The Week in Radio: When a chat queen became the toast of 'Radio Bloke'


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The Independent Culture

It's fair to say that when Radio 5 Live was born, I wasn't its target listener. I was barely interested in the news unless it had to do with the government threatening my fondness for empty warehouses pumping out house music to crowds of gurning loons on a Saturday night, and sport wasn't my thing either.

More importantly, I was – and still am, come to think of it – an owner of ovaries. This remains something of a disadvantage when looking for decent daytime radio programming but in the Nineties rendered you all but invisible. Not for nothing was 5 Live called “Radio Bloke”.

I've grown up since then and so, thankfully, has the network.

Last Friday marked the culmination of its birthday celebrations with 5 Live at 20, an hour-long nostalgia-fest, which was essentially an aural collage of past programmes covering the major milestones of the past 20 years. Starting with the first utterances of presenter Jane Garvey as she introduced Morning Reports, followed by some hideous attempts at conveying an atmosphere of excitement – “the joint is jumping” said Peter Allen, hopefully – it went on to ridicule various presenters' trepidation about new technology. The advent of texting – the new medium through which listeners were encouraged to offer feedback – seemed to bring about a special kind of dread.

A reminder of the channel's sporting emphasis came early on in archive football commentary from David Mellor and Mark Pougatch, both adopting that curiously high-pitched tone redolent of men whose privates are being held in a half-nelson.

There were births, marriages and deaths, the latter most chillingly seen in the coverage of the New York terrorist attacks in 2001, during which a witness paused to comment on the beautiful sunset that framed the plumes of smoke coming from the wreckage of the World Trade Centre.

Elsewhere, there were outbreaks of war and declarations of peace; political break-ups and make-ups; natural disasters and man-made catastrophes. There was also an unnecessarily lengthy boast of all the exotic locations from which 5 Live presenters have reported, a segment designed to make even the most benign licence-fee payer feel bitter.

But while there was plenty to make you cringe – a discussion about the Queen Mother's appearance after she had died was all kinds of wrong – the station's unrivalled skill with rolling news was undeniable.

In an era when news coverage is expected to be instant, and when 91 per cent of the adult population is now listening to radio via assorted mediums, 5 Live's function has never been clearer.

One of the jewels in the station's crown is Victoria Derbyshire's show, which flips the bird at the lowest-common-denominator conventions of the phone-in and approaches difficult subjects with intelligence and restraint. One of its most remarkable contributors has been Rachel, an anaesthetist and alcoholic who called in three years ago to tell Derbyshire that she was about to go into rehab. Then, live on air, she cracked open a fresh can of Guinness.

On Friday, as part of the birthday celebrations, a sober and clear-headed Rachel took calls from listeners. Several thanked her for throwing their own problems into relief, and voiced their gratitude to the show for addressing the problem of alcoholism so boldly.

It was all immensely affecting, both for listeners and for Rachel who, not that long ago, was struggling stay alive. Now thanks to her and Derbyshire, there were several recovering alcoholics now toasting the show from afar with nothing more alarming than an orange juice.