Comedy hasn't been a laughing matter at BBC Radio for some weeks now. Suddenly it's a genre fraught with danger that makes producers blanch with fear, having already cost two powerful executives their jobs and besmirched the careers of two of the corporation's most famous presenters.
So it's a surprise that Adrian van Klaveren, the new controller of Radio 5 Live, known for breaking news and sport, is planning to recast his network as a new home of humour, preparing to pepper his schedule with comedians such as Andy Parsons, Dom Joly and Danny Wallace. "In people's everyday lives they laugh and smile a lot, and if what's coming out of the radio doesn't reflect the way people live their lives, it's a difficulty for us. We have to be a mix and reflect all parts of life – and I think humour is a part of it."
Van Klaveren, 46, tall, bald and businesslike, doesn't look like he's much of a gag merchant. I couldn't see him down at the Chuckle Club, not even as a heckler. He's a BBC news man to the core, with 25 years' experience as an executive on such heavyweight productions as Newsnight, Panorama and the Nine O'Clock News.
Yet in a period when current affairs is, even more than usual, drenched in misery, Van Klaveren wants to intersperse dispatches on climate change and analysis of recession with the odd chortle. "5 Live is a station which is about the richness of life and bringing a smile to you in terms of what's going on. Humour is an important part of people's lives, and a topical humour is something 5 Live needs to have as part of its range of what it can offer," he says with the formality of a general practitioner doling out a prescription.
The tonic that he prescribes is in three parts. Aside from the comedy, he wants to capitalise on technological developments to make 5 Live an increasingly visual medium, and to get the station out on the road a bit more.
The funny stuff will arrive in time for the festive season, a series of "Christmas treats", as Van Klaveren terms them. Parsons will be making a show called PMQ, in which he will play the Speaker and guests have to respond to given situations as if they were Gordon Brown, only in a humorous way. The controller hopes it will become a current affairs equivalent of Colin Murray's successful Fighting Talk, "which works brilliantly in terms of sport, but what we haven't got is a vehicle which is as strong in terms of news and topical events". The Big Ask, a new series of three programmes hosted by Martin Kelner is intended as a witty approach to some of life's big questions, such as whether money can buy you happiness.
Joly and Wallace come together for Dom and Danny do Christmas, which will go to air on Christmas Day at noon. Van Klaveren admits that many families will have better things to do at that time, but predicts the show will live on strongly on the BBC's online listen again facility and as a podcast. "This is showing us is how radio is changing. If we were only talking about a programme that went out at 12 o'clock on Christmas Day, then would people make an appointment to listen? Would we get the numbers we want? Probably not. For all of this content, the key thing is that it's usable in different forms, that we are able to make it available through the iPlayer so that it's available to listen again, that it has the potential to podcast."
As for risking his job, after only seven months in post, by venturing into comedic territory, he doesn't seem too worried. "We can produce content which is surprising, going to make them laugh and be different. In the end, it's about understanding what our editorial boundaries are and what judgements need to be made. There will always be some people who will find certain things funny and people who don't. That's very different from invasion of privacy or causing significant offence to people," he says, offering little sympathy to Jonathan Ross.
These comedy shows, which extend to a Fighting Talk special called "Old Chestnuts" and featuring former presenters Johnny Vaughan and Christian O'Connell and an Unsporting Review of 2008 hosted by Stuart Cosgrove, are termed by Van Klaveren as "stand-out moments" with podcast potential. More seriously, he has commissioned the first black British world heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis to make Galveston Giant, about the pioneering pugilist Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champ.
The second strand of Van Klaveren's strategy for reshaping 5 Live is to take the radio network beyond the confines of simply being an audio medium. "We want to do much more in terms of visualising our content. If you are listening through your computer or something with a screen, what are you seeing? We have a lot of information coming into us, texts and so on, so how do you make more of that available so people can see it?"
The Breakfast show with Nicky Campbell and Shelagh Fogarty features a webcam and Van Klaveren wants the network's output to do more. "We are moving towards an era when you can put three or four cameras around a studio and it will cut depending on who is speaking," he says, voicing the expectation that more listeners will tune in via mobile phones and other hand-held devices. When the network moves to Salford in 2011, Van Klaveren anticipates that many interviews will be conducted via video-conferencing and he wants the audience, where possible, to see pictures. "The sense of being able to see expressions and relate in a visual way is important for presenters. That technology is developing very fast now and the best of it is very good. We would want to bring the listeners into that."
He says he is not trying to turn 5 Live into a television network. "What we don't want to do is make radio that's trying to be television because 20 per cent of your listening is in a car, for a start. The beauty of radio is its flexibility, the mobility of it – for many people it is a secondary activity. What we've got to do is find a way of enhancing things for those with access to a screen without jeopardising the audio only experience."
The final part of Van Klaveren's plan involves getting out and about around the country, doing more outside broadcasts (such as Fogarty's show from a children's hospice and 5 Live's reporting on the resignation of Kevin Keegan). He dismisses claims that some of his presenting staff are fighting the move to the MediaCity site in Salford, but is clear that everyone in the main schedule must move north. "We are not leaving elements here and there and trying to stitch it all back together on air."
And he rejects the notion that the relocated station might speak with more of a Mancunian accent. "I don't think there should be a northern feel," he says. "We are very much about trying to be informal, doing things in everyday language, trying to reach out to people wherever they are."Reuse content