Classic FM’s been kicking down barriers for 30 years, say its hosts

You don’t have to be posh to listen to classical music,’ insists Alexander Armstrong as an orchestra plays on Classic FM. ‘You don’t have to be a musician or educated in a particular way. Our job is to say, “Look, normal people can listen to this too.”‘

The actor, comedian and presenter is quite posh as it happens, with distant links to the aristocracy, but every weekday morning – and again on Saturday afternoons – he tries to open up the music he loves to everyone. ‘Our listeners are all kinds of people. 

We have retirees, but we also have a lot of young people. We have construction workers, we have gardeners, we have people listening as they look after their children.

So it’s not the rarefied crowd some people might think. Classic FM has been instrumental in kicking barriers down over the years and making it easy for anyone to make friends with classical music.’

The station has grown and grown since it first broadcast in September 1992 and now reaches five million people across the course of a week. Alexander and his fellow presenter Margherita Taylor will host a concert of music from the movies at the Royal Albert Hall on 10 October to help celebrate the 30th anniversary, and we’ve brought some of the station’s presenters including Myleene Klass, Alan Titchmarsh, Charlotte Hawkins and Moira Stuart together for a celebratory photoshoot.

In his studio a blue sky and clouds are projected on a screen above Alexander’s head to keep the mood calm and upbeat. ‘The weather is always good at Classic FM,’ jokes Xander, as his friends call him, but how does he manage to sound so cheerful every morning?

Weekend Magazine brought some of the station’s presenters including Myleene Klass, Alan Titchmarsh, Charlotte Hawkins and Moira Stuart together for a celebratory photoshoot

‘I’m an infuriatingly upbeat person. I come from a long line of doctors, going back to the 17th century – I think my father’s the ninth generation. The legacy is that I have a bedside manner bred into me, which is great if you’re a daytime radio presenter!’

Right now he’s having a good old stretch as the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra reaches the end of Elgar’s Carissima. The red studio light comes on and Alexander suddenly sounds as if he’s speaking warmly and directly to just one listener, wherever they may be: ‘Ah, wasn’t that the sweetest music?’

He knows some listeners might never have heard the piece before. ‘You want to make sure no one is ever too far away from something they remember,’ he says during the next track.

‘But equally, you want to put something new in there. If you’re always playing Fingal’s Cave it’s going to start getting up people’s noses.’

The other name for that piece is the Hebrides Overture by Felix Mendelssohn and it’s currently number 49 on the Classic FM Hall of Fame, the biggest poll of its kind in the world.

We’re at the Leicester Square headquarters of Global, the radio empire that includes LBC, Heart, Smooth and Capital, and Alexander’s surrounded by screens that tell him what’s playing, how long there is left and what the listeners are saying on texts and emails.

'You don't have to be posh to listen to classical music,' insists Alexander Armstrong (pictured) as an orchestra plays on Classic FM. 'You don't have to be a musician or educated in a particular way. Our job is to say, "Look, normal people can listen to this too"'

‘You don’t have to be posh to listen to classical music,’ insists Alexander Armstrong (pictured) as an orchestra plays on Classic FM. ‘You don’t have to be a musician or educated in a particular way. Our job is to say, “Look, normal people can listen to this too”‘

‘You’ve got to remember not to panic if anything goes wrong, people quite like it,’ he says, recalling the time someone working on another station in the building pressed the wrong button and crashed the whole network, interrupting romantic strings with a modern dance track.

‘A bit of a shock for the listener and a hell of a shock for me. They say you should never explain but I’m afraid I said, “Well, that was fun! Don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t Grieg!”‘

Xander was a chorister before going on to Cambridge and fame with his first comedy partner Ben Miller. He still sings and has released three albums.

It was as a young child in Northumberland that he fell in love with the classics. ‘I always woke up before everyone else, so I’d tiptoe down and play with everything I wasn’t usually allowed to play with, which included the record player,’ he says.

‘I remember opening the lid and switching it on and the smell of hot diodes. I loved how thrilling and grown-up the music was.’

You want to play something new. If you’re always playing Fingal’s Cave it’s going to get up people’s noses ALEXANDER ARMSTRONG 

Another presenter who got into classical music at an early age is Myleene Klass, who was a gifted teenage pianist at home in Norfolk on the day the station launched.

‘I remember being in my bedroom, sitting on the carpet, waiting to hear that first piece ever on Classic FM,’ she says. ‘I was 14 and looking for someone to understand me, other than my dad. I couldn’t believe the gods of music had answered my prayers and given me something that would help me find my tribe.’

This was a big moment for radio in Britain, as the law had just been changed to allow stations funded by advertising to go out across the whole country. At six in the morning on 7 September 1992, birdsong testing the signal gave way to a honeyed male voice saying, ‘Good morning and welcome to Britain’s first national commercial radio station. This is Classic FM, I’m Nick Bailey and this is George Frederick Handel…’

Until then the rather highbrow BBC Radio 3 was the only national station playing classical music, with learned presenters announcing long and often difficult pieces in hushed tones.

In contrast Classic brought a pop station’s mentality to the classics: shorter extracts with friendly presenters who would explain what was going on.

Critics said the station wouldn’t last. The hope was for 2.8m listeners, but within five months more than 4m were tuning in.

In the early days Classic FM leant heavily on former Radio 1 pop DJs such as Mike Read and Simon Bates, but they were all veterans and for a while the station was seen by some as fuddy-duddy. There was a new burst of energy when it began to recruit young star presenters, starting with Myleene in 2006 and the Blur bassist Alex James in 2007, which coincided with a concerted attempt by record companies to repackage classical music for a younger audience, with artists like Bryn Terfel, Hayley Westenra and classical boy band Blake.

Phil Noyce, Classic’s managing editor, pops in to say hello and reveals they now share as many listeners with Radio 1 as they do with Radio 3. ‘Around ten per cent of people in Britain listen to us. No other classical music station in the world reaches as big a proportion of the population in its country as we do.’

'An amazing number of people get in touch with pictures of their animals listening to us,' says Charlotte Hawkins (pictured)

‘An amazing number of people get in touch with pictures of their animals listening to us,’ says Charlotte Hawkins (pictured)

For the teenage Myleene, who had felt out of place among her school friends because of her liking for classical music, the advent of Classic FM meant she suddenly knew she was not alone. ‘I still pinch myself when I go into the building, it still gives me goosebumps to say on air, “This is Myleene Klass and this is Classic FM.”‘

Myleene trained at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Royal Academy of Music and was all set for a classical career until the reality TV show Popstars put her in a band called Hear’Say. They hit the charts but when the band split up she launched a successful solo career as a pianist, performing a blend of classics, film music and new orchestrations of rock and pop songs.

Myleene was one of the stars of a new crossover scene, alongside the likes of the violinist Nicola Benedetti and singer Katherine Jenkins.

Nobody blurs the boundaries better than Myleene, who plays pop on sister station Smooth before switching studios on Saturdays and Sundays to host Smooth Classics until one in the morning.

Classical music was written by the original rock stars. This is their heartache, these are their fights MYLEENE KLASS 

‘I’m playing to mums putting their children to sleep, students studying… there’s a lot of pressure on their heads and they need to chill out,’ she says, having been one of them back in the day. ‘We keep it very calm.’

Why does she think Classic FM has proved so popular? ‘Because it understands what the audience wants to hear. And it presents it in a way that’s not intimidating.’

Even as a classically trained performer, she has felt shut out. ‘I’ve often felt intimidated by the classical world. You always feel like you have to show you know the rules and regulations, or if you don’t know, pretend. I’ve never wanted my children to experience that.’

Myleene has two girls, Ava and Hero, 15 and 11, who are training in music, and a little boy, Apollo, who at three is too young to start.

‘Classical music was the popular music of its time, it was written by the original rock stars,’ she says. ‘This is their heartache. These are their fights. Now we say, “Wear your tuxedo, don’t clap at this section…”‘

She shakes her head. ‘There’s this highbrow ownership of something like Mozart that was written for everyday man to enjoy. We’re born listening to classical music and then somewhere along the line we think, “Oh no, I don’t have the right clothes. I don’t know what language this opera singer is singing in, I feel intimidated.” Our mission is to make it accessible.’

How do they do that? ‘The joy is you’re in someone’s kitchen having a chat, explaining the story behind the music, breaking down what’s happening. Saying things like, “Did you know he threw the manuscript in the fire and this piece wouldn’t even have existed if his missus hadn’t pulled it out?”‘

She loves the interaction with listeners. ‘It’s wonderful when you’re playing a piece and someone messages, “My baby boy has just been born to this.” What an honour to welcome him into the world.’

Surprisingly famous names get in touch, confidentially. ‘I’ve had royals tell me they’ve listened to us at certain points in their life when they really needed it.’

Can she say who? ‘I can’t because it would be so obvious and it would break that confidence.’

(Back in 2020 the station aired two special shows with Prince Charles, as he was then, celebrating his lifelong love of classical music.)

I’d buy classical LPs at the record shop and take them home in a paper bag so my mates didn’t see            ALAN TITCHMARSH 

One of those shows was presented by Alan Titchmarsh, the avuncular gardener whose show airs on Saturday mornings. ‘I can only be me. I’ve been being me for quite a long time now,’ says the 73-year-old with a famously rich Yorkshire voice.

As a boy he sang in the church choir with his father. ‘I was the first person on my street in Ilkley to buy She Loves You by The Beatles, but that was to keep my street cred going! I would go down to the record shop and buy Music For Pleasure classical LPs for 12 shillings and sixpence: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Mussorgsky’s A Night On The Bare Mountain,’ he remembers.

‘I used to bring them home in a brown paper bag so my mates didn’t see.’

The piece that brings him joy is The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. ‘I know people will say, “Oh, not that again.” But I do love it. Maybe it’s because I’m a country man. I hear a real lark ascending above my meadow in Hampshire. I particularly like the work of the violinist Iona Brown, and this was the last piece she played when she knew she was terminally ill. I think that’s so moving.’

There are tears in his eyes for a moment, thinking of the performer who died in 2004 aged 63.

But he’s amused by some of the ways the station is innovating, through social media like TikTok and on the Global app. ‘We now do things online, to help you go to sleep. When they called me to do it I was like, “Thank you very much! So you’re getting me in to be Mr Mogadon!”‘

It’s not just humans that Classic FM helps to calm, though. The Bonfire Night show Pet Classics is designed to help animals and their owners through the fireworks.

‘An amazing number of people get in touch with pictures of their animals listening to us,’ says Charlotte Hawkins, the GMB presenter who hosts a Classic FM show on Sunday evenings. ‘I do have moments when I’m laughing quite a lot. Somebody sent me a picture of their iguana listening to me on Classic. It’s quite hard to tell how chilled out an iguana actually is!’

Pet Classics was launched four years ago by Charlotte’s friend, the former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull who was very popular on Classic FM until his death from prostate cancer, aged 66, in August.

There does seem to be an affinity between newsreaders and the Classic FM audience: Moira Stuart, for example, presents the Hall Of Fame Concert on Saturdays.

Someone sent in a picture of their iguana listening to me on Classic. It’s hard to tell how chilled out an iguana is             CHARLOTTE HAWKINS

‘I first heard classical music on the radio and in music lessons at school,’ says Moira, who grew up in London and Bermuda. ‘My parents didn’t have classical records at home, we mainly listened to jazz and rhythm and blues, but they were moved by the soundtracks of films, from Brief Encounter to Platoon.’

Myleene is a brilliant pianist, Charlotte once played piano on air with a composer and Alexander and Alan both sing, so does Moira play an instrument? ‘I wish I could. But everything stopped after playing the triangle and the recorder at school.’

Two hours of requests are presented every day by Anne-Marie Minhall. ‘Listeners say they found the show a lifeline during the pandemic, as a way of keeping in touch with loved ones,’ says Anne-Marie.

She’s been with the station since 1996, a constant throughout the changes. The texts and emails rush in, but when the red light comes on her voice is as calm, warm and reassuring as Classic FM itself aspires to be, more than ever after 30 years.

‘We’re with people as they go about their lives,’ she says. ‘It really is a privilege.’

Classic FM is available across the UK on 100-102 FM, on Global Player, DAB digital radio/TV and at ClassicFM.com.

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