Meet Michael Bukht, the genius behind Classic FM

Meet Michael Bukht, the genius behind Classic FM
From the Reader's Digest Archives, Georgia Howell sits down with Michael Bukht, the man who created Classic FM 
The programme controller bounces down the metal stair-case into Classic FM's cool, open-plan offices; his whole demeanour has an anticipatory sparkle. Like a beaming genie in a V-neck sweater, with close-cropped grey hair and beard, he reaches the bottom of the stairs, throws back his head and hollers, "Let's rock!"
This is how Michael Bukht (pronounced Bucked) kick-started Britain's first national commercial classical music radio station on September 7, 1992. It now has 4.8 million listeners a week, making it the UK's fourth most popular station, and advertising revenues are bringing in more than £1 million a month. Classic FM, with its brief excerpts, friendly presentation and entertaining comment is set to break even right on target this autumn, while its new FM commercial licence in The Netherlands signals the first bold step towards European expansion.

How Classic FM began

No one expected this degree of early success, not even the chief executive, John Spearman, former chairman of advertising agency Collett Dickenson Pearce, who had noticed several straws in the wind: the way CD sales took off when classical music was exposed to a mass audience—Torvill and Dean with Ravel's Bolero, for example, and people queueing in the rain for Pavarotti. No one, that is, except the Mighty Bucket, as he is known in broadcasting circles.
"I knew a commercial classical station would work because I wanted to listen to one." Bukht had been hawking the viability of such a station since 1975. He laughs as he recalls the instructive story of an American rock-station disc jockey in the mid-Seventies who was told to set up a classical radio station—or be sacked.
"Michael Bukht knew that if it worked in the US, it could work anywhere"
"So he went to the local university's music department, picked on the first man he saw and said, 'I'll give you $2,000 for the top all-time 1,000 classical hits under five minutes, and I want to know if they are sad or happy, fast or slow, vocal or instrumental.' Then he programmed the station the only way he knew how, and it was 'Heeey! It's ten past eight—time to get on the road with Vivaldi's Four Seasons!' In six months it had a sizeable audience."
Michael Bukht knew that if it worked in the US, it could work anywhere. He wrote most of the Classic FM submission that won the licence in September 1991. "I didn't want to fiddle about with tapes, trying to find the best bits. I wanted a station that would do it all for me. I wanted Mozart piano concertos and Callas's greatest hits." He runs Classic FM like a rock station. "Our audiences are not necessarily into three and a half hours of Wagner. I mean, join the club—I'm a founder member."

Musical flow

Bukht describes himself as "vulgar, noisy and loud", but he gave Classic FM a tone and character all of its own—inviting, undemanding, with a note of discovery and unobtrusive commercials. It is played in middle-class homes, in gift-shops, changing-rooms and cafés. Mrs Glimmer, the Secretary of State for the Environment's wife, rings up for a recipe; Sir George Young, minister for housing, wins the Classic Quiz.
Bukht may be better known to the general public as his alter ego, Michael Barry, the crafty cook who appears on BBC2's popular Food and Drink show, and who presents the morning recipe on his own station. But as a radio executive, he has considerable experience. From early days at the BBC, he went out to the West Indies to be programme director for the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation. He was 31 when, in 1972, he made a conspicuous success of the start-up of Capital Radio, Britain's first legal commercial pop music radio station.
His staff may regard him with mixed feelings, but all refer to him as a caring man. Under his paternal hand, Capital became Cuddly Capital, the station that found you a job or a flat to share. He introduced charity telethons and the Help Line. He was the first to put agony aunts on the air. "He's a man of entrepreneurial skill used to devastating effect," says John Whitney, chairman of the Sony Radio Awards Committee, who was the chief executive of Capital. "The television companies took up many of his ideas afterwards. He's got tremendous strength of vision."
"He creates the tone of the station," says Classic FM presenter Nicky Horne. "Classic scores because it's not just a collection of items, like Radio 1." Horne followed Bukht from Capital, and admits to knowing nothing about classical music at the time. "I wouldn't have moved for anyone else."

Sound policy

Classic opened with enthusiasm, good humour and a large helping of musical ignorance: its early mispronunciations of composers' names and foreign titles had them rolling in the aisles at Radio 3. But the collection of faux pas gave the press a lot of fun, and the station got extra coverage. Listeners picked up on the game, and became aware that music was being demystified. The controller didn't want the pedantic accuracy of Radio 3, but he asked one of its former presenters, Tony Scotland, to come up with a phonetic system for hard cases such as Hungarian pianist Peter Nagy (Peer-tair Noj) and Chinese violinist Xue-Wei (Shoo-ay Way).
Michael Bukht, the eldest son of an Indian diplomat and sportsman, and a mother who came from a family of Welsh miners, says he has been a populist since the age of seven. "If you don't want to speak to the multitude, get off the mountain." This is one of his maxims, like, "You don't get a second chance to make a first impression", or "Radio is a powerful spanner on the nut of society". Once a passionate supporter of Labour, then the SDP, he now says that democracy is the only political cause that ignites him.
"Classic opened with enthusiasm, good humour and a large helping of musical ignorance"
He prides himself on his political incorrectness. "I make a point of it. After all, I was born half-caste, blind in one eye and for the last 20 years I have been deaf in one ear."
The urbane chief executive, John Spearman, tends to rebuke his programme controller for cluttering up the open-plan office with pictures and leaving nutshells scattered over the carpet. I ask Bukht, who sits at an open desk like everyone else, if he doesn't sometimes miss having a door to shut. "No. I do this." He grabs a yellow sticker, writes "Busy" on it and plants it on his forehead.
Paternalistic, kindly bullying, and famous for his rages, Bukht is loved and hated in equal degrees, although women usually like him more than men. "His rages are very strange things to watch," a member of his staff told me. "It's a sort of act. You can see him working himself up. His eyes widen, he grits his teeth, he slams his fist on the table and screams like a child. If you remain cool, he gradually deflates."

People's chef

The programme controller's alter ego, Michael Barry, is a kind of act, too. He even refers to the cook in the third person—"Barry would know how to do that." Bukht visibly slips into role when he prepares to deliver the morning recipe for Classic. "As he approaches the recording studio his walk changes," said one employee. "He sort of softens, and his skin loosens. His brashness drops away, and his face becomes ruddy and well-meaning."
The recipes hit the chilli con carne/apple crumble level of culinary art, and it is hard to explain their popularity. His words collide, his delivery is slow and a mite cumbersome. The spot over, Barry treads heavily to the door—and out bounces Michael Bukht, every inch the quick-firing programme controller.
He is well aware Classic cannot compete with Radio 3's £30-million annual investment in orchestras and live music—though he is expanding Classic into this area—but he simply cannot resist scoring a point when he has a chance. Radio 3 has an opera slot on Saturday night, and that's when Bukht programmes opera. Yet a member of Classic's staff told me, "We're not after Radio 3's tiny audience. We're really after Radio 1 and Radio 4 audiences."
Classical music - Michael Bukht
Nothing pleased Michael Bukht more than his Gardeners' Question Time coup. After 47 years of Sunday afternoons, the BBC's decision to try to attract a younger audience and to contract the programme out to an independent producer cast a blight over panel and listeners alike. GQT chairman Dr Stefan Buczacki was approached by an intermediary, who "asked if we would move if Classic FM offered contracts. We'd all heard that Classic FM was going places, so we said yes, in principle."
The intermediary went to Michael Bukht and asked "If GQT came your way, what would your reaction be?"
Without hesitation, Bukht replied, "That the crown jewels had landed in my lap." It took him just 14 days to offer Buczacki and his team a two-year contract—the BBC had been dithering for 12 weeks.
Bukht, whose wife Jennie is a teacher, lives in Canterbury in an extended Tudor manor-house. Four generations of his equally extensive family live in an affectionate commune, grown-up son and daughters frequently returning to their childhood rooms. 
"Robust responses are his preferred style"
His feelings about family life and his religion—he is a practising Muslim—are expressed in rigorous strictures and codes. "Nothing in life is more important than the family. My wife and I are both puritans, but compared to her I'm a soft option! We believe that duty is more important than pleasure, that self-discipline is crucial to a healthy society."
Robust responses are his preferred style, as when directing Tony Scotland's reading of Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?", the opener for a sonnet series. He advised: "Don't make it sound like The Voice Beautiful. Hit it hard, lean into the mike and keep smiling." Then he closed his eyes, folded his arms and leaned back as if asleep.
Scotland hit it hard, leaned into the mike and smiled until his face ached. He read the sonnet a couple of times before the controller opened his eyes. "It doesn't work, Sunshine," said Bukht. "It's not sexy enough. You've got to want to seduce her."
Worried, Scotland turned to a female producer for an interpretation. "It's OK," she said, "he just wants it to sound a bit more friendly."
The series ran for six months, attracted hundreds of letters, and culminated in a competition for which 745 listeners sent in their own sonnet compositions. It was another Classic FM first, and another triumph.
This article is taken from the Reader's Digest Archives from July 1994
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