|Broadcast area||United Kingdom|
|Frequency||FM: 99.9-101.9 MHz|
11D (England/Wales/N. Ireland)
Sky (UK only): 0106
Virgin Media: 922
First air date
|7 September 1992|
Classic FM was the first national classical music station to have been launched since the opening of BBC Radio 3, 25 years earlier, in September 1967, and 46 years since the opening of Radio 3's predecessor, The Third Programme, in September 1946. As of 2019 , the station has a weekly audience of 5.6million listeners.
Classic FM broadcasts nationally on FM, DAB digital radio, Freeview, satellite and cable television and is available internationally by streaming audio over the internet. It is the only Independent National Radio station to broadcast nationally in FM alongside BBC Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. In addition to playing a wide, traditional classical repertoire, the station plays film scores and video game music.
The idea for a national, commercial FM network devoted to classical music originated with the management at GWR group, an entrepreneurial group of UK commercial radio stations. It had been operating a trial programme on its AM frequencies in Wiltshire and Bristol, testing audience reaction to a regular drive-time programme of popular classical music. It proved successful and the company's CEO, Ralph Bernard, and programme director, Michael Bukht, drew up the plans for a national station.
Meanwhile, Brian Brolly, formerly the CEO of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, had a similar idea in 1990. After failing to raise sufficient funds for the project Brolly's consortium was approached by GWR Group and the two merged. The UK Government had decided to award several new national radio licences and invited tenders. Brolly had brought the idea to Rick Senat, the long-serving head of business affairs in London for Warner Bros. and current owner of Hammer Films. Initially rejected by Warner Bros., Senat showed the project to the President of Time Warner International Broadcasting, Tom McGrath, a former classical musician and conductor. Time Warner agreed to back the project but was prohibited under then current UK law from owning more than a 25% interest.
GWR created a business plan which was supported by its major shareholder, DMGT publishers of the Daily Mail. An internal dispute over ownership of the licence was resolved and the consortium was completed after Time Warner agreed to back GWR's plans for the station. As time was running out to raise the £6m needed to launch the station, the GWR investment team spent two days presenting to and finally persuading private investor Sir Peter Michael to back the plan with a 30% investment. The founding shareholder group that launched Classic FM was Sir Peter Michael and Time Warner (each with over 30%), GWR (17%), DMGT (5%) and several other smaller shareholders. The Radio Authority had granted an exemption so that Time Warner could hold more than 25% provided a UK citizen/corporation was larger in the shareholding group.
The station launched at 6am on Monday 7 September 1992 after two months of test transmissions using a recording of birdsong. Nick Bailey presented the first programme and Zadok the Priest by George Frideric Handel is the first piece to be played. Other launch presenters included Henry Kelly, Susannah Simons and Petroc Trelawny.
The station rejected the "BBC Radio 3" style of presentation and took as its model New York City's WNYC and now-defunct WGMS in Washington, D.C., with their more populist mix of talk, light classical music, new artists and crossover classical records.
Global, the UK's largest radio station ownership group, now owns the station. Classic FM has broadcast from its current studios on the second floor of 30 Leicester Square, central London, since March 2006. The first programme to be broadcast live from there was Mark Griffiths' programme on Sunday, 26 March 2006.
Classic FM's "Hall of Fame" is broadcast annually over the four days of the Easter weekend. First broadcast in 1996 the show counts down the 300 most-popular pieces as voted for by listeners, culminating in the number one on the evening of Easter Monday.
The number one spot was occupied until 2001 by Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, and then by Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. In 2006 the top spot was taken by Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. From 2007 to 2010, the top place on the Hall of Fame was taken by Ralph Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending. The 2011 "Hall of Fame" saw Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 return to the top spot, ending Vaughan Williams' four-year run, and held the position again in 2012 and 2013. In 2014 The Lark Ascending replaced Rachmaninov which slipped back to number 2 and has remained number 1 through 2017.
In 2018, the top spot was taken by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 was a non-mover in 2nd place and Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending descended to 3rd place after a four-year run at no. 1.
In the 2019 Hall of Fame, Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending reclaimed the top spot, followed by Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations at 2nd and 3rd respectively. 2020 and 2021's Hall Of Fame also saw The Lark Ascending voted the most popular piece by Classic FM listeners.
Classic FM broadcasts the "Nation's Favourite Christmas Carol" in a similar format to the "Hall of Fame". The show counts down the 30 most popular Christmas carols every Christmas Day, as voted for by listeners. It began in 2001, with In the Bleak Midwinter winning the first vote. The following year, Silent Night was voted the nation's favourite. The vote has been won by O Holy Night in almost every year since then, with the only other winner being Silent Night in 2014 and 2015.
From the stations's launch in September 1992 until the end of 2019, Classic FM broadcast a weekly classical chart show. Initially transmitted on Saturday mornings, the programme later moved to Sunday teatimes. The final chart show was aired on 21st December 2019.
At the heart of Classic FM's identity from the start was its playlist of popular classics. At launch it was compiled over the first few years by Robin Ray who over a period of time brought 50,000 items of music into the playlist, and personally awarded each a star rating assessing its popular appeal. These ratings proved accurate when subsequently tested by audience research.
Classic FM accepted an idea by Quentin Howard (who, at the time, was Programme Director of GWR and acting Chief Engineer of Classic FM) to use a computerised playlist system rather than producer-selected music for each show. Selector software developed by RCS Inc in the United States, which had previously been used only for pop music, was adapted for Classical music by Howard, Robin Ray and others to include many more fields and categories and deal with many more rotation rules to create a playlist from the 50,000 listed tracks; the first "officially broadcast" track was "Zadok the Priest".
Classic FM named a composer in residence in 2004, Joby Talbot. Talbot composed a piece, scored for up to five instruments, each month for the year of his residence. The compositions were also premiered on Classic FM. The twelve compositions form part of a larger piece, released on a CD entitled Once Around the Sun on 23 May 2005.
Talbot was succeeded by Patrick Hawes as the new composer in residence in 2006 and composed the piano album Towards the Light during his residency. In May 2008 Howard Goodall, the composer and television presenter, joined Classic FM as the station's latest composer in residence. Goodall also presented a new programme on the station, Howard Goodall on..., beginning on 7 June 2008.
The Classic FM Foundation is a grant giving charity which raises money to fund music education and music therapy projects working with children and adults throughout the UK. It was founded in 2006 as Classic FM Music Makers, and was renamed in 2010.
Hayley Westenra is an ambassador of the charity, which also receives support from many famous faces from the world of classical music and entertainment.
Throughout the year The Classic FM Foundation holds fundraising events including concerts, sponsored treks and an annual appeal.
On 25 December 2006, Classic FM opened a sister station, 'theJazz', devoted to jazz music. The station closed in March 2008, and Classic FM itself then took on the broadcasting of a jazz programme every night, between midnight and 2am, until September 2008.