It's not just about sport

Five Live may be currently gearing up for the Premier League, but controller Bob Shennan is keen to shake off its blokeish reputation, writes Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

In terms of the perfect accompaniment to a girlie get-together, the Radio Five Live Saturday schedule is hardly going to rival a box set of Sex and the City. Eamonn Holmes on football over breakfast, then Christian O'Connell on sport, Des Lynam on sport, followed by three live Premier League commentaries, Sports Report and a football phone-in - not exactly the kind of entertainment to get female listeners kicking off their heels and cracking open the Lambrini.

Yet, speaking ahead of the network's most important weekend of the year, Five Live's controller, Bob Shennan, is convinced that Britain's biggest talk radio station is more feminine than ever. "It is more female-friendly now than it was 10 years ago, I guess because people have become aware that it isn't just a sports station," he says.

Shennan is angry that his station is written off in some quarters as "bloke radio" when it has "a fantastic roster of female presentation talent". He describes criticisms of its lack of female voices as "outrageous", saying they "ignore the talents of Shelagh Fogarty, Victoria Derbyshire, Jane Garvey, one of the brightest broadcasting talents in British radio at the moment. It is just wrong to say that there is a male bias in terms of our presentation".

Derbyshire returned from maternity leave last week to become the station's new queen of the phone-in with a 9-10am slot. "She's got her chance. She has wanted to do a programme like that for a couple of years," says Shennan. "She's wonderful with the punters, has a broad range of knowledge and interests. She has a big opportunity in the morning slot to really carve that out as her niche."

Nevertheless, the fact remains that 70 per cent of Five Live's listeners are male. "It's largely because of the presence of sport, and it's to do with the perception that it is a sports station," says Shennan.

The Five Live controller has no specific strategy to court women listeners, and doesn't believe that simply appointing more female presenters is the answer. In any case, finding good women sports presenters of the calibre of Five Live's Eleanor Oldroyd is not simple.

"There are a number of women now in the sports department who are on-air talent and doing a really good job for us. Some are journalists, some former competitors," says Shennan. "But there's no magic wand. There are far fewer people than you might imagine who would want to be sports broadcasters who are women. I think they are put off by their perception of the world they would be operating in."

Next weekend's Five Live schedule will be almost completely devoted to the start of the Premier League football season and the lighting of the Olympic flame in Athens, but Shennan points out that only 25 per cent of the station's output is given over to sport. "The perception that it's a sports station is nonsense because three-quarters of the output is news," he says.

Shennan's strategy for broadening Five Live's appeal is to blur the boundaries between news and sport, blending the two distinct audiences that tuned into the channel in its early days a decade ago. "The synergy between news and sport is closer than ever before," he says. What this means is that sports reporters might find themselves out on campaign trails during the next general election. And news presenters will have a high-profile presence during Olympics coverage.

Shennan says: "We went to Euro 2004 with Mark Pougatch and Alan Green and [drive-time presenter] Peter Allen. They are a team. Pete is popping up in sports airtime and sports guys are popping up in Pete's airtime."

Five Live's audience is just over six million (400,000 down on the previous quarter, when there was more football to cover), according to latest figures from the industry body Rajar. Shennan admits that "it's difficult to see with current means of transmission how we can grow that sports audience". And so he is trying to broaden his listenership through greater integration of subject matter. "The idea is that where sports audiences come across news people in sports airtime, they are engaged by what they hear, and they think, 'I'll have more of that'. News audiences don't feel alienated by the intrusion of big sporting events because their familiar voices are embracing them, too. That's the plan and we feel, increasingly, it has worked."

Attracting sports audiences to news is a tactic, Shennan feels, that can help Five Live reach a demographic that is abandoning current affairs in other media. "At a time when 35-year-olds are turning away from TV news and newspapers in their droves, Five Live has an opportunity to bring people to news and current affairs in a way other parts of the BBC cannot."

The loss of 270,000 listeners from Nicky Campbell's news-based breakfast show last quarter indicates that there is room for improvement. Shennan is keen to attract ethnic-minority listeners, but through a long-term commitment to broadening the content to reflect modern Britain, rather than by introducing "ghettos" in programming or making "tokenistic" appointments.

You also sense that he would not rush to embrace plans to shift the station to Manchester to make the BBC less London-centric. "I don't know what the effect would be on listeners in Cornwall or Scotland," he says.

He is trying to make the station relevant to listeners in the most distant parts of the country, but the shortcomings of medium wave mean that they often can't hear what's on offer. "It's something that the audience regularly and consistently complains to us about," he admits. "The signal in some parts of the UK is awful, and there's no getting around that. Medium wave is an impediment to the natural growth of Radio Five Live."

Despite the plans to grow the station by bringing together news junkies and sports buffs, as well as opening up the content to all genders and backgrounds, this weekend will be about sport, sport, and then more sport. Shennan won't find this a problem. A former head of sport at BBC television, he has a Liverpool shirt pinned up on his office wall, and the night before we met, he had taken his son to a pre-season friendly. "This season will be bigger than ever for us," he says.