Staff prepare to bite the bulletins: Tim Kelsey considers the programming challenge facing the BBC's proposed 24-hour news service

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The Independent Online
A rolling news service is how it has been described. American audiences know what this means: continuous news bulletins all day and all night. No features. Just news.

But this is not what the BBC says we should expect of their proposed news service. All we do know is that it is not Radio 4, because that is what it will be replacing on long wave. So what can we expect?

At Broadcasting House, people think they know what is coming. One source in Radio 4's newsroom revealed that there the new service was generally described as 'Bollocks FM'.

Staff fear that the idea for the news service has not been properly thought through. 'If it's all endless talking heads, it will be just dreadful, which is probably as much as they can afford,' the source said.

The BBC is prepared to give only broad, vague outlines. There will be news every hour. It will retain the existing 'spine' of Radio 4: the Today programme, The World At One, PM, The World Tonight.

Around them it will weave some programmes borrowed from the World Service; rework some old favourites - Letter From America will be extended to include other countries, while From Our Own Correspondent will include dispatches from the UK as well as overseas; and add a sprinkling of documentaries and a dash of regional reporting.

And there will, at all times, be a working newsroom, able to interrupt programming and cover breaking stories.

Taking the advice of a handful of radio broadcasters, who have preferred to remain anonymous, the Independent has tried to predict the shape of the new BBC long wave service. This is a sample of what we might have expected on Monday.

5.30am World Business Report (from the World Service).

6.00 News.

6.30 Today.

8.43 Science Update: a BBC specialist reports on the search for extra-terrestrial life in space.

9.00 News.

9.15 World Business Update.

9.30 From Our Own Correspondent: includes report on how Birmingham is preparing itself for this weekend's EC summit.

10.00 News.

So far, no need to interrupt scheduled programmes. Not much news.

10.15 World Business Update: includes job losses at Lucas.

10.30 Europe Today: documentary report on Spain.

11.00 Extended News.

11.30 Art Magazine: with reports on London Fashion Week; death of singer Lennie Peters.

11.45 Sport Update: considers whether showjumping is too dangerous for horses.

12.00 News.

12.15 World Business Update.

12.30 Comment: Serbian journalist on war in Bosnia.

12.35 Regional news round-ups from local radio.

13.00 World at One.

13.30 Bomb goes off in Covent Garden; several injured.

13.40 World at One ends; live reporting from scene at Covent Garden; interviews with IRA experts.

14.00 News.

14.14 Reuter reports massive earthquake in Cairo; hundreds dead.

14.15 World Business Update cut short to five minutes. World Service correspondent in Cairo does live link-up on earthquake; experts describe life in Cairo.

14.30 News Special: Norman Lamont before the Commons Treasury Select Committee. This is interrupted on the hour with shortened news bulletins.

16.30 World Business Update.

16.45 World Sport Round-up.

16.50 Back to Cairo - in place of scheduled Comment programme on Chinese Communist Party national congress.

17.00 PM: dedicated to Covent Garden bombing and aftermath.

18.00 News.

18.15 World Business Update.

18.30 Round Table: experts discuss Norman Lamont's performance.

19.00 News.

That is the end of the working news day. So how will the news service cope with the long hours after dark? Just more talking heads to fill the gaps between the news? Reports from the Tokyo stock exchange overnight?

At present, Radio 4 closes down after the shipping forecast at 12.33am. The boredom factor becomes most important at night: most of the audience will already have heard the news during the day. More of the same, particularly if there is not a lot of news about, may prove very dull.

Charlie Cox, managing director of LBC, the independent London news station, offers what he calls 'this germ of advice: they must avoid speaking to experts too often. The classical example is that someone gets shot in the street and the first impulse is to go over to some criminal pyschology lecturer.'

LBC fills the space between the news bulletins with phone-ins, celebrity interviews, and drive-time shows. Conventional wisdom is that there are only two things that survive the small hours: music and phone-ins. At night, LBC tries to provide 'companionship' through the phone-in. The BBC has ruled out phone-ins.

There is one other problem that programme schedulers at Broadcasting House may face: money. At present Radio 1 enjoys a budget of more than pounds 30m. The news service is expecting only pounds 9m, though news gathering is the most expensive sector in radio.