RADIO / Live, but all the same . . .

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The Independent Culture
'I'M GOING to have to stop you there, Alan,' said Diana Madill, as Alan Little did a sketch of life and death in Sarajevo. 'We're going over live to Middlesbrough.' And that was it: the defining moment. BBC Radio's new 24-hour sport- and-news network was, for the first time, Going Over Live.

From the vantage point of my bath (the acid bath test, so to speak) Radio 5 Live sounded very much as it should: appropriately, prosaically, live. And not, as the anti-Birters were grimly predicting, live-sloppy, or live-improvised. The BBC's latest network had made a cool and well-planned start to its rolling career. Good planning we expect, given six months' preparation and pounds 30m a year. The slickness has more to do with professionalism and skill.

There is still the question of the station's identity. Listen to an average 24 hours - if you could - and you might just notice that each day is divided into different programmes: Morning Report, The Breakfast Programme, The Magazine, Midday with Mair, Ruscoe on Five - and so on, every weekday. Are these the least informative programme titles you have ever come across? They are, but they still tell you all you need to know. That is, nothing much except the presenter's name or the time of day. Radio 5 Live's identity is distinctive: it sounds pretty much the same, from dawn to dusk to dawn.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. A rolling news channel that didn't sound a bit samey might be doing something wrong. The new channel has no readings from the Bible, schools programmes, thoughts for the day, or other dramatic interludes - just some of the worst jingles in living memory (traffic news cannot be that important). And even the jingles end up filling in the natural breaks between programmes, making it harder to distinguish between the end of one and the beginning of another.

But each programme does have its own slots and peculiarities. Midday with Mair includes a daily 'chance to catch up with what's happening in the soaps': what's happening, apparently, is a lot of 'snoggage' - pronounced in a Frenchy sort of way. The Magazine has 'Canned News', a potted guide to that day's hard nut to crack in the news menu (the Pergau Dam affair, the Scott inquiry), along with phone-ins and a 'regular' slot looking at European newspapers. Given that the station was only one day old, the number of times it pronounced a slot to be regular was truly marvellous.

It's still too early to judge whether the anti-Birters were right to greet the channel with such a groan, or to claim that listeners would flock to it from Radio 4. The Today programme, at least, looks safe from depredations. Peter Allen, the former ITN political correspondent who presents 5 Live's Breakfast Programme, is smart, jokey and combative, but in no sense competition for the saintly Naughtie.

Radio 5 Live sounds like a popular-music station without the music - or close enough to it for the average Today listener to stay a mile off with ear-plugs in. Any trouble will be later in the day - the people who enjoy R4's reach-the-people innovations, such as Anderson Country - could be just the type to be tempted across the dial.

As it is, 5 Live listeners are going to dip in and out. They will have to: sport and news bulletins every half-hour over long periods are just too much. Even in a week full of excitements - England all out for 46 and plenty of Going-Over-Live to Downing Street - the repetitions had rendered my every faculty numb and insensible by Friday. A rolling news service can always fall back on creating news - getting Geoff Boycott to slag off Keith Fletcher, for instance - but it still didn't stave off the mental paralysis.

This is supposed to be news for 'the people'. So it made sense that the political reporters talked about the Easter 'holiday' and not the 'recess'. But 'the man who boasts a permanent suntan and a billion in the bank' is no way of referring to the man who may be Italy's next prime minister. The permanent suntan may just be because he's Italian. Politicians don't like to be patronised. And neither do 'the people'.

Sue Gaisford is on leave.