20 years of BBC Radio 5 Live

MediaCityUK

Radio 5 Live logo (1994)

The BBC’s rolling news and sport station Radio 5 Live is now 20 years old.

I have listened to Radio 5 Live on and off for most of that period. When I was younger, its punchy approach to covering the news appealed to me.

20 years ago, the idea of rolling news was still in its infancy in the UK. BBC News 24 wouldn’t be launched on TV for another three years. Sky News had been around for a few years, but only to the then-small satellite audience.

As such, Radio 5 Live could probably only have been born by accident. It grew out of Radio 4 News FM, which was hastily set up at the beginning of the Gulf war in 1991.

The emergency service went down well with listeners, but it couldn’t replace the regular Radio 4 service in the long run. So the existing Radio 5, an unpopular and uncomfortable mish-mash of children’s programmes, comedy and sport, was closed down to make way for the new news service.

But the station did not end up sounding much like Radio 4’s news output. From day one, Radio 5 Live was at the forefront of using new technology, trying out new ideas, and opening up to the airwaves to the listener. That has made it a launchpad for talent and innovation.

Evolution and resilience

Radio 5 Live logo (1997)

Radio 5 Live has always sounded different to other BBC News output. Its informal yet authoritative style undoubtedly influenced the early days of BBC News 24.

After a couple of years, BBC News 24 edged closer to the more authoritative style of the main BBC TV news output. This coincided with rolling news becoming more important for TV, giving 5 Live less of a unique selling point in comparison to its TV companion service.

At the same time, a communications revolution was taking place. The web was emerging, email was becoming more commonplace, and it wasn’t long before the text message was ubiquitous. Radio 5 Live gradually reshaped itself to become less of a news station, and more of a nationwide debating forum, with a heavy emphasis on listener contributions.

In recent times, Radio 5 Live has relied too heavily on filling airtime with cheap phone-ins rather than good news content. Average joes with a bee in their bonnet phone up Nicky Campbell or Stephen Nolan to shout at the nation. This is normally not an appealing listen in any way. Today, the prevalence of the phone-in is 5 Live’s greatest weakness. But in an era of budget cuts, the phone-in will probably remain a fixture.

A few years ago, Radio 5 Live was chosen to be among the BBC services to move to MediaCityUK at Salford. You would question the wisdom of moving a news and sport service away from London when most of the country’s news makers are in London, and just before the London 2012 Olympics at that. But 5 Live remained resilient amid the move. The quality may have taken a slight dip, but that is probably more as a result of the BBC’s cuts in general more than the move to Salford.

Despite the staggering pace of change — and the way 5 Live has kept up with it — the station’s schedule still has an incredibly similar shape to the one it launched with 20 years ago.

The very first programme, Morning Reports, still broadcasts at 5am every day. Up All Night, and its presenter Rhod Sharp, are also still both in the same place. Sport was a fixture in the evenings from day one, just as it is today. And as you might expect, Breakfast and Drive are also in the same slots.

Hour-to-hour, too, the shape remains the same, as noted by Simon Calder:

…the schedule piloted in March 1994 has proved astonishingly resilient. Now, as then, each hour follows the same basic “wheel”: starting with news (usually five minutes); a minute of sport; headlines and travel at quarter past (and quarter to); one minute of news on the half-hour, followed by five minutes of sport.

5 Live’s original up-to-the-hour jingle sounded breezy and authoritative at the time, even though it seems impossibly cheesy today.

Personal memories

Radio Five Live logo (2000)

I don’t listen to Radio 5 Live as much as I used to. But there are plenty of programmes and presenters that have been daily fixtures of my radio listening life over the years.

The station comes into its own late at night. Then it can let its hair down and really unleash the informality and quirkiness that is its unique selling point, without as much of a fear of a major story about to break.

The late night weekday slot has always been one of my favourite programmes, almost regardless of who has presented it. When I first became a regular listener, the slot was inhabited by Fi Glover, who had a good on-air partnership with the sports bulletin’s presenter, David Croft. Fi Glover ultimately graduated to Radio 4. David Croft is now Sky’s Formula 1 commentator.

Anita Anand and Matthew Bannister continued the great work in that slot. Now I listen to Matthew Bannister present Outlook on the BBC World Service at a similar time of the evening.

Perhaps most notoriously, Richard Bacon’s Special Half Hour was a secret club for listeners that were still awake at 00.30. This half hour contained almost no serious news content. It was a secret slot, and never spoken about outside of that half hour. It sometimes proved to be a bit of a shock to the programme’s guests. Richard Bacon excelled in the late night slot, and has never sounded quite as comfortable in the daytime slot he was promoted to.

Best of all, however, was Tony Livesey. It was a tough act to follow Richard Bacon in the slot, and he achieved it with ease. He is also better than Richard Bacon at the serious news programmes that he has now moved on to.

But the true hero of late night broadcasting has to be Rhod Sharp. For 20 years he has presented Up All Night in the wee hours of the morning. Kudos should also go to Dotun Adebayo who presents at weekends, and Richard Dallyn who did it in the early days. The programme has provided countless hours of distraction when I have been unable to sleep, or had to be up late, or up early, for whatever reason. Up All Night remains my favourite programme on the station.

Radio 5 Live’s controller Jonathan Wall suggests that if the station’s budget gets cut any more, Up All Night might be at risk. That would be a dreadful shame, because the programme is rather better than the majority of the station’s current daytime output.

Radio 5 Live is also the BBC’s home of sport on the radio. For me, that has meant listening to lots of Formula 1 on the station. Many times I turned to 5 Live to fill in the gaps while ITV were broadcasting adverts. Over the years, vivid pictures have been painted by commentators Simon Taylor, Jonathan Legard and Maurice Hamilton, then David Croft and Anthony Davidson. 5 Live’s F1 coverage remains strong to this day.

The future of 5 Live

Radio 5 Live logo (present)

The past 20 years have been good for Radio 5 Live, but that’s no guarantee of a safe future. The BBC has been through a rocky patch, and 5 Live was affected, albeit through no direct fault of its own. In a convoluted manner, the station’s former controller Adrian Van Klaveren ended up getting embroiled in the Newsnight / Jimmy Savile scandal, and was one of those that had to “step aside”.

But 5 Live has a strong ally. The BBC’s current director general Tony Hall also happens to be the person that set up the station in the first place, back when he was in charge of news and current affairs. Hopefully he will see the value in strengthening the station, making it less reliant on demagogic phone-ins, and sharpening up its news output.

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