Obituary: Stephen Hearst, BBC executive in television and radio

Born: 6 October, 1919, in Vienna. Died: 27 March, 2010, in London, aged 90

STEPHEN Hearst, whose career at the BBC included two senior posts in television and radio, was among a group of arts-orientated refugees from Hitler's Germany who were to add greatly to the cultural life of Britain.

In television, Hearst was heavily involved in such ground-breaking series as Civilisation and America fronted by two doyens of the decade: Kenneth Clarke and Alastair Cooke.

As controller of BBC Radio 3, Hearst campaigned to broaden the station's focus from being purely music based and introduced discussion programmes.

Hearst was a learned and urbane man with a powerful knowledge of many aspects of British history and culture. Cooke once described him as "a beguiling Viennese with the moral muscle of John Calvin".

Hearst was born Stephen Hirshtritt, the son of a Jewish dentist, and he studied medicine at Vienna University. When Austria was overrun in 1938, Hearst and his family fled to Britain.

Years later in an interview he recalled his arrival. "It was the day Hutton scored 364 in a Test match against Australia. I remember that was the headline at Victoria Station. The country seemed blissfully unaware of what was happening in Europe."

During the war, he joined the Pioneer Corps serving in Italy and on being demobbed read history at Brasenose College, Oxford.

In 1952 he took up a holiday job at the BBC, but was soon transferred to the documentary film unit where one of his first projects was a film on the architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. That was followed by Away From It All with Christopher Chataway.

Another Scottish-related documentary series followed in 1959.

Hearst approached Sir Compton Mackenzie with the idea that he should present a three-part series, The Glory that was Greece. It was an inspired choice by Hearst as Mackenzie had an enviable reputation for his knowledge on ancient Greece and had written extensively on the subject. Mackenzie introduced the first series admitting he had fallen in love with Greece "many years before I visited it".

The programmes – The Age of Civil War, The Age of Victory and The Age of Minos – were all written and produced by Hearst, but Mackenzie brought enthusiasm and joy to the programmes.

In 1967 Hearst became head of features at BBCTV and was immediately involved with Civilisation. In an early meeting Clarke heard a conversation between David Attenborough (then controller of BBC2) and Hearst about the programme's title.

The word civilisation cropped up often and Clarke admitted later, "it was this word alone that persuaded me to undertake the work. I had no clear idea what it meant." So was born one of the BBC's most successful projects.

Hearst was also instrumental in persuading Cooke – well-known on both sides of the Atlantic for his Letter from America on R4. His reputation made him ideal to do a series on the history of the US. It was a mammoth undertaking , but the series proved hugely popular worldwide. Indeed, both programmes were hailed as "milestones in television history."

From 1972-78 Hearst ran R3 and was keen to widen the station's appeal – at the risk of upsetting the listeners and colleagues in the BBC. He introduced some talk-only programmes – Critics' Forum especially raised some eyebrows – and then all-day programming on a single theme.

The first was from Paris and the second from Vienna. So successful did they prove they were followed by a Women's Day and German, Polish and Italian Weekends. The technology of the era was still primitive and unreliable so Hearst's imagination in scheduling such adventurous programmes showed determination.

Another major change was cutting out the rather rarefied and academic introductions to concerts – "stuffy" was a much heard criticism. "We must seek to widen understanding through enjoyment," Hearst told his somewhat surprised colleagues. In fact, he was no musical elitist and did not hide his disenchantment with contemporary music.

When he introduced Your Concert Choice with the music being chosen by listeners, the complaints flowed in calling it a disgrace.

Hearst was a charismatic man with an agile and imaginative mind. He was inspired by taking on grand and challenging projects. "Hearst is an idealist," Cooke wrote, "with the temperament of a headmaster.

"He cannot bear the thought that anyone he intellectually respects should quit this life without turning in a final examination paper."

In 1978, Hearst retired from Radio 3 and joined the Future Policy Group. He was appointed Commander of the British Empire the following year and a visiting professor at the University of Edinburgh.

In 1948, he married Lisbeth Neumann, who survives him with their son and daughter.