The importance of late night radio

Ever since I was a child, I have drifted off to sleep listening to the radio. I have difficulty falling asleep in silence. Having the radio burbling away quietly in the background often does the trick in sending me off to sleep.

Late night radio presenters often talk about the pyrrhic victory of accompanying their listeners to the land of nod. But there surely can’t be a greater honour in radio than to tuck your listeners in at night.

Radio is an intensely intimate medium. Unlike most other media, radio is perfect for multitasking to. Radio is there with me when I wake up and eat my breakfast. That sets the tone for my day. Radio goes with me when I’m driving. I can go on a walk with the wireless. I do the dishes with DAB. And of course, the radio goes to bed with me.

So when the radio schedule changes, it threatens to unsettle my world. Of course I adapt. But it’s like a new pair of shoes. It might seem insignificant, but it can be painful for the first few days.

BBC Radio 5 Live

Since my mid-teens, my station of choice late at night has been BBC Radio 5 Live. If I’m really struggling to get to sleep, it is the evergreen Rhod Sharp’s burr that provides the backdrop. He has been there for insomniacs in the 1am–5am Up All Night slot ever since Radio 5 Live began in 1994, and long may he continue.

Typically, though, it is the slot before Rhod Sharp’s that I most listen to while trying to get to sleep. Since I began listening to Radio 5 Live in 2001, there has been a long line of presenters in this slot: Fi Glover, Matthew Bannister, Anita Anand, Richard Bacon and Tony Livesey. All of them were great in their own different ways. Since leaving the late night slot, each of them have gone on to greater things. But I have enjoyed their output less.

Richard Bacon in particular seems misplaced in his new role. He is an entertaining broadcaster. His shhtick suited the free-form nature of late night radio perfectly. But his current mid-afternoon slot requires a more serious approach.

Richard Bacon’s broadcasting style is great at a time like midnight, when nobody wants hard news unless it’s breaking right at that moment (which it isn’t, because it’s midnight). But at 2pm, Richard Bacon’s approach seems weak and lightweight. It’s just not the right fit. Since moving to that slot, his programme has become a prime focus for Radio 5 Live’s critics, who point out that the station’s remit is supposed to be news and sport, not fluff.

This week, Tony Livesey has presented his final show in the late night slot. Richard Bacon was a tough act to follow, but he pulled it off with aplomb. From the start, he impressed me with his easy-going yet quick-witted approach to broadcasting. In the subsequent three and a half years, it has been a joy to drift off with him.

I am sure Tony Livesey will avoid the pitfalls that Richard Bacon has run into in his new role. But I am disappointed that his new slot, Weekend Breakfast, won’t give him the same platform. Late night might not be the most prestigious of slots — indeed, it’s true Alan Partridge territory. But it does give broadcasters the scope to flex their muscles, experiment, and generally be entertaining.

The presenter’s relationship with the listeners is also more intimate. Listening at an unusual time feels like being part of a club. This was explicitly embraced by Richard Bacon.

Late night is the one time of day where a listener will tolerate the presenter taking centre stage. During the day, the news dictates the broadcast, and rightly so.

Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope that Tony Livesey’s replacement, Phil Williams, will live up to the standards set by every presenter of the slot since I started listening over a decade ago. He’s been with Radio 5 Live for ten years, and I’ve not been impressed with him in the past. As I said, radio is a personal thing. I can’t go to bed listening to a radio presenter that grates with me.

I may be proved wrong. I hope so because I don’t know what else I would listen to.

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