Radio newcomer gets familiar in the small hours: Robert Hanks, Radio Critic, rises early to hear the debut of 5 Live, the BBC's news and sport station

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WHEN Virgin 1215 launched itself on the world a year ago, it did so at 12.15 in the afternoon. Following in that tradition, Radio 5 Live cast off at 5 o'clock in the morning. As an exercise in brand awareness this was probably of limited value, since hardly anybody was around to notice it.

But if you did manage to struggle out of bed to hear the infant station's first wails, the smallness of the hour helped you to grasp what the new 24-hour network will mean: news whenever you want it. And whenever you don't. Resistance is useless; the news will get you.

Having adjusted to this uncomfortable realisation, the first difference you noticed between 5 Live and Radio 4 is how easygoing and intimate the newcomer is.

Radio 4 follows the BBC tradition of impersonality and impartiality in its newscasting, so that the newsreader is confined to the third person ('The news, read by Astley Jones'); 5 Live, by contrast, puts personality first ('I'm Jane Garvey, this is the news'). It loses something in terms of authority, and the chattiness is undeniably irritating at times; so is the overblown theme tune that accompanies every bulletin (it had looked as though The Day Today and its radio predecessor, On The Hour, had put paid to this melodramatic approach to news, but it seems not).

The overall effect of these devices, though, is to create a sense of familiarity, so that by lunchtime yesterday it sounded as though Radio 5 Live had been going for years. If you had been listening since 5am, it felt like that, too.

On paper, the concept of mixing news and sport looked highly dubious - and those of us with a less than burning interest in the extent of the bruising to Robin Smith's arm will take some persuading still that they are natural partners.

There are incongruous moments: the lunchtime updates on television soaps (Tanya got Des into her clutches, Maud is milking the burglary for all its worth) sat awkwardly with the news bulletin that came immediately afterwards (schoolgirl killed in Middlesbrough, violence in Soweto). All the same, 5 Live has a sense of coherence and self-confidence that the old Radio 5, condemned to a bizarre eclecticism, could never achieve.

The other thing to be said in the new station's favour is that once you have got through the tabloidese headlines - tantalising rather than informative - the actual news is delivered at a more leisured pace than you are used to on other stations, with more time for detail and explanation. This is a natural and beneficial consequence of the 24-hour brief: this is the only news they've got and they have to make it last. But there are other, less pleasing effects.

In Thomas Love Peacock's 1861 novel Gryll Grange, an enthusiastic landscape gardener distinguishes one of the qualities of a good garden as 'unexpectedness'. A sceptical listener asks: 'By what name do you distinguish this character, when a person walks round the grounds for a second time?' Radio 5 Live faces a similar problem: How many times can you recycle the news each day before it stops being news? While it's working on the answer, I'll be switching back to Radio 4.