'You'll miss us when we're gone'

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The Independent Online
'I'M very sad to see it go,' says a subdued but dignified Pat Ewing, controller of Radio 5, who started the network on 28 August 1990 (after a distinguished career running BBC radio's sports department), and is now presiding over the channel's dismemberment and the dispersal of some 85 staff, before taking early retirement.

'I do think we provide an alternative service, bearing in mind how many music networks there are. I'd like to think popular speech will pop up somewhere again,' she said in her fourth floor office at Broadcasting House. On Monday 28 March at 5am Radio 5 will be ousted by Radio 5 Live, a mixture of news (including the first national news programme for gays and lesbians, Out This Week) and topical phone- ins grafted on to existing evening sports coverage.

Ms Ewing says Radio 5 is a casualty of the BBC's determination to have a news network, but that she had not seen the decision to sacrifice Radio 5 coming until it was made six months ago. After a shaky and obscure start, Radio 5 was being switched off just as much of its output found its audience. Its big advantage, says Ms Ewing, was that it had plenty of airtime in which to try out people and ideas, including independent producers. One of its executives, Caroline Raphael, has been picked as BBC radio's new head of drama: 56 of its dedicated staff are placed in other jobs.

She concedes that among its odd mix of sports and adult education, Radio 5 children's programmes never attracted enough listeners, but Ms Ewing points out that there was no tradition to build upon. 'We were broadcasting to children whose parents hadn't listened to any speech radio themselves.' However, the network was starting to attract young boys, lured by the sports coverage, and has discovered by trial and error that Saturday and Sunday mornings are fruitful areas.

The channel has already been ousted from its studios and sent to Broadcasting House's basement so that Radio 5 Live can carry out pilot programmes. The Radio 5 Live launch, which has been pushed through in record time, is coming at a difficult time for BBC radio, which is suddenly the centre of controversy and facing fierce competition. Some senior managers within BBC radio say this stems from the top: they are being run by a board of management dominated by television executives and outsiders who know next to nothing about radio.

As a result of the switch in Radio 5's output, schools programmes are being broadcast on Radio 3 every weekday, between 2pm and 3pm, a move that can only drive music listeners to Classic FM. Test match coverage will go to Radio 4 long wave. Added to this are the woes caused by too abrupt a switch in format by Radio 1.

'I'm sure people will miss the network,' says Ms Ewing. Ideally, she says, 'radio should evolve, and change its output by stealth, without people noticing.'

(Photograph omitted)

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