On our 30th birthday – 30 ways Classic FM changed classical music forever…

6 September 2022, 23:12 | Updated: 7 September 2022, 14:19

Isata Kanneh-Mason performs at Classic FM Live, Alexander Armstrong on Classic FM, QPR’s 1993 football shirts: 30 ways Classic FM has changed classical music
Isata Kanneh-Mason performs at Classic FM Live, Alexander Armstrong on Classic FM, QPR’s 1993 football shirts: 30 ways Classic FM has changed classical music. Picture: Alamy/Classic FM/Getty

By Kyle Macdonald

It’s been three decades of sharing the greatest music with the nation and the world. Here’s a look at some of the things we’ve done, championed and changed since 7 September 1992.

  1. It all started with birdsong

    In the beginning, the music was one with nature. To trial Classic FM’s soon-to-be frequency, the sound of birdsong, recorded in the Wiltshire countryside, was piped to the nation’s FM radios.

    Prior to September 1992 the UK radio and media landscape was very different, dominated by regional stations and the licence fee-funded public service networks.

    The Broadcasting Act of 1990 had paved the way for independent national radio, and Classic FM was granted one of the three licences. Classic FM was also the first commercial station to be playing classical music exclusively.

    In the early ’90s, critics and radio insiders wondered if anyone would listen to a new national radio station devoted to classical music. Some thought this station might only last more than a few months. Then, birdsong faded and the music started...

    Singing robin
    Singing robin. Picture: Getty
  2. Zaaaaadok the Priest!

    How do you begin a new classical music radio station? Well, we went for incredible, regal Handel.

    At 6am on 7 September 1992, Classic FM – Britain’s first national commercial radio station – was launched with the ceremonial strains of ‘Zadok the Priest’.

    Handel formed the theme to European football’s newly-formed Champion’s League which was also launched in 1992.

    It was the now-legendary former Classic FM presenter Nick Bailey who introduced and pressed ‘go’ on that iconic first track. You can hear it in the video below, when in 2012 Nick remembered the moment 20 years on.

    That first piece of music? It’s grand, singable, accessible, and beloved by seasoned classical music lovers and newcomers alike. We very much started as we meant to go on.

  3. Nessun Dorma

    It was the aria of Italia ’90, of Pavarotti and of The Three Tenors.

    But in those early days, it was termed the ‘Pav factor’ – as a symbol of the finest opera arias and most engaging performers, beloved and accessible to all.

    The great Puccini belter was not made famous by Classic FM – that lies with the great tenors who have championed its incredible notes over the years, from Corelli and Pavarotti (hence the factor), through to the star tenor of today, Freddie De Tommaso.

    But over the last 30 years we have played our small role in bringing it to millions, many maybe never having heard an opera before – as one aria has come to represent the majesty, wonder and universality of opera more than any other.

  4. Classical music without the bow ties…

    Dressing down classical music and bringing a more casual, natural feel to broadcasts is now quite commonplace. But back in the early 1990s we were championing a more relaxed style and presentation.

    You can dress however you like – for 30 years it’s just been all about the music around here...

    Mari and Håkon Samuelsen
    Mari and Håkon Samuelsen. Picture: Classic FM / Bristol Proms
  5. Queen’s Park Rangers

    If you grabbed a plastic pint and headed to Loftus Road Stadium in West London on a Saturday afternoon in 1993, Classic FM was there too. QPR wore our logo on the front of their shirts for the first two Premier League campaigns, in ‘92 and ‘93.

    QPR v Manchester City, FA Cup 1993
    QPR v Manchester City, FA Cup 1993. Picture: Getty

    A national classical music broadcaster, and the national game. Both for young and old, and for purist and newcomer alike.

  6. You may not know the name, but you will know the music.

    We’re the station for those who know and love the piece of music, but may not know the name of it. We’ve always proudly been a station for everyone, regardless of level of classical knowledge.

  7. A Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

    Henryk Górecki holds a special place in the history of Classic FM. His Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was played to the nation in our very first week, and the audience response to this slow, meditative, deeply moving music was so great that it quickly raced to the top of the classical music charts in the autumn of 1992.

    At this time, Górecki was almost completely unknown outside classical music circles – and in that respect the symphony was a slightly unusual selection for our opening weeks. But ever since that first play, it truly captured the British public’s imagination and remained one of the country’s most popular classical CDs for months and indeed years.

  8. Classic FM Magazine

    The Classic FM magazine was launched in 1995 and was another platform to showcase Classic FM’s new ways of talking about great classical music.

    Let’s also give it up for the free CD in every issue. In the days before streaming services and smart speakers, those CDs proudly adorned many a living room, introducing thousands to new music for the first time.

  9. Karl Jenkins’ ‘Adiemus’

    ‘Adiemus’ was originally commissioned for a Delta Airlines television commercial. Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’ genre-fusing anthem was quickly brought to the nation’s attention on Classic FM, and it went on to become a chart-topping series of albums, gaining the composer worldwide attention.

    Jenkins’ huge popularity and unique compositional voice has had a big impact on classical music over the past two decades. His multi-denominational The Armed Man, A Mass for Peace, performed by countless choirs and loved by millions is always lurking high up in the charts. His music is still a firm favourite in Classic FM. We’re proud to have been there from the start.

  10. The rise of video game scores

    From electronic beeps to orchestral scores, over the last 40 years video game music has become one of the most important parts of the symphonic genre.

    Classic FM was there, throughout its ascendency, from the first orchestral releases to its moments of real breakthrough. In 2013, Nobuo Uematsu’s music from the Final Fantasy series of video games was voted to No.3 in the annual chart. UK radio’s very first series dedicated solely to video game music, High Score.

  11. The Classic FM Hall of Fame launches…

    The Classic FM Hall of Fame began in 1996 and has been a staple on Classic FM ever since.

    Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 occupied top spot for the first five annual charts.

    We think this is true musical democracy at work – everyone can place their votes and choose the music they would like to hear on Classic FM. It’s as simple and as wonderful as that.

  12. Classic FM Requests

    In 1996 we kicked off another new something – a live requests show, with call-ins, texts and more recently tweets and smart speaker messages.

    Yet another time when we say “over to you...”

  13. Great music, and the finest voices

    Over the years on Classic FM, you will have heard some fantastic voices and national treasures introduce the music.

    The sound of Moira Stuart, John Suchet and Sir Trevor McDonald? They’re like a symphony in themselves.

    Sir Trevor McDonald on Classic FM
    Sir Trevor McDonald on Classic FM. Picture: Classic FM
  14. Smooth Classics

    In 1996, Smooth Classics began as a title to a little sequence of soothing tunes after an evening news and arts segment. In the age before streamable mood playlists, it was something quite different.

    But out of that beginning a beautiful brand was formed. The show grew, CD sets were made and sold.

    You can now hear our beloved Smooth Classics selection throughout the week on Classic FM, hosted at different times by Zeb Soanes, Margherita Taylor, Myleene Klass and Charlotte Hawkins – all with classical music to relax and unwind to at its centre.

  15. Great music of the screen, as well as the concert hall

    From the early days of Classic FM, we have championed film music, believing movies to contain some of the great symphonic music of our times.

    And our listeners have tended to agree, with movie music riding high in the Classic FM Hall of Fame charts and beyond.

    Watch: John Williams at 90 | A Classic FM Exclusive

  16. Classic FM Live

    Twice a year we head to the Royal Albert Hall for Classic FM Live – a spectacular celebration of the music and artists we share on Classic FM. Though the Royal Albert Hall is the iconic location of our concerts, it’s also something we’ve taken to concert halls around the country.

    The first Classic FM Live featured Karl Jenkins and his The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace.

    It’s always a spectacular show. You’ll never forget the fantastic firework finale.

    Classic FM Live at the Royal Albert Hall
    Classic FM Live at the Royal Albert Hall. Picture: Alamy
  17. Our wonderful partner orchestras

    In November 2001, Classic FM entered into a ground-breaking partnership with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who would become our ‘Orchestra in North West England’. It was the first relationship of its kind, enabling us to highlight the amazing work of the local orchestra for so many of our listeners.

    Since 2001 we’ve created similar partnerships with orchestras, choirs and music education providers, to create a wonderful network of organisations and places sharing music around the country.

    Joanna Carneiro conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at Classic FM Live, 2011
    Joanna Carneiro conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at Classic FM Live, 2011. Picture: Alamy
  18. Ludovico Einaudi

    The Italian composer-pianist is another iconic artist we’ve championed over the years – Classic FM was the first UK radio station to play his music.

    In the era of calm piano playlists, Einaudi is the most-streamed classical artist of all time, as well as TikTok’s most popular classical composer.

  19. Alfie Boe

    While singing in his job as a mechanic one day, Boe was overheard by a customer in the recording business. The rest was history, and the great tenor and star of the stage soon released his debut album on the former Classic FM and Sony label – Classic FM Presents: Alfie Boe. We were proudly there from day one.

  20. Classic FM’s Composers in Residence

    In 2004 Classic FM announced its first Composer in Residence, and an opportunity to celebrate today’s finest composers and bring new music to millions around the nation.

    Composer Joby Talbot took the inaugural position, followed by Patrick Hawes, Howard Goodall, and currently, much-loved TV and film composer Debbie Wiseman.

    Composer Howard Goodall conducts at Classic FM Live in 2013
    Composer Howard Goodall conducts at Classic FM Live in 2013. Picture: Alamy
  21. Classic FM on social media

    In January 2008 when we were all poking our friends on Facebook, Classic FM launched its page on the network. It was our first trudge in the world of social media.

    Fast forward 14 years and Classic FM now has over six million followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.

    Today Classic FM has the most-followed Facebook page anywhere in the classical world. We reach millions around the globe every day, and drive hundreds of millions of video views.

    But behind the engagement numbers, it’s the latest example of our core principle – we continue to share classical music in the language and style of the day, in a way that’s open to all.

  22. Championing a new generation of classical artists

    On air, online and on social media channels, we love to showcase those who carry the classical music torch for all of us.

  23. Classic FM <dot> com

    In 2012, five years after we all started poking each other on Facebook, digital content was king. In the era of Buzzfeed and 140-character tweets, we saw the need to reach audiences in a new way.

    In March 2012, the Classic FM Magazine was shipped to news agents for the last time. We wanted to do something else, and create classical music’s biggest and most comprehensive classical website and digital content destination. A place for entertainment, discovery, listening and watching, with big social media channels to match.

    Over the last 10 years, ClassicFM.com has grown to millions of monthly unique users.

  24. Everything you ever wanted to know...

    In 2013, Classic FM launched one of the biggest non-fiction series in the history of British radio – a 150-episode series exploring the history of classical music.

    Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Classical Music was hosted by much-loved broadcaster, and legendary soprano, Catherine Bott. Bott’s series was a hit, it answering many FAQs about the history of classical music.

  25. A Sir Neville Marriner takeover

    15 April 2014 saw the 90th birthday of a true legend of classical music. Classic FM celebrated that day by dedicating an entire 24 hours to his legendary recordings. For the entire day, Sir Neville Marriner was featured in every piece of music.

    Quite a feat, but a testament to his incredible legacy in recorded music. Sir Neville’s ensemble, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and current music director Joshua Bell became Classic FM’s first ever Artists in Residence the following year.

    Sir Neville Marriner
    Sir Neville Marriner. Picture: Getty
  26. Six composers under 25, for our 25th

    For our 25th birthday, we wanted to celebrate some of the most outstanding young compositional talent the nation has to offer. Teaming up with the Royal Philharmonic Society, we commissioned works from six composers under the age of 25, including Alexia Sloane, Jack Pepper, Benjamin Rimmer, Dani Howard, Marco Galvani and Oliver Muxworthy.

    The late Bill Turnbull on stage with Dani Howard, one of our 25th anniversary composers
    The late Bill Turnbull on stage with Dani Howard, one of our 25th anniversary composers. Picture: Alamy
  27. Classical music is for everyone

    Introducing a piece of classical music doesn’t always need to be a deep dive into the history of the society and economics of the Austro-Hungarian empire, or an outline of the harmonic complexities of sonata form.

    We’ve always liked to talk about classical music in a normal way, that does not assume knowledge, nor talk down to newcomers. Classical music is great, and we love it as much as you!

    Member of Classic FM's Orchestra in Scotland, The Royal Scottish National Orchestra perform in the gardens of Newhailes House, Musselburgh.
    Member of Classic FM's Orchestra in Scotland, The Royal Scottish National Orchestra perform in the gardens of Newhailes House, Musselburgh. Picture: Getty
  28. First live stream from Sistine Chapel

    In April 2018 we pressed live on the first ever live-streamed concert from the Sistine Chapel in The Vatican, Italy.

    The event was in partnership with our friends at The Sixteen and the Genesis Foundation, and it featured a newly commissioned work from Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan.

    Just another day at Classic FM...

  29. Prince Charles, Classic FM presenter

    For two days we turned the microphone over to a very special presenter for two shows on Classic FM. In May 2020, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales hosted two shows of music, with each piece personally chosen by him.

    His Royal Highness showcased his deep love of classical music, as well as recordings made by his extensive musical patronages across the UK. He was quite the guest presenter!

    His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales records his Classic FM show
    His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales records his Classic FM show. Picture: Clarence House / Classic FM
  30. A classical music family

    We’ve all been through a lot over the years – from the dawns of new millennia and new decades, to the ups and downs of life, the disruptions of the pandemic, and the constant change in the world.

    We’re the UK’s most popular classical music station with over five million listeners every week, as well as the world’s biggest classical music digital community through our website and social media channels.

    Sharing the music, and finding togetherness in the most beautiful works ever written, is what we love to do – and it’s just wonderful to have you part of the Classic FM family.