Media: Magic on the air at Radio Five

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Paul McCann enjoys a power breakfast at Radio Five Live - the BBC station that has just won seven Sony awards - and discovers a winning formula full of snap, crackle and pop

It is 8.15 am in the Radio 5 Live Breakfast Show studio, and the producer John Zilkeah has the makings of an ideal night out: "Right, we're being inundated with offers. We've got a kneecapping, a tiny gun, Alan Shearer, Nicky Campbell's promo and Champagne. Its getting really tight. We may just have to live in hope."

There is an air of low-level panic in the booth. The floor is scattered with discarded story scripts, and the two bottles of Champagne - for a story about a popless cork - add to the slightly dishevelled atmosphere.

It is not helped by a producer looking intently at a phone and asking: "Who is at the end of this phone? I'm not ringing that number and asking who's at the end of it. It could be anyone."

The running order has been squeezed and an editor is trying to get presenter Eleanor Oldroyd to cut off a phone report on horse racing that has begun to ramble: "Right that's a wrap," he repeats into her headphones.

"He doesn't usually say 'wrap'," injects another editor, "Its because you're here." The Independent's presence is felt in other ways too.

One editor asks Zilkeah why they haven't run with a story about Paul Gascoigne. "Er ..." says Zilkeah, "it's not really us, and now [makes pointed look at The Independent] isn't the best time to discuss it."

Whatever the mystery of the Gascoigne story, the Breakfast Show team needn't feel defensive. The press attention is being encouraged by the BBC because the show has won the prestigious Sony Award for best breakfast news and talk show - beating their better-known rivals at the Today programme a few floors below in Broadcasting House.

The Breakfast Show award was just one of seven the network picked up at the Sonys in London last week. The news and sport station won the top award of UK station of the year, its mid-morning host Nicky Campbell won the best daytime talk award and, in a joint award, with Radio 4 it picked up best news event for its coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Although not on evidence that day the Breakfast Show is popular with listeners because of its lighter touch. The Today programme is even starting to lose some political heavyweights to the show because they feel they can appear human within Radio 5's less stuffy format. "We had David Blunkett sitting in a radio car for 12 minutes listening to us take the mickey out of the homework regulations he was announcing," says presenter Peter Allen. "He could have come on all defensive but instead he joined in, suggesting all sorts of silly government guidelines, like the number of chips you should be allowed to eat and so on."

"Stephen Byers, the Education Minister we caught out with a multiplication question he got wrong, came on the show next time armed with questions he wanted to put to us to get his revenge. Although he's unusual, in that he's a younger Blairite. The ones that like us tend to be the old war-horses like Blunkett and Dobson."

Popularity with politicians and a flurry of awards mark a great year for the network. Last month the Rajar audience figures gave Radio 5 Live its best ever listening figures - it now boasts an average audience of 5.6m listeners a week - so it is not surprising the BBC wants to spend the morning watching where the magic is created.

And magical indeed is the look on the face of LM magazine's editor when he walks late into the studio to do a promo for the upcoming Nicky Campbell show. Before sitting down Campbell is firing questions at him about why he wants to see the Royal Family abolished - the topic of one of his phone- ins. Few people are well collected enough to marshall their thoughts live on radio while sitting down. The LM editor is no different.

But Campbell's presence in the Breakfast Show studio is a symptom of the new style that controller Roger Mosey has brought to the network.

"The historic problem with the station was that it had good reach, but low loyalty from listeners," says Mosey. "To counter that we've been getting rid of the barriers between programmes. It used to be that when football ended on Wednesday nights there was a closing signature tune, then there was a jingle for the news bulletin, then the bulletin itself, then the theme for Richard Littlejohn's show. Listeners would drift away through all that, so now we have John Inverdale in the football studio talk directly to Littlejohn who then takes over, talks and has the news in his show."

Similarly Campbell's show is like an umbrella over a number of diverse segments. A distinct production team with its own announcer shows up to do a segment of European news. Later a package of entertainment news made by an independent production company is fitted seamlessly into Campbell's show.

Watching Campbell in action is a much more relaxed affair than the morning show. A few editors sit quietly letting him talk to guests and listeners. He seems to have made the transition from music DJ on Radio 1 to news journalist a lot better than you could imagine many of his contemporaries doing.

In a lengthy interview with Matt Seaton, the husband of journalist Ruth Picardie who died last year from breast cancer, he is sensitive without being mawkish. The only sign of his old DJ job is when he cues in the jingle for the news bulletin with a flourish of his arm in the air that is decidedly Alan Partridgesque.

During Campbell's show the editors of different programmes hold a post- mortem on the day before with Bill Rogers, the news editor for the network.

Rogers' one criticism is illustrative of the kind of thinking that all BBC news executives are currently conducting. In a news item the previous day from Northern Ireland the Orange Order had been mentioned without an explanation as to what the Orange Order was.

Rogers wants such assumptions about the listeners' knowledge level to be discarded. The corporation's current buzzword is accessibility, and its biggest news service is in the vanguard of the changes.

"Actually accessibility has been with us from the start," says Rogers. "But you do have to remind people who are on the news treadmill that shorthand turns listeners cold, the trick is to be able to explain something without being patronising. We also have to deliver something that is distinct from Radio 4 to bring in a distinct audience."

To that end under Mosey's regime any show that you could imagine being heard on Radio 4 has been dropped: "You wouldn't expect Nicky Campbell's show on Radio 4, but who was there before, Diana Madill - she frequently did broadcasts on Radio 4. Now I think that the networks have moved apart."

Blended with Mosey's strategy of distinctiveness and removing barriers between programmes is what he describes as a culture of flexibility.

"On a day-to-day level there is a healthy competition between different programmes," says Simon Waldman, editor of the midday news. "But above all that there is the feeling that we are a station, not just individual shows. You need that because, if a big story breaks, it is all hands to the pump."

"If a show gets late access to an interviewee who will do an interview but cannot be fitted on to your slot you will pass them along to who might need them next. But it is not a fixed structure - in fact it's the lack of structure here that keeps us flexible."

The happy ship Radio 5 Live hopes to maintain this culture when its staff make the move from Broadcasting House later this summer to the massive new news operation in Television Centre. While other network producers and editors will be grouped by programme type and time of day, Radio 5 Live will largely stay together.

A morning in the company of a BBC press minder means it is difficult to find the buried bodies, the unhappy hacks and the ususal political machinations that dog most BBC services. But this time it might be less to do with the press minder and more to do with the rising audiences, the awards and 5 Live's growing position as a model for the rest of the BBC's news output.