It’s alive! BBC Radio 5 Live celebrates its 20th anniversary

One of the station's former producers recalls how the network was written off prematurely

It’s a fair bet that no sooner had Eric Gill sculpted the finishing touches to the Broadcasting House façade a lifetime ago, than gossip began among the staff about the Corporation’s imminent demise due to inept decision-making by BBC bosses. But early in 1994, a particularly well-sourced rumour did the rounds at “BH”.

A leading advertising agency, the story went, had been invited to pitch for promoting the pioneering 24-hour news-and-sport radio network, 5 Live. After studying the plans for the station, the firm politely declined to bid for the business. It had concluded that the BBC’s new venture was an impossible sell – a marketing disaster with no obvious audience or appeal, nor even memorable frequencies: 693 and 909kHz AM (and even, in Cardigan Bay, 990).

To the team on the ground floor of Henry Wood House – a dismal W1A office block into which the BBC had overspilled – the forecast was discouraging. I know this for a fact because I had been taken on by a programme known as 5 Live Breakfast. Me, and it, were both untried: the network was not due to launch until 28 March in that year, and I had spent the previous 15 years as a studio manager (sound engineer) rather than as a producer. Handily, the new Director of News, Tony Hall, had devised a hybrid post of “operational journalist”. He believed there was value in training people who knew one end of a hypercardioid microphone from the other to work more creatively – to recognise a news story and help get it on air.

The timing of the new role was convenient because the BBC was about to be broadcasting a lot more news. Radio 4’s VHF frequency had been commandeered for six weeks during the first Gulf War in 1991 as a “rolling news” network – dubbed Scud FM, after the Soviet-built missiles that the Iraqi forces deployed. It met an internal drive, led by the Director-General, John Birt, for a network that offered immediate access to breaking news – and the reassurance that, when nothing more relevant than showbiz scandals or small foreign wars were going on, listeners could depend upon the headlines every 15 minutes around the clock.

Sky News had arrived in 1989 but, in the early Nineties, hardly anyone could receive the satellite channel. Everyone had medium wave.

In those pre-digital days, the BBC could not simply invent a new network; due to limitations on bandwidth, it first had to close down another. Radio 5 was the obvious candidate. It had been cobbled together in 1990 as the repository for the unwanted offspring of other networks, such as sport from Radio 2, Open University lectures from Radio 3 and schools programming from Radio 4. During its brief life, Radio 5 produced some cult listening: Danny Baker’s inspired Morning Edition breakfast show, the radio prototype for TV’s They Think It’s All Over, and the died-too-young Euromix. But building a loyal audience for an AM station whose menu mainly comprising other people’s leftovers was a task as thankless as it was elusive.

The new network was floated with more cash and some of BBC Radio’s biggest guns. Former Today editor, Jenny Abramsky, became controller. Today’s assistant editor, Bill Rogers, was brought in to head the flagship Breakfast programme – which would set the tone and the template for the network. They demanded stories from across the UK and would take risks with technology to get them. Luminaries hired as editors for other shows included Sara Nathan, later editor of Channel 4 News, and Tim Luckhurst, who went on to edit The Scotsman.

Despite the prophecies of disaster, the schedule piloted in March 1994 has proved astonishingly resilient. Now, as then, each hour follows the same basic “wheel”: starting with news (usually five minutes); a minute of sport; headlines and travel at quarter past (and quarter to); one minute of news on the half-hour, followed by five minutes of sport.

With the odd timeshift here or there over the years, the weekday pattern has proved equally robust: an hour of news, sport and business at 5am, 5 Live Breakfast from 6, a morning phone-in, a lunchtime news briefing, human interest during the afternoon and Drive from 4-7pm, whereupon sport takes over until 10.30pm. The late phone-in hands on the baton to Up All Night at 1am, with Dotun Adebayo and Rhod Sharp serving up stories from parts of the world where it is a more sociable time of day.

Sharp was a backroom news organiser until 5 Live began. Dozens of other prospective presenters were tried out to see how well they fitted the station’s informed yet informal personality. Eddie Mair, Fi Glover and Julian Worricker were to blossom at 5 Live before becoming Radio 4 mainstays. Later, the intelligentsia of Radio 1 –Nicky Campbell and Simon Mayo – moved up the dial to the new network.

Many recruits, including Jane Garvey, arrived from BBC local radio; Adrian Chiles was a radio producer in the business unit; and Peter Allen, formerly of LBC and ITN, was tempted back from TV. The trio were the first three on-air presenters when 5 went live at 5am on the last Monday in March 1994.

The audience may have been pleasantly surprised on day one, but the style had been set through exhaustive pilots. There were a few rough edges on the first day, including the failure of my contribution: a satellite link from the north Norfolk shore about coastal erosion. I listened to the station’s birth while deep in the entrails of a Volkswagen Caravelle, unable to fix a fault, and the satellite truck had to be hauled back from East Anglia aboard an AA Relay transporter.

Since 1994, north Norfolk has become Alan Partridge’s radio domain, while each of the first three presenters on air has acquired the status as a national broadcasting treasure: Garvey as Woman’s Hour presenter; Chiles had TV’s One Show created around him, then went to ITV Daybreak, Sport and now back to 5 Live (on Fridays at least); and, after a few years of 3am alarms, Allen opted for some proper sleep and switched from Breakfast to Drive.

The network recruited a new, young audience, and took advantage of the unexpected surge in communication technology to interact with it. Mobile phones were becoming standard equipment when the station was born, increasing the reach of contributors. With mobiles came text messages, an instant (and refreshingly succinct) alternative to the traditional “on a postcard…” Add the internet and social media, and 5 Live has taken two-way communication between a radio network and its listeners to a new level. Meanwhile, Radio 4’s news and current affairs programmes, from Today to The World Tonight, have had to sharpen up to counter the fresh and breezy in-house upstart.

The station’s first big story broke six weeks after its birth, with the death of the Labour leader John Smith. On 31 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, died. The fatal crash took place late on Saturday night, British time. Radios 2, 3 and 4 joined 5 Live as news of the tragedy unfolded, with Allen co-presenting with Today’s James Naughtie.

Many more sad stories came to be told, notably the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York and 7 July 2005 in London, and the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. But interleaved with bad news was good sport, culminating in the 2012 Olympics. To paraphrase the late Bill Shankly: while the news component deals with life and death, sport is concerned with more important matters. Football legends Alan Green and Mike Ingham have anchored the brand, while presenters such as Eleanor Oldroyd, switch effortlessly between sport and news.

 Danny Baker, arguably the nation’s finest broadcaster, has survived being “let go” when the old Radio 5 ended in 1994, and being sacked three years later by 5 Live. His Saturday morning programme sports the email address lord.reith@bbc.co.uk. On a recent programme he promised a listener £1m if the Sausage Sandwich Game (you’ll need to tune in tomorrow to find out) over-ran by one second. You don’t get that on TalkSport, nor for that matter Radio 4.

Twenty years on, during which the BBC has gone through some dreadful times, Tony Hall has returned from a decade at the opera to become Director-General. He finds 5 Live in good health and agile as ever – as demonstrated at 1pm yesterday when Chris Warburton took over after Shelagh Fogarty’s voice succumbed to a heavy cold halfway through her lunchtime show.

The network is still breaking news. The loss of Malaysian Airlines’ flight 370 with 239 people aboard was revealed shortly after midnight on 8 March by Stephen Nolan. Yesterday afternoon Richard Bacon brought the latest from the search, as well as President Obama chastising Russia over Crimea. And he found time to call Dame Vera Lynn on her 97th birthday.

Given what it has been through in its 20 years, 5 Live has remained remarkably faithful to the blueprint laid down in 1994. The network was shipped out from Broadcasting House to Television Centre and, three years ago, to new premises in Salford alongside BBC Sport. The controller during the most recent migration, Adrian Van Klaveren, was moved sideways in the fallout from the Savile debacle; as the BBC tangled its lines of command, he had been given oversight of Newsnight’s output when it broadcast claims that implicated Lord McAlpine.

Life for the 5 Live listener can occasionally prove disagreeable. The premise that you can get a news briefing at any time of the day, such as breakfast time at weekends, does not always deliver. Two Sundays ago, as Crimea crumbled and the Malaysia Airlines mystery took new twists, the first two hours of 5 Live Breakfast made way for the Australian Grand Prix – even though motor-racing shares the podium with darts and snooker as the sports most unsuited to radio. And rumours about 5 Live are still doing the rounds at the BBC, some of them citing presenters said to be comfortably ensconced at the end of an audio line in New Broadcasting House in central London rather than at the end of a tram line in Salford.

Yet the beauty of radio is that we listeners shouldn’t notice even if the whole network operation were shipped out to Shetland with the presenters sitting in a studio in Scilly.

If any network has earned the right to be the voice of Britain, it is 5 Live.

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