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Jenny Abramsky

Director of Radio & Music

Sound Matters - Five Live - the War of Broadcasting House - a morality story

Thursday 31 January 2002
Printable version

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.


Lecture one

Lecture three

Lecture four

Please check against delivery

This is 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.

Where do I start?


John Birt came to the BBC, as Deputy Director General, in 1987.


He created 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.


On 16 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.


It was the worst storm to hit southern and eastern England for more than 250 years.


Sixteen counties were affected. Thousands of roads were blocked. Power lines were down, millions of people were affected.


How did the BBC respond? Well it hadn’t covered itself in glory, the night before.


CLIP: Michael Fish "Earlier on today... and across on to France"


The weather forecaster, Michael Fish, famously getting it wrong.


So what did radio do?


As our 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.


Then, after the Nine o’clock news, Radio 4 continued with its normal programming.

John Birt, 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, resided.

"Why", he wanted to know, "were we not doing more?"

"Why, when such an event had impacted on our listeners, were we not providing them with a continuing, comprehensive coverage?"

It proved 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.

Radio 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.

Such a reaction may seem strange now but it was quite understandable then.

In 1987 CNN was only six years old and few people in the UK had ever seen it. Sky News had not yet started.

The management of Radio had a deep understanding of their audiences and understood that change bothered them, particularly rapid change.

But within BBC News there was a sense we could have done much more, and served the audience better.

Radio is a wonderful medium for keeping people in touch, and for enabling communities under stress to share experiences and support each other.

Local Radio 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.

But the apparent inadequacy of the response nationally infected thinking in News from then on, particularly as momentous events unfolded across Europe.

The Soviet Block was crumbling. Revolution was in the air.

Radio, as I said in my first lecture, had established its place as a journal of record from its earliest days.

But now, 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.

News wanted 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 liability.

1989 - June, China erupted, and for seven weeks students occupied Tiannanmen Square.

Later that year revolution swept across Eastern Europe - first Czechoslovakia. Then the unthinkable - the Berlin Wall came down.

CLIP: Leach... rise and rise

Onwards the fever swept until on Christmas Day it reached Romania and the Ceausescus were thrown from power and executed.

CLIP: Mark Brayne... been executed

In the Autumn of 1989 the foreign reporting on BBC Radio was brilliant.

And day after day programmes like Today, World At One and The World Tonight offered detailed reportage, analysis, and considered explanation.

But what radio did not offer was continuous coverage.

Radio 4 mounted special programmes but they only reached listeners after internal debate and argument.

There was a radical difference of opinion within the BBC about what audiences would want and what they would consume.

1989 saw the start of Sky News on satellite television.

Events around the world repeatedly brought this profound difference of view as to the role of radio and, in particular, Radio 4 under the spotlight.

Even when momentous events occurred back home, the response was the same.

CLIP: Thatcher Resignation... BBC Radio News

The network did not mount a special programme until 11 O'clock that morning.

And then, on January 17th 1991, just after midnight the Allies started bombing Iraq.

There was just a small news team in the building and the overnight Today production team.

The poor 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. Why?

Well, 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.

But we 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.

But we did have foreign correspondents in Saudi Arabia, in Jordan, in Israel, in Egypt, in the Soviet Union, in the United States.

We also had John Simpson and Bob Simpson in Baghdad.

So that put upon news editor... now Head of Radio News, stayed on the air for over four hours!

In that 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 military action.

CLIP: SIMPSON in Baghdad... following a street map

The country's forces were at war for the first time in ten years, as part of a large allied army.

News people 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 4.

The momentous events of the previous two years had shown, from the point of view of News, both the strength and weaknesses of a built schedule.

News Editors, 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.

And if 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.

It all appears to make absolute sense now, but it was not so simple.

The senior managers in Radio also knew that, for much of its audience, delivering the published schedule was paramount, to change it was tantamount to treason.

They had an audience that wanted considered programmes and hated speculation.

Their audience valued many of the programmes that would inevitably be replaced, they wanted a rich variety not a focused Radio 4.

These 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.

The first 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.

The Turks were most inconsiderate and invaded in the small hours of Saturday morning.

Friday's 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.

During 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.

A key 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.

And as 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.

Radio 4, in 1991, as today, had two frequencies - Long Wave and FM. In 1991 Long Wave was seen as its primary frequency.

So when 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 of views.

They agreed and Radio 4 Gulf FM, affectionately known to its team as SCUD FM, was born.

Gulf FM broadcast 17 hours a day from January 17th until 2nd March 1991.

It was 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.

Even the 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 days off.

From the 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.

It took you to Moscow, to Amman if the story demanded and it took you to the House of Commons when debates and statements mattered.

Above all 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.

Letters began to pour into Broadcasting House saying the new service was a lifeline for many listeners.

But the 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.

This discord was being repeated within the BBC itself.

Radio Management, having at first agreed to allow the service to start, asked that it be taken off after a week.

They feared permanent damage to Radio 4, but, in reality, their greatest fear was that, once established, the service would never come off. They had reason to fear.

The battle 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, Michael Checkland.

To Radio's 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.

During 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.

CLIP: Downing Street bomb... as soon as we hear more

Within minutes the new service responded to events as they unfolded.

CLIP: first report from the scene... out of it

To all intents and purposes the BBC had created a continuous news service, by stealth.

Of course we couldn't have done that now. We would need DCMS permission and the war would be over before they decided.

But audiences 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.

You would have thought the BBC was cheering... it had got it right.

But as one distinguished critic perceptively wrote at the time:

"Radio 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 problem?...

"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 it."

This critic, Gillian Reynolds of the Daily Telegraph, went on to ask:

"Now that the BBC has created, instantly and effectively, an all-news network would it not be a tremendous waste to un-invent it?"

But the territorial hostilities between the third and fourth floors of Broadcasting House ensured that that is what happened.

SCUD FM ceased broadcasting within 24 hours of hostilities ending in Iraq. But the hostilities did not end in West One.

A News Network was now the key objective of News Division and its champion John Birt.

The Stopping of a News Network was the key objective of the Radio Division led by its Managing Director David Hatch.

How did the BBC conduct this conflict?

As it always does, by commissioning reports, studies, research.

I have 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.

First up, there was the November 1991 Task Force - The Information Provider. Led by the present Controller of the BBC in Scotland, John McCormick.

He reminded 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. It was a distinguished group.

They recommended that the BBC establish a 24-hour radio news network, using Radio 4's LW frequency, by the end of 1992.

Their 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 not affected.

But Radio 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.

Rather than gaining audiences, the splitting of frequencies in this way would lose audiences for the BBC. It should not be attempted.

They were 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".

It was clear this war was going nowhere - trenches had been dug and forces were well and truly dug in.

A month later yet another report, to the Board of Management of the BBC, recommended again that the BBC launched a Radio News network.

This report, compiled using work from McKinsey's, stated that "the existing radio news service would be insufficient to meet listeners' expectations and increasing competition".

All these 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.

In 1992 the big guns were now aimed right at the heart of Radio and then, in July, the bombshell struck.

The Director-General, 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 April 1994.

CLIP: Checkland... television and radio

So that 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?

After the Gulf War, Radio had continued its policy of providing only news flashes when events occurred, and mounting special programming some time later.

So the destructive battle between two baronies in the BBC continued and I believe radio listeners were the poorer.

Let's look at some coverage.

Let's 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.

There was similar coverage of the bomb a month later at London Bridge station.

A month after that the Warrington Bomb went off, on Saturday March 20th. It happened around 12.15pm.

The first 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.

This pattern was repeated as the IRA continued their bloody campaign on the mainland.

But the competition was different now. Sky News was broadcasting as soon as news broke, so was the commercial radio station in London, LBC Newstalk.

For an 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.

During 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.

But they made one condition. The service must/could only cover the election.

Any other 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 SCUD.

Matters reached a level of absurdity on Black Wednesday, in September that year.

That was the day when the Government's economic policy was destroyed by the markets and sterling forced to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Many would say it was the day the Conservatives lost the next election.

So, as chaos and panic spread across the city and the world's markets, what did Radio do?

Its coverage was, as one report said - "sporadic and tardy".

As the 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.

But it 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.

Just after 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.

And then, at 1215, the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, spoke on the Treasury steps... his emollient words had no effect. At 1300 sterling fell below the ERM floor.

What had 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%.

You had to wait until One O'clock and the World At One to hear the Chancellor.

What happened 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 crisis meeting.

The next 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.

Meanwhile 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.

PM and the Six O'clock News, on air from 1700-1830, were terrific programmes, but the story was far from over.

By 1840 the EC meeting was cancelled and an hour later Lamont announced that the pound was suspended from the ERM.

At 1945 he appeared outside the Treasury, at 2028 Downing Street announced the recall of Parliament.

Radio 4 ran two news flashes at 1945 to say Britain had left the ERM and at 2045 to report the recalling of Parliament.

You had to wait until 10 O'clock to hear the Chancellor.

CLIP: 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?

But, BBC stories are rarely simple. Radio Management had equally powerful arguments and examples on their side.

After the 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 before.

Radio, 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.

The Campaign to Save Radio 4 Long Wave was started, in newspapers and on Radio 4's own network, on its programme Feedback.

There were public meetings from Glasgow to Paris. Yes, Paris.

I addressed a meeting in Paris where over 500 people had come from all over Europe with one aim - to lynch me!

There was even a march down Portland Place to Broadcasting House.

When I 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.

It would 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.

One paper 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.

So, in 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.

It took 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.

What did she do?

She looked at a sacred cow and decided to sacrifice it. In doing so, she enabled an entirely different proposition to emerge.

Radio had launched its first new network for 23 years in August 1990, when it created a service called Radio 5.

It was created to enable Radios 2, 3 and 4 to focus better on their audiences, but it was also created as a defensive measure.

The 1990 Broadcasting Act had required BBC Radio to surrender some frequencies to enable National Commercial Radio to launch.

How did the BBC do that and continue to deliver all the same services to its listeners?

Price Waterhouse, in a Value For Money Review, recommended that the licence payer should not receive less Radio whilst continuing to pay the same money.

So the new service was put together using four components.

Firstly, the sports output from Radio 2 Medium Wave.

Then, all the Schools and Continuing Education programmes from Radio 4 FM.

They then added, to this delicious mix, the Open University programmes from Radios 3 and 4 FM and finally programmes for children and young people from Radio 4.

They also agreed that Radio 5 should carry some World Service output.

The rest 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.

Radio 5 would use the BBC's last national Medium Wave frequency and the rest would be surrendered to Commercial Radio.

This was a network with no audience focus, born out of expediency.

By 1993, it had not attracted a very large audience, except the loyal audience of its sports programmes.

But Sport was hampered. For example the FA Cup semi-finals on a Sunday were scheduled with an Open University programme between the two matches.

There were some truly original programmes on Radio 5. Fantasy Football began there, Room 101, 6-0-6.

But the only programmes attracting substantial audience were the sport ones.

From the 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.

Some argued that the new Radio 5 should not continue and should evolve into a sports service.

Radio, 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.

Liz Forgan joined the BBC from Channel 4. She was new to Radio. She was prepared to think the unthinkable. The BBC had a dilemma.

The audience 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.

And the Governors needed a way out.

The BBC, dancing on the head of a pin, solved its dilemma in two ways.

Firstly, 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.

The fact 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..."

In other 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!

The second 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.

I remember 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.

If she 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.

She wanted an answer on the Monday morning when the Board of Management were due to meet to discuss the Long Wave News Service.

It was 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.

So, on the Monday I showed her a draft schedule for a radio station. "Yes, it could work very well".

It was 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 versa.

This proposition 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 wish I could say that was it. But the BBC never took decisions so quickly.

Before 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.

It created a network with a clear identity and sense of purpose.

It continued to serve the bulk of the Radio 5 audience - the sport audience.

It gave the BBC the chance to attract a new younger audience to a key genre - news.

It offered a showcase to another key genre - Sport.

It could enable BBC Radio to grow.

And of course it saved Radio 4 Long Wave for its vociferous audience!

But what of Sport? As one battle drew to a close, another started up.

Sport had been in the dark as all these discussions took place.

The first 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.

Radio Sport was horrified, but when the then Head of Sport, Mike Lewis, tried to verify it, non-one would confirm or deny anything.

Sport saw this as a full-scale attack on their territory and they had to defend it all costs.

They got 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.

Tom Pendry put down an Early Day Motion in the Commons which had massive support.

When faced with internal controversy, the BBC has not been adept at working with its staff. Still no-one talked to Sport.

Finally 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.

Phil talked about opening boxes, one of which said "why not a news and sport network".

But Mike Lewis was concerned that, from Sport's perspective, this could mean News would walk all over them.

So the department went into battle in earnest, lobbying sports writers, many of whom wrote really supportive pieces in the papers and lobbying Governors.

This overt 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 liberally indulgent!

The Sport Department proved as adept at mounting rebellion within as the News Department had over many years.

They held a press conference in Parliament, organised by Tom Pendry MP, with sporting stars like Peter Scudamore, Terry Venables, Kris Akabussi and others.

This was 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!

Why was sport so opposed? What did they fear?

I remember 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 Time!

To say there was no trust between News and Sport at that time would be an understatement.

As one 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 way the news had filtered down, through rumour, had ensured that no one saw the opportunity, the synergy that a news and sport network gave.

It appeared that News had grabbed territory when they realised that they would have to give up their previous land grab - Radio 4 Long Wave.

Few in Sport realised that this would not lead to contraction and enslavement, but expansion and freedom.

It's surprising 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.

One producer 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".

Scheduling decisions on Radio 5 were often not made editorially.

John Rawling, 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?"

As he said, on leaving the studio, "This was madness".

There were other battles being fought simultaneously. If Radio 5 was axed what would happen to Children's radio?

That's a huge topic, which I will not go into today.

And it was not only Sport producers who were sceptical.

News Correspondents were very worried about the impact a 24-hour continuous service would have on their ability to cover stories in depth.

Charles 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.

CLIP: Wheeler... time to telephone

So how did it all resolve itself? How did the endless reports stop and decisions get taken?

Sir Michael Checkland, in that unexpected Radio Festival Speech in July 1992, had committed the BBC to launching a 24-hour News service by April 1994.

The Governors, desperate to show they could respond to genuine audience concern, were inclined to deny that service the Radio 4 Long Wave frequency.

But they wanted to support the aspirations of their new Director-General John Birt, and deliver something by the deadline.

Liz Forgan, joining the BBC without the baggage of the rows of previous years, had found a radical solution.

So, finally, 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.

Radio 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 wish I could say that after the decision wars ceased in Broadcasting House.

New ones emerged - this time within the News Directorate between Radio 4 News Programmes versus Five Live News Programmes - but I won't go into that.

What Radio Five Live did was find a new tone for Radio News programmes. It created a powerful brand for radio sport.

It found a gap in the market - audiences who wanted both news and sport liked its informal tone - it was engaging and accessible.

Five Live ensured quality, live capability became part of the fabric of Radio - 'breaking news' was ingrained into all its coverage from the start.

The fears, that Sports priorities would be subordinate to News, did not materialise.

Mike Lewis, 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.

It forced the two groups to understand each others' priorities and support each other.

After 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.

Indeed, 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.

CLIP: Heysel... like a war

Radio 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.

The death of the Labour Leader John Smith, the Dunblane shootings in its very early days through to September 11th.

CLIP: Montage

It's made new stars - like John Inverdale, Nicky Campbell, Peter Allen, Jane Garvey, Victoria Derbyshire, Fi Glover.

It's brought a new audience into news - a younger, less upmarket audience - that is interested in both sport and news.

It's enabled the audience to 'be there' for both news and sport like the Ryder Cup in 1997.

CLIP: Ryder Cup... we've done it

It's helped redefine the BBC's approach to News and Sport, influencing television as much as radio.

So what does this say about the BBC?

In many ways this internal focus, this six year debate, put all other radio development on hold.

As one 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".

So in 1994, despite itself, the BBC got it right... but what if it hadn't?

What if 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?

What would have happened to public service Radio as a concept?

What would have happened in Commercial Radio?

Imagine. Here's one possible scenario.

Radio 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.

Its share would be similar to Radio 3's, but without the cultural patronage. We would be discussing its closure.

BBC Radio 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.

Listening 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.

Commercial 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.

So BBC Radio would have fulfilled the doom and gloom predictions of the Eighties, of the Nineties.

Its share 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?

It certainly happened to Television.

So we avoided the nightmare. We exploited the opportunity.

We should have listened to Gillian Reynolds, writing in February 1991 while SCUD FM was still on the air.

She said 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".

Oh Gillian, 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".

We could have saved ourselves so much trouble. But this tale would not be told - we took the risk, it's been fun.


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