Classic FM - the first national classical music station

Classic FM

Classic FM

United Kingdom,
English

The World's Greatest Music

Genres:

Classical

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Classic FM Radio Station Logo

There is only one radio station in the entire UK that plays purely classical music – Classic FM. For millions of people, this station is the go-to portal for classical music. To listen, you can find it on FM: 99.9–101.9 MHz, where they are keeping classic music alive as well as showcasing new pieces. The station plays a wide mix of iconic pieces from centuries ago with a few new compositions.

People may think that classical music is dull and boring, however, songs from many artists including David Guetta, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga and Take That have sampled classical music pieces. Listening to this station can provide artists with new forms of inspiration. But how did this station, which only focuses on a considerably niche genre of music, even come to be?

The History Of Classic FM

Piano keys with sheet music placed on top

At 6 a.m. on the 7th of September 1992, the melody of Handel’s Zadok the Priest ushered in the arrival of Classic FM to the sound-waves. The idea of a radio station with regular classical music programming was developed by the GWR group. Bristol and Wiltshire were two locations where The GWR group were operating their trial stations, and they received steady listenership. After a few rounds of unsuccessfully raising funds to launch a national radio station, GWR merged with the Really Useful Group.

Then CEO of the Group, Brain Brolly had a similar idea for a radio station. Time Warner, who also had experience of classical music programming, additionally got behind the project. The president of Time Warner International Broadcasting, Tom McGrath,  who was a former classical musician and conductor showed great eagerness towards the idea of a purely classical radio station. However, Time Warner were prohibited from owning more than a 25% interest due to the UK laws at the time.

The project came at good timing as the BBC were looking to restructure their programmes and radio stations. They ultimately replaced BBC Radio 3’s predecessor, The Third Programme. 

Classic FM Today 

The national commercial radio station only playing classical music received a variety of mixed reviews from listeners. Even critics and advertisers did not give the station a chance in the 90’s when it was launched. But despite the mixed reviews, the radio station averages about 5.7 million listeners every week. The main demographic of listeners are aged between 30-65. The audience of 15-24-year-olds has grown by over 50,000 in the last two years.

The addition of new shows, presenters, and a more streamlined online listening platform has influenced this increase. Now owned by Global (the same media group who owns Capital, Heart, Smooth and LBC) they have ever so slightly broadened the variety of music that is played to include several modern film scores and video game music. Almost two decades on, the motto and aim of the station has remained pretty much unchanged; to share classical music with the widest possible audience, no matter who they are or where they are. 

Playlist & Programming 

Moira Stuart Classic FM host

The usual playlist consists of the most notable classical pieces, orchestral covers of iconic compositions, modern classic music, and a few lesser-known pieces. Surprisingly there is a lot of diversity between the shows broadcasted, despite the channel only playing classical music. Shows such as Classic FM’s More Music Breakfast with Tim Lihoreau, Smooth Classics with Margherita Taylor, The Story of Carols with Anne-Marie Minhall, and Classic FM Drive with John Brunning are the most listened to shows on the station. Many listeners also tune in for special playlists or programmes such as their Christmas playlist specials. Other notable presenters on Classic FM include Aled Jones, John Suchet, and Alexander Armstrong. 

Last year Classic FM launched a new trial programme aimed at a younger audience, Classic FM’s Revision Hour. This series for students airs every Saturday night from 9-10pm, with a star line-up including Ellie Goulding and singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi.

Classic FM Hall of Fame

Classic FM Hall of Fame logo

From 1996 Classic FM counts down the 300 best classical pieces voted in by listeners. Held every year during the Easter period with the number once spot announced on Easter Monday, probably the most listened to alternative programming Classic FM has to offer is the Hall of Fame.

The Hall Of Fame winners so far:

  • Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (1996-2001) 
  • Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (2002-2005, 2011-2013)
  • Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (2006)
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending (2007-2010, 2014-2017, 2019-2020)
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (2018)

Nation’s Favourite Christmas Carol

Christmas is also another time when Classic FM alters its usual programming. Broadcasted in much the same way as the Hall of Fame, the station counts down the 30 most popular Carols on Christmas day. This show, which was first broadcasted in 2001, goes through the most-loved Christmas carols voted for by listeners.

Classic FM’s Nation’s Favourite Christmas Carol winners so far:

  • In the Bleak Midwinter (2001)
  • Silent Night (2002)
  • O Holy Night (2003-2013 2016-2019
  • Silent Night (2014-2015) 

Classic FM Playlist 

Popular classics are central to Classic FM’s identity. When they were first launched, its playlist consisted of pieces that were carefully selected from a 50,000-piece strong collection of music. Robin Ray, one of the stations first presenters, collated this collection. Each song was ranked based on their popular appeal – this ranking seemingly coincided with the tastes of listeners. 

At first, the producers of classic FM selected the playlist, occasionally taking requests from listeners. However, this was replaced by a computerised system that was originally designed for pop music by the US tech group RCS Inc. 

The Classic FM Foundation

Classic FM Foundation is a grant that was developed in 2006 to fund music education and music therapy ventures. Over the years, they have become well known for developing a variety of charitable projects for children and adults in the UK related to music. It was originally called the Classic FM Music Makers but renamed in 2010. The Kiwi classical singer and songwriter, Hayley Westenra, is the key ambassador for the charity. Her involvement in the project has helped the foundation receive much support from other famous names from the realm of classical music and entertainment.   

The Classic FM Foundation is also responsible for many fundraising events, concerts, and sponsored treks throughout the year.

Other Media & Projects

Classic FM Live, image of the crowd and stage at the Royal Albert Hall

Although their output is predominantly through the radio, they have occasionally incorporated different formatting. This has included:

  • Classic FM Live concert. This concert held annually at the Royal Albert Hall is the biggest event in the Classic FM calendar.
  • An internet television (and formerly digital TV) channel playing classical music videos titled Classic FM TV.
  • A monthly published magazine called Classic FM Magazine.
  • Classic FM has also released a series of CDs with selected classical pieces. The two of the best-selling CDs released are Classic FM Music for Babies (playtime and bedtime) and Classic FM Music for Bathtime.
  • A podcast called Case Notes which included true-crime stories from the history played in between classical music scores.
  • They have also published a few puzzle books based on classical music.

Classic FM Dating 

As well as offering classic music in other forms, they also have a dating platform, Classic FM Romance. Smooth Radio has also developed a similar platform, so the idea of radio stations setting up dating sites on the basis of one’s shared music interests isn’t a new one! Classic FM Romance is the trusted online dating service for classical musical lovers. It has successfully helped thousands of people meet women and men alike through their smart two-way matching. Marriages, relationships, and friendships have all stemmed from the dating platform.

Final Thoughts 

Classical compositions have shaped music as we know it today. For many, it is the gateway to a range of classical music pieces. This radio station can even be the medium that can help you out if you’re struggling to come up with a melody or song. Getting featured on this radio station is tricky as they hardly stray away from the realms of classical music composed in certain historical eras. That being said, their playlist includes modern compositions, tracks that have sampled classical music, and modern movie score compositions – not all is lost!

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