To one of its former assistant editors, Five Live sounds too much like neutered populism. Tim Luckhurst – writing in the Independent on Sunday – says his qualm is that Five Live is pursuing a strategy that will render it indistinguishable from commercial chat radio. Tim is billed in the Sindie as one of the Five Live launch team – and maybe that’s the issue. It’s inevitable and right that Five Live should have changed since its launch. Let it go Tim. We’ve moved on - and so should you. Some things remain the same though. Five Live still has at its heart a wish to reach an audience that much of the BBC finds it hard to reach – a non-metropolitan, diverse, working-class audience; not so much middle England as ordinary Britain.
How do we try to do that? It’s always been about accessible journalism, and about tone and style. In more recent years it’s also been about interactivity. Radio has always been good at interactivity, and Five Live has always been good at phone-ins – seeking expertise and compelling testimony rather than shouted opinions. But in the several years since Tim left us Five Live developed other links with the audience – email and even more importantly text messaging. Peter Allen called texters “our army of reporters” years before someone clever came up with the phrase “user-generated content”.
We’re now trying to deepen and further enrich our relationship with the audience. Tim Luckhurst’s piece was based on an interview with the controller of Five Live, Bob Shennan, who told him we’re doing more news that evolves from our close relationship with our listeners. That’s dead right. But it doesn’t mean, as Tim seems to think, that we won’t cover breaking news or use BBC Newsgathering correspondents. He quotes the inevitable “one BBC producer” as saying “I can list correspondents who have not appeared on Five Live for over a year. It is not on their radar. Many programmes have abandoned serious news.”
Well, I can list correspondents who are on Five Live all the time. People like the home editor, Mark Easton, who joined the panel for our recent live immigration debate in Blackburn; the security correspondent, Frank Gardner, whose two-ways with Peter Allen are a particular joy; the defence correspondent, Paul Wood, who helped us tie down a recent audience-led story about the cost of posting parcels to troops abroad; the business editor, Robert Peston, who was discussing the OFT report on drug pricing on Breakfast only this week; Mihir Bose, the sports editor who kept us in close touch with whether Sheikh Mohammed was going to buy Liverpool Football Club. I could go on and on. What about Jeremy Bowen keeping Simon Mayo’s audience up to speed on the Middle East? Where are these programmes that have abandoned serious news? Not on Five Live.
Tim Luckhurst says an insider told him “Managers define [Five Live] as sport and talk.” I haven’t met those managers. But if they’re out there – or rather, if they’re in here – they’re wrong. Five Live is as committed as ever to robust journalism, to covering breaking news and to a broad agenda. Of course, every broadcast service evolves over time and Tim is right that things aren’t the same now as they were in his day. The media landscape has changed and so have we.