Sound Matters - Five Live - the War of Broadcasting House - a morality
31 January 2002
Text of a lecture
given by Jenny Abramsky, News International Visiting Professor of Broadcast
Media 2002 at Exeter College, Oxford University.
This speech was second
in a series of four.
check against delivery
the story of entrenched warfare, involving people who cared passionately
for their medium, cared passionately for their genre, cared passionately
for the BBC, and how the BBC reached a right decision, despite itself.
But it took a long time.
do I start?
John Birt came
to the BBC, as Deputy Director General, in 1987.
a News and Current Affairs Directorate from Radio and Television.
I was appointed
Editor of News and Current Affairs Radio, in charge of all News and
Current Affairs output across Radio.
October that year, a great storm devastated and paralysed much of southern
and eastern Britain. Winds gusted at speeds of up to 140 km an hour,
killing 18 people and causing nearly one billion pounds worth of damage.
Fifteen million trees fell, and Seven Oaks became One Oak.
the worst storm to hit southern and eastern England for more than 250
counties were affected. Thousands of roads were blocked. Power lines
were down, millions of people were affected.
the BBC respond? Well it hadnt covered itself in glory, the night
Michael Fish "Earlier on today... and across on to France"
forecaster, Michael Fish, famously getting it wrong.
did radio do?
listeners woke up - or as was the case for many, swept up - the Today
programme, working in candlelit offices, as the power to Broadcasting
House had failed, from its start at 0630 devoted most of its two and
a half hours to trying to convey the devastation and its impact.
the Nine oclock news, Radio 4 continued with its normal programming.
then Deputy Director General and Managing Director of News and Current
Affairs, walked from his office on the third floor of Broadcasting House
to the fourth floor where the then Controller of Radio 4, Michael Green,
he wanted to know, "were we not doing more?"
when such an event had impacted on our listeners, were we not providing
them with a continuing, comprehensive coverage?"
the first shot of a monumental battle between those who ran news and
those who managed the radio networks. It was to last six years exactly.
4's, indeed Radio's, answer was that the audience did not like their
schedules interrupted and preferred Gardeners' Question Time to speculative,
rough edged, continuous news coverage. Hourly summaries were enough.
reaction may seem strange now but it was quite understandable then.
CNN was only six years old and few people in the UK had ever seen it.
Sky News had not yet started.
of Radio had a deep understanding of their audiences and understood
that change bothered them, particularly rapid change.
BBC News there was a sense we could have done much more, and served
the audience better.
is a wonderful medium for keeping people in touch, and for enabling
communities under stress to share experiences and support each other.
had been there on October 16th, of course, telling its devoted audiences
what had happened in the next street, the next borough, the next town.
It provided a lifeline.
apparent inadequacy of the response nationally infected thinking in
News from then on, particularly as momentous events unfolded across
Block was crumbling. Revolution was in the air.
as I said in my first lecture, had established its place as a journal
of record from its earliest days.
with our sophisticated technology, our lightweight tape-recorders, a
network of broadcast lines across Europe, it was possible to cover events
live as they happened.
to do just that, and the constraints of a built schedule on radio's
main news network - Radio 4 - was beginning to be seen by them as a
June, China erupted, and for seven weeks students occupied Tiannanmen
that year revolution swept across Eastern Europe - first Czechoslovakia.
Then the unthinkable - the Berlin Wall came down.
Leach... rise and rise
the fever swept until on Christmas Day it reached Romania and the Ceausescus
were thrown from power and executed.
Brayne... been executed
Autumn of 1989 the foreign reporting on BBC Radio was brilliant.
after day programmes like Today, World At One and The World Tonight
offered detailed reportage, analysis, and considered explanation.
radio did not offer was continuous coverage.
4 mounted special programmes but they only reached listeners after internal
debate and argument.
was a radical difference of opinion within the BBC about what audiences
would want and what they would consume.
the start of Sky News on satellite television.
around the world repeatedly brought this profound difference of view
as to the role of radio and, in particular, Radio 4 under the spotlight.
momentous events occurred back home, the response was the same.
Thatcher Resignation... BBC Radio News
did not mount a special programme until 11 O'clock that morning.
on January 17th 1991, just after midnight the Allies started bombing
was just a small news team in the building and the overnight Today production
Newsroom Editor, who went into the tiny midnight news studio, had no
idea what was about to hit him. I came in and told him to stay on air.
we knew that President George Bush senior, in Washington, would address
the nation in about an hour, and we were pretty certain that John Major
would do the same here.
did not have any infrastructure for staying on air - no anchor presenter,
like John Humphrys or World At One's Nick Clarke, only a newsreader.
There were no correspondents in the building.
did have foreign correspondents in Saudi Arabia, in Jordan, in Israel,
in Egypt, in the Soviet Union, in the United States.
had John Simpson and Bob Simpson in Baghdad.
put upon news editor... now Head of Radio News, stayed on the air for
over four hours!
time he ensured that listeners heard, first time, the words of their
democratic leaders at war, heard first hand accounts of what it was
like in Baghdad and got a sense of the enormity and consequence of the
SIMPSON in Baghdad... following a street map
forces were at war for the first time in ten years, as part of a large
believed that the BBC, as the public service broadcaster, had a duty
to keep the families and friends of the 30,000 British army informed,
believed that the BBC had a duty to keep its licence payers informed,
as part of the democratic process, and did not think it could do that
effectively if coverage was confined to the built schedule of Radio
events of the previous two years had shown, from the point of view of
News, both the strength and weaknesses of a built schedule.
instead of concentrating exclusively on coverage, spent much time arguing
with their colleagues in Radio over whether a story was of sufficient
import to justify interrupting the scheduled programme.
it was judged to be so, then scrambling to find staff at the last minute,
to find broadcasters, to provide the quality of coverage expected to
justify the interruption.
appears to make absolute sense now, but it was not so simple.
managers in Radio also knew that, for much of its audience, delivering
the published schedule was paramount, to change it was tantamount to
an audience that wanted considered programmes and hated speculation.
valued many of the programmes that would inevitably be replaced, they
wanted a rich variety not a focused Radio 4.
lectures are, I confess subjective. They are seen through the prism
of my eyes, and only mine, but I hope that does not invalidate them.
time I became aware that Radio 4, for all its strengths, needed to offer
much more was in the early Seventies when Turkey invaded Cyprus.
were most inconsiderate and invaded in the small hours of Saturday morning.
Any Questions on Radio 4 was out of date for its repeat transmission
at 1310, so I and others were called and asked to help produce an emergency
edition of the World At One. We did. It was better than nothing.
the Falklands War, a decade later, we put together a scratch team of
volunteers and produced Saturday editions of the World At One and PM
throughout the campaign and, by expanding our range of programmes, we
were able to ensure a wider range of voices were heard - voices critical
of the action, like the Conservative MP, Sir Anthony Meyer, and the
Labour MP Tam Dalyell were regular contributors.
objective for a public service broadcaster - television or radio - is
to inform the democratic process and give our listeners the tools to
make their own judgements.
I have said, over the next 10 years, as our technology improved, so
did the ambition in News to use the medium to full, to "be there",
to take you, the listener, there.
4, in 1991, as today, had two frequencies - Long Wave and FM. In 1991
Long Wave was seen as its primary frequency.
the phoney war ended and the Gulf War began in earnest, I proposed to
the Managing Director of Radio and the Controller of Radio 4 that we
used the FM Radio 4 frequency and put on a continuous news service,
able to cover events as they unfolded, able to give voice to a variety
and Radio 4 Gulf FM, affectionately known to its team as SCUD FM, was
broadcast 17 hours a day from January 17th until 2nd March 1991.
produced by volunteers from News and Current Affairs programmes, from
Sports programmes who were used to live programming covering events
from many places, and volunteers from television.
presenters were volunteers... at first from the Radio 4 current affairs
programmes, like Today's Brian Redhead, John Humphrys, the World At
One's Nick Clarke and World Tonight's Robin Lustig, but later from television
- Nick Witchell and Nick Ross for example. Everyone was working on their
start it aimed to give its audience access to the raw material, the
events as they unfolded, from the daily military press conferences,
the Presidential briefings to what it was like living in Baghdad, in
Tel Aviv, with the troops in Saudi Arabia.
you to Moscow, to Amman if the story demanded and it took you to the
House of Commons when debates and statements mattered.
it gave voice to the multitude of differing views around the world and
the fears and hopes of ordinary people here in the UK. The BBC had clearly
touched a nerve.
began to pour into Broadcasting House saying the new service was a lifeline
for many listeners.
BBC phone log was also red hot with listeners complaining they could
not get their favourite play in stereo and when was this upstart to
be taken off.
was being repeated within the BBC itself.
Management, having at first agreed to allow the service to start, asked
that it be taken off after a week.
permanent damage to Radio 4, but, in reality, their greatest fear was
that, once established, the service would never come off. They had reason
went to the top of the BBC. The Managing Director of Radio and the Deputy
Director General put their respective cases to the then Director General,
dismay he ruled in favour of John Birt and the service remained, but
to placate Radio he also ruled that as soon as the War was over the
service must cease and FM be restored to Radio 4 - a judgement of Solomon.
the war other major stories occurred, notably the mortar attack on 10
Downing Street whilst John Major's Cabinet was meeting, and the service
was there to cover them.
Downing Street bomb... as soon as we hear more
minutes the new service responded to events as they unfolded.
first report from the scene... out of it
intents and purposes the BBC had created a continuous news service,
we couldn't have done that now. We would need DCMS permission and the
war would be over before they decided.
listened. 29% of all radio listeners heard it during the six weeks.
68% of Radio 4 listeners heard it. An additional 1.5 million people
listened to Radio 4 FM and LW.
have thought the BBC was cheering... it had got it right.
one distinguished critic perceptively wrote at the time:
4 News FM is proving something of a severe opportunity for the BBC...
it has also proved its capacity to incorporate news as it breaks and
to cover running stories. It has style and authority... so what's the
real problem for the BBC is far bigger. It is one of internal politics,
indeed of war inside the walls of Broadcasting House. News has annexed
territory from a Network and shows no signs of willingness to surrender
Gillian Reynolds of the Daily Telegraph, went on to ask:
that the BBC has created, instantly and effectively, an all-news network
would it not be a tremendous waste to un-invent it?"
territorial hostilities between the third and fourth floors of Broadcasting
House ensured that that is what happened.
ceased broadcasting within 24 hours of hostilities ending in Iraq. But
the hostilities did not end in West One.
Network was now the key objective of News Division and its champion
of a News Network was the key objective of the Radio Division led by
its Managing Director David Hatch.
the BBC conduct this conflict?
always does, by commissioning reports, studies, research.
found some eight reports in my files, commissioned between the end of
the Gulf War and the final decision to launch Radio Five Live. I won't
go into them all.
up, there was the November 1991 Task Force - The Information Provider.
Led by the present Controller of the BBC in Scotland, John McCormick.
me that the team included Michael Jackson, then Head of TV Music and
Arts, but lately Chief Executive of Channel 4, and Janet Street-Porter,
then running Youth Entertainment programmes, now just Janet Street-Porter.
was a distinguished group.
that the BBC establish a 24-hour radio news network, using Radio 4's
LW frequency, by the end of 1992.
idea was that "establishing the news service on LW would allow
it to be based on the well established news spine of Radio 4, simulcasting
the main news programmes". This would ensure that Radio 4 FM was
hit back with their strategy the following March, arguing that the proposed
news and current affairs service, with programming from Radio 4, would
irreparably damage the network, and would lead to the eventual stripping
from Radio 4 of all its news programmes, weekly as well as daily.
than gaining audiences, the splitting of frequencies in this way would
lose audiences for the BBC. It should not be attempted.
passionate in their belief that they could satisfy audiences by using
LW as they already did "for instant coverage of major stories whenever
it is required".
clear this war was going nowhere - trenches had been dug and forces
were well and truly dug in.
later yet another report, to the Board of Management of the BBC, recommended
again that the BBC launched a Radio News network.
compiled using work from McKinsey's, stated that "the existing
radio news service would be insufficient to meet listeners' expectations
and increasing competition".
reports had one thing in common - they recognised that competition was
coming and the BBC had to respond and change if it was to deliver for
all its audiences.
the big guns were now aimed right at the heart of Radio and then, in
July, the bombshell struck.
Sir Michael Checkland, went to the annual Radio Festival in Birmingham
and, giving little warning to his Radio colleagues, announced that the
BBC would launch a News Network on Radio 4's Long Wave frequency by
Checkland... television and radio
was that you might think but the battle was only just
beginning. I said yesterday that Radio inspires passion unlike anything
else in the BBC. Further reports were written - and where were the listeners
in all this?
the Gulf War, Radio had continued its policy of providing only news
flashes when events occurred, and mounting special programming some
destructive battle between two baronies in the BBC continued and I believe
radio listeners were the poorer.
look at some coverage.
look at key events in 1992. In January a bomb went off in Whitehall
at just after 9.15am. Radio 4 responded with a news flash at 9.45am
followed by normal programming.
was similar coverage of the bomb a month later at London Bridge station.
after that the Warrington Bomb went off, on Saturday March 20th. It
happened around 12.15pm.
sketchy reports led the One O'clock news, but, after that it became
clear that this was a terrible story. Apart from one news flash it was
not until Six O'clock that Radio News had their first opportunity to
do a full report.
was repeated as the IRA continued their bloody campaign on the mainland.
competition was different now. Sky News was broadcasting as soon as
news broke, so was the commercial radio station in London, LBC Newstalk.
organisation with the newsgathering capability, and audience expectation,
of the BBC, it was a serious under-delivery and for public service radio
it was potentially fatal.
the 1992 Election, Radio 4 allowed News to mount a continuous service
of election coverage from Today to the end of The World Tonight... filling
in the gaps.
made one condition. The service must/could only cover the election.
news was to be kept for the normal News programmes, and could not be
referred to in these special programmes. There was to be no repeat of
reached a level of absurdity on Black Wednesday, in September that year.
the day when the Government's economic policy was destroyed by the markets
and sterling forced to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism.
say it was the day the Conservatives lost the next election.
chaos and panic spread across the city and the world's markets, what
did Radio do?
was, as one report said - "sporadic and tardy".
pound, in the early hours, dropped through the ERM floor in Asia and
then in the City the Today Programme was able to provide coverage.
came off the air at 8.45am, and 15 minutes later the Bank of England
intervened shoring up the pound with £1 billion sterling, followed
half an hour later by support from the Bundesbank and Bank of France.
11 o'clock interest Rates were raised to 12%. At 1130 the high streets
banks started raising their base rates. At 1200 the Bank of England
spent a further £8 billion trying to prop up sterling.
at 1215, the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, spoke on the Treasury steps...
his emollient words had no effect. At 1300 sterling fell below the ERM
Radio 4 done in this time? Well, besides its normal two minute summaries
on the hour, there had been one news flash, at 1115, to tell of the
rise of interest rates to 12%.
to wait until One O'clock and the World At One to hear the Chancellor.
after the World At One came off the air? After all, during the programme
it had been learnt that the Prime Minister, John Major, had called a
news the audience heard was a newsflash at 1445, telling them that interest
rates had risen to 15%. There was no other coverage until PM at 1700.
Sweden had put up marginal rates from 75% to 500%, an Emergency EC meeting
was called, the Bank of England had spent a further £3 billion
and at 1520 the pound fell through the ERM floor again.
the Six O'clock News, on air from 1700-1830, were terrific programmes,
but the story was far from over.
the EC meeting was cancelled and an hour later Lamont announced that
the pound was suspended from the ERM.
he appeared outside the Treasury, at 2028 Downing Street announced the
recall of Parliament.
4 ran two news flashes at 1945 to say Britain had left the ERM and at
2045 to report the recalling of Parliament.
to wait until 10 O'clock to hear the Chancellor.
Lamont... Exchange Rate Mechanism
I am making
this all sound one sided. You might be asking why didn't Radio recognise
the way broadcasting was going?
stories are rarely simple. Radio Management had equally powerful arguments
and examples on their side.
announcement that the BBC intended to use the Long Wave frequency for
a News Service, the Radio 4 audience rebelled, and unlike other rebellions
this one forced a change of policy from the BBC Governors, unheard of
its Managing Director David Hatch and its Controller of Radio 4 Michael
Green, had indeed been right when they focused on the audience of Radio
4 and its unique relationship with the network.
to Save Radio 4 Long Wave was started, in newspapers and on Radio 4's
own network, on its programme Feedback.
public meetings from Glasgow to Paris. Yes, Paris.
a meeting in Paris where over 500 people had come from all over Europe
with one aim - to lynch me!
even a march down Portland Place to Broadcasting House.
look back on those heady days, with the hindsight that today brings,
it is clear to me that the original concept of combining the existing
news programmes of Radio 4 with a news service was flawed. Michael
Green and David Hatch were right.
not have delivered a new audience to the BBC and a policy, proposed
to the Governors, of time shifting programmes like Analysis and Week
In Westminster, whilst at the same time wanting the new service to create
a "tone and appeal directed towards those younger and down the
social scale", was a contradiction in terms.
actually considered (then rejected) giving the service Radio 4's FM
frequency, leaving it broadcasting plays on Long Wave - it's remarkable
that as late as 1992 there was not sufficient recognition in the BBC
that FM was the future not AM.
all this intrigue it is clear to me that both the original protagonists
- the News Directorate of which I was very much part, and the Radio
Directorate - would have made the wrong decision.
a fairy godmother, in the shape of Liz Forgan, who became Managing Director
of Radio in Spring 1993, to wave her magic wand and show the way forward.
at a sacred cow and decided to sacrifice it. In doing so, she enabled
an entirely different proposition to emerge.
had launched its first new network for 23 years in August 1990, when
it created a service called Radio 5.
created to enable Radios 2, 3 and 4 to focus better on their audiences,
but it was also created as a defensive measure.
Broadcasting Act had required BBC Radio to surrender some frequencies
to enable National Commercial Radio to launch.
the BBC do that and continue to deliver all the same services to its
Waterhouse, in a Value For Money Review, recommended that the licence
payer should not receive less Radio whilst continuing to pay the same
new service was put together using four components.
the sports output from Radio 2 Medium Wave.
all the Schools and Continuing Education programmes from Radio 4 FM.
added, to this delicious mix, the Open University programmes from Radios
3 and 4 FM and finally programmes for children and young people from
agreed that Radio 5 should carry some World Service output.
of the radio Networks would then be able to use FM as their main frequency,
and only Radio 4 would maintain two frequencies, Long Wave and FM.
would use the BBC's last national Medium Wave frequency and the rest
would be surrendered to Commercial Radio.
a network with no audience focus, born out of expediency.
it had not attracted a very large audience, except the loyal audience
of its sports programmes.
was hampered. For example the FA Cup semi-finals on a Sunday were scheduled
with an Open University programme between the two matches.
were some truly original programmes on Radio 5. Fantasy Football began
there, Room 101, 6-0-6.
only programmes attracting substantial audience were the sport ones.
start of SCUD FM, when sports producers helped, there had been another
debate, in addition to the News Service controversy, in the corridors
of BH about an alternative radio service Sports Plus.
that the new Radio 5 should not continue and should evolve into a sports
whilst rejecting this proposal, had agreed to try to sharpen the focus
of the new network by devoting two evenings a week for the sports fans
as well as the usual weekend sports programmes.
joined the BBC from Channel 4. She was new to Radio. She was prepared
to think the unthinkable. The BBC had a dilemma.
would not be appeased if Radio 4 Long Wave was turned over to News,
and the new Director-General, John Birt, would not be appeased if there
was not a continuous news service on Radio.
Governors needed a way out.
dancing on the head of a pin, solved its dilemma in two ways.
by suddenly discovering that, for many listeners to Radio 4, FM was
unsatisfactory, so losing Long Wave would, as Radio management had claimed
all along, damage the audience to Radio 4... and the fact that this
was only recognised now, was the fault of international engineers.
that the international FM standard was "laid down in the days when
it was envisaged that FM listeners would use rooftop aerials... takes
insufficient account of the modern day usage or quality of radios..."
words listening to Radio 4 on FM was patchy and as many as 1.5 million
listeners, who could only listen on Long Wave, would be disenfranchised!
and more far reaching conclusion was to suggest the BBC stop doing something
in order to do something else - the something else was a new proposition...
combining two of the BBC's greatest strengths - news and sport.
when Liz Forgan had the original idea. It was on a Friday in May 1993
and she came down from the fourth floor in Broadcasting House to the
third to have a private word with me.
were to axe Radio 5, did I think it possible to combine our News proposition
with the Sport on Radio 5, - could it work?
If I thought
it could, she would suggest it to the Board.
an answer on the Monday morning when the Board of Management were due
to meet to discuss the Long Wave News Service.
clear to me, working with the key elements over the weekend, that this
could be a very powerful proposition, indeed it had been one that many
in Radio News had dreamt of, but thought impossible to achieve.
the Monday I showed her a draft schedule for a radio station. "Yes,
it could work very well".
now up to Liz to convince the Board of Management that, although this
would not be the pure News service originally desired, it could be a
better proposition, with sport bringing a new audience to news and vice
recognised, for the first time, that if the BBC really wanted to reach
out to new audiences, then simulcasting programmes like Today would
not achieve that...
I could say that was it. But the BBC never took decisions so quickly.
the idea could be put to Governors another report was commissioned,
looking at all options, and it too saw the opportunity that creating
a new service gave the BBC.
a network with a clear identity and sense of purpose.
to serve the bulk of the Radio 5 audience - the sport audience.
the BBC the chance to attract a new younger audience to a key genre
a showcase to another key genre - Sport.
enable BBC Radio to grow.
course it saved Radio 4 Long Wave for its vociferous audience!
of Sport? As one battle drew to a close, another started up.
had been in the dark as all these discussions took place.
time they got wind of a plan to launch the news network in place on
the old Radio 5 (there was no mention of sport), rather than R4 Long
Wave, was when a story appeared on the front page of the Evening Standard
during the 1993 Wimbledon Championship.
Sport was horrified, but when the then Head of Sport, Mike Lewis, tried
to verify it, non-one would confirm or deny anything.
saw this as a full-scale attack on their territory and they had to defend
it all costs.
in touch with Labour's Shadow Sports Minister, Tom Pendry. One producer
talked to a close contact in the Lords to try to get questions asked.
put down an Early Day Motion in the Commons which had massive support.
with internal controversy, the BBC has not been adept at working with
its staff. Still no-one talked to Sport.
Mike Lewis was visited by Phil Harding, now Director of English Services
at the World Service, but then seconded to deliver the paper for the
Board of Management on the options for delivering a news service on
Radio and the feasibility of the News and Sport proposition.
about opening boxes, one of which said "why not a news and sport
Lewis was concerned that, from Sport's perspective, this could mean
News would walk all over them.
department went into battle in earnest, lobbying sports writers, many
of whom wrote really supportive pieces in the papers and lobbying Governors.
lobbying forced the Managing Director of Radio, Liz Forgan, to tell
her Head of Sport that, if he believed in his department and what it
did, he was free to lobby as hard as he could, as long as he did not
spend a penny of licence payers money! I can't see Greg Dyke being so
Department proved as adept at mounting rebellion within as the News
Department had over many years.
a press conference in Parliament, organised by Tom Pendry MP, with sporting
stars like Peter Scudamore, Terry Venables, Kris Akabussi and others.
an open honest revolt. If you walked down the corridor on the third
floor of Broadcasting House you would pass a notice board plastered
with cuttings from the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, all defending
BBC Radio Sport!
sport so opposed? What did they fear?
going with colleagues from News to talk to the department, and facing
real anger. We would destroy them, we had no understanding of Sport's
needs. We would ditch the Derby in favour of Prime Minister's Question
there was no trust between News and Sport at that time would be an understatement.
senior sports producer told me last week they had a "conviction
that news would steamroller sport out of the way, always taking precedence
whatever the story".
the news had filtered down, through rumour, had ensured that no one
saw the opportunity, the synergy that a news and sport network gave.
that News had grabbed territory when they realised that they would have
to give up their previous land grab - Radio 4 Long Wave.
Sport realised that this would not lead to contraction and enslavement,
but expansion and freedom.
really, given that Sport on Radio 5 was tightly constrained, had no
flexibility - it was about fitting together the pieces of a jigsaw that
didn't make a coherent picture.
remembers having to ask - and this really happened - whether they could
do a soccer special on Manchester United versus Liverpool in the FA
Cup, only to be answered "Oh no, we have an expensive Open University
production that night".
decisions on Radio 5 were often not made editorially.
the boxing commentator, found himself ending a sports report one night
and being required to introduce a children's programme and say "and
now Wiggly Worm, Will Wiggly escape from the hairy caterpillar?"
said, on leaving the studio, "This was madness".
were other battles being fought simultaneously. If Radio 5 was axed
what would happen to Children's radio?
a huge topic, which I will not go into today.
was not only Sport producers who were sceptical.
were very worried about the impact a 24-hour continuous service would
have on their ability to cover stories in depth.
Wheeler, the distinguished BBC journalist, expressed this fear for all
his colleagues, publicly, on a debate on Radio 4 in October 1993 on
the future of the BBC.
time to telephone
did it all resolve itself? How did the endless reports stop and decisions
Checkland, in that unexpected Radio Festival Speech in July 1992, had
committed the BBC to launching a 24-hour News service by April 1994.
desperate to show they could respond to genuine audience concern, were
inclined to deny that service the Radio 4 Long Wave frequency.
wanted to support the aspirations of their new Director-General John
Birt, and deliver something by the deadline.
joining the BBC without the baggage of the rows of previous years, had
found a radical solution.
in October 1993, six years after the Great Hurricane, the BBC Board
of Governors took the decision to axe Radio 5 and launch a news and
sports service on 909 and 693 MW.
Five Live launched on March 28 1994. Its first audiences were some four
million. It now has a record audience of over six and a quarter million.
I could say that after the decision wars ceased in Broadcasting House.
emerged - this time within the News Directorate between Radio 4 News
Programmes versus Five Live News Programmes - but I won't go into that.
Five Live did was find a new tone for Radio News programmes. It created
a powerful brand for radio sport.
a gap in the market - audiences who wanted both news and sport liked
its informal tone - it was engaging and accessible.
ensured quality, live capability became part of the fabric of Radio
- 'breaking news' was ingrained into all its coverage from the start.
that Sports priorities would be subordinate to News, did not materialise.
as Deputy Controller and Commissioner of Sport, established confidence
in Sport, and ensured a mode of operation was established so that, if
a news event occurred in sports programmes, they took the decision to
cover it, and if a Sports event occurred during a news programme, news
took the decision.
the two groups to understand each others' priorities and support each
all Sport had set the tone for the new network - the tone achieved by
presenters like John Inverdale on Sport On Five was the tone adopted
by News programmes.
the ability of Sport to respond to live events had been the inspiration
of many since Peter Jones, then on Radio 2 Medium Wave, had covered
the European Cup Final tragedy at Heysel Stadium in 1985.
Heysel... like a war
Five Live has enabled BBC Radio to respond to some remarkable and painful
events, without the acrimony and argument that had dominated the late
Eighties and early Nineties.
of the Labour Leader John Smith, the Dunblane shootings in its very
early days through to September 11th.
new stars - like John Inverdale, Nicky Campbell, Peter Allen, Jane Garvey,
Victoria Derbyshire, Fi Glover.
a new audience into news - a younger, less upmarket audience - that
is interested in both sport and news.
the audience to 'be there' for both news and sport like the Ryder Cup
Ryder Cup... we've done it
redefine the BBC's approach to News and Sport, influencing television
as much as radio.
does this say about the BBC?
ways this internal focus, this six year debate, put all other radio
development on hold.
of my colleagues from that time put it accurately. When looking back
"It's reinforced my regret that none of us in News or in Radio
were able to create an atmosphere in which it was possible to debate
the future of Radio sensibly".
1994, despite itself, the BBC got it right... but what if it hadn't?
the BBC had not axed Radio 5. What if Radio Five Live had never been
created? What would have happened to Radio in the BBC?
have happened to public service Radio as a concept?
have happened in Commercial Radio?
Here's one possible scenario.
5, with its hotchpotch mixture of genres, would have been a continuing
embarrassing failure, raising questions about the spend on sport, on
children's radio and the viability of education.
would be similar to Radio 3's, but without the cultural patronage. We
would be discussing its closure.
Sport would have had to suffer the humiliation its television partner
suffered in the Nineties - losing key sports rights to commercial competitors,
because Sport, sandwiched between Open University programmes and kids
radio on Radio 5, would not have been seen as the strategic priority
we recognise today.
to BBC News on the radio would have declined, even to Radio 4's fine
group of programmes, as the BBC failed to offer any form of continuous
news service and our competitors did.
radio would have had fun exploiting the BBC's troubles and used its
third national frequency to create a news and sports service, rather
than the shock jock TalkRadio of 1995.
Radio would have fulfilled the doom and gloom predictions of the Eighties,
of the Nineties.
would have fallen to 40%, as the continuous spotlight on the loss of
sports rights, Radio 1's loss of eight million listeners and the failures
of Radio 5 eroded its reputation and the perception grew of the BBC
on the defensive, unable to connect with audiences and not giving them
what they expected from their licence... sound familiar?
happened to Television.
avoided the nightmare. We exploited the opportunity.
have listened to Gillian Reynolds, writing in February 1991 while SCUD
FM was still on the air.
then "The answer is obvious... the bold plan would be to collapse
Radio 5, put its schools programmes onto a subscriber cassette service,
and bring news and sport together in a new service".
if only we all had listened to you! But then, as you said at the time:
"Anyone who proposes it... will risk the severe opportunity of
having his head blown off".
have saved ourselves so much trouble. But this tale would not be told
- we took the risk, it's been fun.