Total radio – six reasons BBC Radio 3’s ‘Spirit of Schubert’ was awesome

Franz Schubert

The ‘Spirit of Schubert’ finished a week ago. It was Radio 3’s biggest ‘takeover’ yet – over 200 hours of output devoted exclusively to the work of Franz Schubert. Every one of his ‘performable works’ was played, many in brand new versions, some for the first time ever. It was a remarkable thing – and for a Radio 3 new boy, a very inspiring and energising lesson in Radio 3’s values.

And that brings me to the required disclaimer. I work at Radio 3. But planning for the Schubert began before I joined and my concern is principally with the interactive stuff, so I can’t claim any credit for the idea or for its on-air execution. So I’m not neutral but I think I’ve got enough distance from the thing to offer some observations. So, here are my six reasons why the ‘Spirit of Schubert’ was awesome radio:

  1. It was a pure radio phenomenon. That’s worth remembering. A radio station did this. The radio industry seems to have more-or-less ignored it but it was a huge, joyful, all-consuming radio stunt. Not the first but quite possibly the biggest ever. And I’m pretty sure you couldn’t do this on TV – you’d have to steamroller too many appointments and it would be far too expensive. Radio rocks!
  2. It was a public service wonder. The kind of resolutely public service activity, in fact, that justifies the UK’s hybrid radio ecology and should have made executives at Classic FM as happy as those at the BBC. It was immensely brave – testing the limits of both station and audience (over 1200 performances, nearly 700 of them songs!) but I firmly expect the net benefit to be positive, both for Radio 3 and for radio in general – it raises the profile of radio and reminds everyone that singular, courageous content can still come from the senior service. Incidentally, I think it’s instructive to compare ‘the Spirit of Schubert’ with Classic FM’s ‘Hall of Fame‘ – two editorially-ambitious classical music offerings that bridge online and on-air and, between them, neatly define the quite exhilarating range on offer from UK radio right now.
  3. It was editorially sophisticated. It was excellent radio. BBC values were on display everywhere. The composer’s story was told in many different ways, using the tools of the scholar and curator, of the music broadcaster and of the radio storyteller. In content terms it was a triumph, presenting the life and work of an individual in ways that will, for some listeners – me, for instance – have been life-changing.
  4. It was packed with innovation. The season saw a step change for Radio 3: in integration of social media, in multiplatform production, in new storytelling techniques and programme formats, in on-air promotion of online content, and in production areas like computerised playout and programme metadata. And that’s just the areas I know about. It was a hothouse for new stuff, much of which will stick.
  5. It made exceptional use of the station’s assets. Dozens of hours of live performance, big OBs from unusual locations, deep music scholarship and a team (on both sides of the glass) comfortable with a big story.
  6. It was real storytelling. An immensely satisfying, impossibly engaging story. Reading the overwhelmingly positive reactions online, many talk about ‘falling in love’ with Schubert and about the emotional difficulty of the final stages of his story and – especially – about missing him now that it’s over. It was the kind of bridge to a distant historic period that you can’t get from a one-hour doc or an evening of output. The word is overused in broadcasting but if ‘the Spirit of Schubert’ wasn’t a ‘journey’ then nothing is.

Highlights. There were many. I loved the nightly Play Schubert for Me – a presented show that blended listeners’ voices, records and live performance beautifully. Really sophisticated night-time radio. Mara Carlyle doing Du Bist die Ruh with Max de Wardener in 80A. The In Tune Salon – a frankly unlikely mix of musicology, history and performance set to a drivetime rhythm that really worked and was only occasionally overburdened with music (there was a lot to get in!). The Schubert Lab – quite a feat: upbeat, fun, live radio packed with real musical scholarship – and packaged in shortform nuggets that will thrive in the long tail.

And, if you don’t mind me highlighting some content from my area: @FranzIsUnwell – the clever and moving use of Twitter to tell Schubert’s story (a Caper production for BBC Radio 3) and the highly-immersive library of ‘Schubert Lab’ videos, an entertaining learning tool that will continue to inspire indefinitely (and should be added to the music curriculum at schools everywhere!).

And the station was on fire throughout. There wasn’t a single slack or lazy minute in the 200 hours of output. Sitting in studio 80B‘s booth – as I was lucky enough to be able to do quite a lot during the eight-and-a-half days – what I saw was a radio station bursting with confidence and passion for its work. It was glorious.

  • There’s a handy round-up of all the online content from the ‘Spirit of Schubert’ on the Radio 3 blog. Richard Leeming, who produced the interactive element of the season for Radio 3, wrote an interesting account from behind the scenes.


  1. I listened and I loved but I do not think the sending of presenters to Vienna at licence payers expense was at all necessary.Why?To convey to the listener the magic of Schubert’s haunts? It is ,as you say,radio so why the jaunts abroad unless it was on TV?

  2. I think that’s an easy one, Jane. BBC Radio is ninety years old this year and we’ve been sending people to locations to record since the very beginning – because it tells a better story, because it makes for a truer account of events, because it makes for more vivid radio. And I disagree with you about the TV. For radio, where all we have is the sound, it’s MORE important that those sounds are authentic. Not less. Look at the insane bit of kit in the top photo on this blog post – invented in 1927 specifically so that the sound of the boat race could be recorded down on the water where it sounded more real. Or think of Richard Dimbleby in that RAF Mosquito. Should he have stayed in the studio? And that’s before you even consider how unbelievably cheap it is to record radio on location (no crew, no hair and make-up, no lights, no fixer, no catering truck!)…

  3. I’m sorry but the BBC has a long record of wasting licence-payers money on unneccessary jaunts overseas.We tune in to listen to the music;I don’t think its necessary someone present to set the scene as the music speaks for itself.Its not like a sporting event where the action needs to be described.What I would like to see is the BBC exercising some financial restraint in its activities.We’ve just beeen regaled with stories of the vast sums expended ferrying people to and from Salford-not music to the licence-payers ears.The BBC is a typical example of an organisation spending other peoples money without the due care and consideration it would give were it privately funded.Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of R3 but I do feel there is a prevailing ethos at the BBC of”money no object” which needs addressing.

  4. Oh dear, what a shame that the discussion is being taken in this very negative direction. We need to remind ourselves that the BBC costs very little per person each week – the advantages of a public service, universal broadcasting system.

    We, actually, pay much more for the commercial stations – but the cost is disguised and hidden as increased costs for products and services due to funding through advertising.

    Radio 3, alone, is worth the money I pay for the BBC, in my opinion.

  5. Nobody is arguing about the BBC offering value for money.The question is whether the same standard of service could be achieved with a lower licence fee by cutting out unnecessary expenditure.
    So far as commercial stations are concerned I can choose not to purchase from their advertisers.If I have a TV set I am compelled to buy a licence aven though I may have no need of the BBC’s offerings.

  6. You would be very hard pressed, Jane, to avoid buying many products (including petrol, public transport, all major supermarket products, clothes, shoes, etc. etc) that everyone needs in modern life. And you would, I think, be amazed at the cost of this to you personally.

  7. Maybe I would SP but the choice is mine-that is not the case with the licence fee-there is no choice!!

  8. Yes, indeed, if your choice is to lead a monastic life, confined to your home and local area without the pleasures of even coffee and tea, deprived of electricity or gas, no social life, tattered rags for clothes, etc. back to the dark ages for you I think. is this really how you live?

  9. SP-what a nonsense! I am saying that the BBC waste a lot of public money with no thought for austerity WHATSOEVER!You will find I am not the only one who knows this fact!Keep listening and enjoying now!

  10. Jane and Sunand, it’s been lovely having you here at Bowblog but I feel it’s time to ask you – pub landlord-style – to take your dispute outside!

  11. Thanks for usefully intervening Steve. Back to Schubert: what a fantastic feast of riches indeed. I was hooked and listened whenever I could. What other Radio station would be able to host such a feast of serious music, creativity and knowledge in depth. What other Radio station would dare! I agree with all you have said above. Long live Radio 3 with its culture and public service ethos. Reithianism still, thankfully, survives in some small corners of the broadcasting world.

  12. Thanks Sunand. Believe it or not, Reith continues to inspire BBC people (although he was actually rather unkind about the Third Programme and wanted it closed down!). And, of course, we may be BBC staff but we’re also licence fee-payers and viewers/listeners/web site-users too! 🙂

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