Dear Internet… Really?

29th March 2014

Dad used to listen to BBC Radio 3 in the car. This was, I'd guess, the late 70s, early 80s. To my fresh young ears it was awful. Turgid, dull and incomprehensible. I remember things came to a head on one journey when some endless piece of ear bending serialism was delivered into the car with no introduction or context that I can remember.

'Oh, for heaven's sake.' said Dad and switched the radio off. That was the last I heard of Radio 3 for a quarter of a century.

My interest in classical music grew through my 20s, mostly due late night listening to a programme on the BBC World Service where I discovered the Brandenberg concertos, and other delights. I used to put Classic FM on in the office when I was doing my PhD, but eventually gave up, having been thoroughly patronised and insulted by their adverts. I did not want a golf holiday then, do not now, and hopefully never will. All this time Radio 3 remained a vague, unapproachable threat on the radio dial. A place, I thought, where music is revered with crinkled, very high brows and belittling sneers to those of us who didn't have much of a musical upbringing. A place not for me, nor the likes of me.

In late 2001 driving home from work, I decided that I could not face listening to the Radio 4 news any more; the War on Terrorism was too depressing. But where on the dial to go? Far too old for Radio 1, not interested in Radio 2, Radio 4 too depressing, local radio too vapid.

'Oh, for heaven's sake' I said, and pressed the previously untouched Radio 3 button.

The Golden Age

Over the next few months I was enraptured, not just by the music but by the completely unstuffy, approachable presenters who oozed passion and joy in the music they introduced. I made a list of the words routinely used on Radio 3 to described the music; 'glittering', 'revolutionary', 'spiritual', 'rousing', 'devastating'. I even shoe-horned this into one of my lectures on programming, asking why this sort of language is the preserve of the arts, not of science or engineering.

What a revelation to me that this music and this radio station were the most accepting, least elitist on the dial. With other genres of music you're either the wrong age, have the wrong attitude, the wrong culture or the wrong clothes. On Radio 3 there was not the slightest whiff of exclusion; all welcomed, a passion and curiosity about music, purely for music's sake was the only entry criteria. The door that I'd started to open was flung wide and I was hugely grateful. Over a decade later I still feel that I've only scratched the surface. I'll listen to that ear bending serialism now, because someone who knows it and understands it has explained it to me with care and passion. I still don't like it much, but maybe give it time. At least I now don't believe that that music is somehow inherently not for me.

To me the thing that unites Radio 3's output is the belief that whatever genre I'm listening to, it is pretty much the best there is; that it is music made purely for the love of the music, free of commercially driven compromise that diminishes most other forms of expression. After John Peel died there was much soul searching in the media, asking where was his replacement, where was the voice of pure enthusiasm for music, a voice willing to experiment and go in new directions, to invite the listener along for the ride. Even if the listener didn't like the places they were ridden to, that wasn't remotely the point, the point was that it wasn't boring. It was challenging. To me the answer to the question of where John Peel's replacement was is simple. Its Radio 3. And it is not just a few hours a week, tucked into the darker corners of the schedule, its all day, every day.

Oh, so very wrong

Then after a few years I was sitting bored in my office and started Googling around to see what others thought of Radio 3 and imagine my shock at finding that -- apparently -- I'd got it oh, so very wrong.

Take to the internet and you find that Radio 3 is completely dumbed down, a pale shadow of its former self. Filled with inane chatter and fatuous, smug presenters. Almost as bad as, in fact as bad as… and here it comes, the ultimate insult,  it is worse than Classic FM. Anyone who suggests otherwise is an idiot or a BBC stooge.

What amazed me about all this online venom is that classical music is supposed to be the ultimate enrichment to the human condition; music that challenges and questions us about what it is to be us, and that can answer many of those questions. I remember first hearing Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel (on Radio 3 of course) while watching my daughter asleep in her cot and feeling like the music had clothed some essential part of me in sound. You would think that people who have spent all their lives being enriched by this wonderful music would be the most enlightened, delightful, erudite people you could meet.

But do you get that impression from reading Radio 3's Facebook page? Or do you rather get the impression that Radio 3 listeners are a dismal bunch of pedantic misanthropes, engaged in a battle with each other to come out with the most self righteously outraged comment, utterly lacking in humour, grace or any form of panache? Do you rather get the impression that they hate modern life, and in particular all those horrid young people who hang about the place, having fun and being enthusiastic about things?

So you go to the effort of liking Radio 3 on Facebook and then spend all your time making snide comments about it? Really? How much time do you think you have in this world, that you think this is a useful way of spending it?

You take to Facebook in a flurry of indignant pedantry to make some big issue about some minor mistake made during 'Building a Library' but you misspell 'library'? Really? I was wiping the irony off my laptop for weeks after that one.

You take to the internet to decry the lack of standards, discipline and respect in modern society, and then follow it up with deeply personal, offensive and childish attacks on individual presenters? Particularly the ones who who have the twin failings of being both young and female? None too preux chevalier, really.

And as for the hapless chap who took the time to castigate Radio 3 for playing Classic FM-ish lollipops like 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine' but got the name of the composer wrong. I mean really. Even I know that.

But then this is a completely unfair picture of Radio 3 listeners, and, believe it or not, this is absolutely not an attack on Radio 3 listeners, because all the ones I've met are all lovely in every way. I'm just talking about a noisy minority who think they own the art form and will hose abuse all over anyone who doesn't share that opinion.

Misanthropic, Ugly, Dreary Comments by Anonymous Trolls

Its not just Radio 3 listeners that seem to think that the internet is the perfect receptacle for their dreary misanthropy. As well as classical music, my other musical love is for folk music. But, oh my goodness, there's a website which proclaims itself to be the centre of all things folk, centred mostly around a discussion group. This discussion group is just the most wince-makingly dreary place. I've lost count of the number of times that I've been Googling this, that or the other about a folk singer or group, only to finish up on the site in question and spend the next half an hour, mouth hanging open in amazement, scrolling through page after page of snotty, narrow-minded grumbling.

And whatever you do, don't waste your life reading up on what they think folk music is and/or isn't. In summary, take the sentence 'folk music is what I say it is, and anyone who disagrees is an idiot' then repeat minor variations on this sentence several hundred times. There. I've read pages of tedious drivel, so you don't have to.

I sometimes think it's a generational thing, because the demographic for folk and classic music has an age profile that, shall we say, tends towards the autumn years. And maybe we all have a fixed amount of anger that needs venting, and lacking major global conflicts and things that actually matter, we chose to vent about trivialities on the internet. (As, you'll have noticed, I'm currently doing. There's paradoxical for you.) There are clearly all sorts of cognitive biases going on, particularly the reinforcement bias where you surround yourself with a clique of like minded misanthropes and finish up trying to outdo each other with who make the most miserable comment, completely losing any sense of how dreadful you appear to anyone outside your clique. If I was twenty years younger I'd very probably write a thesis about it.

Maybe I shouldn't worry about it. I realised a long time ago that I only read the folk music discussion group in order to get annoyed by the rubbish posted there, and vowed never to read it again. A vow I have kept, to no noticeable ill effect. I should probably do the same with the Radio 3 Facebook page, and just revel in the glory of listening to the radio station and not worry about the assorted piffle that pedants care to post about it.

And the answer is...

But before I go, if your default setting is to switch your computer on, navigate to your favourite discussion page and then spill some bile over it, I have the following questions...

Are you missing the fundamental irony that in the world wide web, you have been handed a means of communication undreamt of in human history, that just about all the information there has ever been is delivered to your laptop, that you can use to communicate all over the world with hardly any barriers and minuscule cost, and you use it to do what exactly? You use it to moan about how rubbish modern life is?