Why we need BBC Radio’s Late Junction more than ever

The BBC’s decision to cut back on experimental music shows it is out of touch.

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Medieval ballads, ten-piece psychedelic Sudanese Afrobeat and Polish minimalist jazz. Those are just three niche genres of music that have been played in one evening on BBC Radio 3’s cult show Late Junction, which this September will have been on the airwaves for 20 years. For those two decades, the 90-minute experimental music programme has aired three times a week, pouring new sounds into listeners’ ears that they’re not going to hear anywhere else.

When Radio 3 controller Alan Davey announced recently that as part of a schedule shake-up, Late Junction will be cut from four and a half hours a week to just two, in one Friday night show, there was outrage from the show’s devoted following. An open letter was published in the Guardian signed by more than 500 figures from the arts, including Jarvis Cocker and Shirley Collins. In his statement, Davey said the decision to reduce the show’s air time was a result of the BBC’s need to find £800m in savings a year by 2021/22, in order to offset budget cuts and rising production and acquisition costs. (The end of government funding for free licences for the over 75s and the expense of the new BBC Sounds app are putting pressure on the institution.)

But Davey also insisted that the new schedule had been revamped to ensure Radio 3 remained a home to “everything from core classical to ambient and neo-classical, world to jazz, sound art to electronica” – the very reason Late Junction listeners tune in. Perhaps the emphasis should really be on “core classical”: Late Junction will be replaced by “a new core classical music strand” on Monday-Thursday evenings, designed to appeal “across the generations of classical music lovers”. Perhaps because it caters to a more niche audience, Late Junction was the easiest programme to clear off the schedules.

It’s not just Late Junction that is under threat: Jazz Now and Geoffrey Smith’s Jazz are being “rested”, and Music Planet, devoted to world music, is having its airtime cut by half. A new show called Unclassified will air, but for an hour a week, which seems like a tiny window in seven days of scheduling.

“At a time when some of the most exciting experimental music is on the rise, and the appetite for it evidently great, judging by the sell-out Late Junction Festival, I find the BBC’s decision to reduce broadcast time of Radio 3’s specialist programmes incomprehensible,” Cosey Fanni Tutti, a 67-year-old avant-garde musician, tells me. “The BBC has a duty to represent and celebrate diversity in music and thereby assist in the nurturing and increasing awareness of works that, in defying any specific genre, occupy different territory to the ‘commercial’.”

Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, who has helped curate Glastonbury festival’s Left Field stage since 2010, calls Late Junction “the John Peel show of Radio 3”.

“Everyone associates Peel with bands like the Fall,” he explains, “but few recall that he was the only DJ regularly playing African and Asian music on Radio 1 before ‘world music’ became fashionable. And, as with the Peel show, you may not like everything you hear on Late Junction, but there’s always something that grabs your attention.”

Bragg, too, emphasises the BBC’s duty to offer something different. “Commercial radio follows the market. A public service broadcaster should maintain spaces where music that pushes the boundaries of pop culture can inspire listeners to explore beyond the mainstream.”

BBC listeners have repeatedly shown there is an audience for music that sits outside the commercial sphere. When the BBC announced it would axe 6 Music, its alternative music station, back in 2010, a vocal protest ensured its survival. But while the station plays music across a multitude of genres, from rock to hip hop to reggae to electronic, it has a far narrower range than Late Junction. And though Davey attempts to reassure listeners that there’s still plenty of space for eclectic music on Radio 3, they will struggle to find the show’s most left-field offerings anywhere else on the station.

“As a listener to music, finding a pathway through the impossibly vast range of work available in order to discover the unfamiliar can be daunting and frustrating,” Jonathan Cole, who leads postgraduate composition at the Royal College of Music, tells me. “The variety of work presented on Late Junction goes a long way in helping listeners find some guidance through this landscape. The value of the show at this point in time cannot be overstated.” 

Radio 3’s new schedule suggests that the BBC has misread the cultural climate. The UK is full of people keen to hear new music that isn’t going to be played in Oxford Street Topshop. Late Junction might be mistaken as the preserve of the metropolitan elite, but a glance at the open letter’s signatories shows the programme’s fans come from vastly different backgrounds, professions and parts of the country. As a new generation grows up in a world where commerciality rules, they’ll need a show like Late Junction more than ever. Without it, they won’t even know what they’re missing, or what might have inspired them. 

Antonia Quirke is away

This article appears in the 29 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty

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