can be no coincidence that this occured in the same year that Radio 3 encountered direct competition for the first time in the form of Classic FM, which promised a more accessible approach to classical music and since then has consistently attracted a much larger audience.
Radio 3, however, can point towards its greater coverage of the arts, and a commitment to broadcasting live music, notably the traditional Promenade Concerts during the summer months. Some parts of its output are dedicated to non-classical music, such as jazz, and world music (Andy Kershaw presented here for a while after leaving Radio 1), and there are more experimental forms of music featured in programmes such as Late Junction.
Radio 3 has, at times, broadcast output that is totally at odds with its main remit. For many years, Test Match Special was broadcast on its medium wave frequency, but when that was taken away by the government in 1992 to be reallocated to commercial radio (it became home to Virgin Radio in 1993), the cricket found itself moved to the main FM network, displacing Radio 3's usual output much to the dismay of classical music fans. After two years, Test Match Special was found a new home on Radio 4 LW.
Another unwelcome instrusion came in 1994 when schools programmes moved from Radio 5 and took over an hour of the afternoon schedule. This was eventually transferred to an overnight slot, before moving to its current home on Radio 4 digital.
Radio 3 began 24 hour broadcasting in May 1996.
From our YouTube channel, a clip from Stereophony as broadcast in Network Three in the early 1960s.
Text copyright © Robert Williams, images and audio copyright © British Broadcasting Corporation