Looking back on 34 years at the BBC
Head of Sport, BBC English Regions
Charles Runcie looks back on his role at the BBC as Head of Sport for BBC English Regions, reflecting on how our sporting coverage across the UK has changed during his 34 years with the corporation.
Tuesday 30 November 1982, St Andrews Day. A letter bomb explodes inside 10 Downing Street, Michael Jackson releases “Thriller”, and Liverpool lead the First Division. Meanwhile at BBC Scotland’s HQ in Glasgow’s Queen Margaret Drive, I was nervously presenting myself at reception on the first day of my BBC career. I’d just accepted a job as Station Assistant at “BBC Radio Tweed”, a borders opt-out from Radio Scotland launching in April 1983 with two hours of news and information a day.
For some reason the BBC decided to hire me five months early and I was asked to shadow the radio sports department. Shadow? By Saturday I’d produced their Celtic-Rangers League Cup final coverage, and a feature on a man who made ships in bottles made from matchsticks. Looking back, that week sums up a lot that’s changed in sport, broadcasting and the BBC.
In those days, cup finals happened at 3pm on a Saturday and our BBC output was a happy mix of a number of sports in each programme. Nowadays, fans demand hours devoted to one single event without annoying distractions. When I moved to BBC Radio Sport in the late 80’s, only the second half of any football match was allowed. Midweek “Soccer Specials” on the then-medium wave Radio 2 frequency started at 8pm, 30 minutes after games had kicked off! Unthinkable now, as 5 Live’s coverage has grown to hour-long previews and after-match “socials”.
Live TV football in 1982 was restricted to just the FA Cup Final. No live football was shown in Scotland, as the Scottish FA said it affected attendances at junior games. And BBC TV’s sport was restricted to the venerable Sportsnight. Managing to cram in Milk Cup football, Ashes cricket from Australia, UK snooker championship and even figure skating from Solihull (sponsored by a pub chain, incidentally!) into less than two hours, each of those events would now sprawl over many hours on satellite sports channels.
The digital revolution
The digital revolution from the internet to the red button has accelerated this change. In 1982 we were dependent on a morass of lines, circuits, BT engineers, control rooms and regional switching centres. One wrong piece of jiggery-pluggery and your best laid OB plans would go astray. I remember a crackly circuit called a “4-wire” that carried many a European football match commentary. There were simply no proper lines unless you paid a fortune.
Nowadays, booking an ISDN or pointing a satellite in the right direction and you can broadcast anything from anywhere in the world, probably on a smartphone smaller than one of those jackfields of old. Back then we broadcast and edited on tape, using waxy “chinagraph” pencils and razor blades to cut and splice the tapes. Mind you, woe betide any producer who attempted to do their own editing. A stiff rebuke ensued from some severe nylon-shirted technician in an editing channel.
I’m proud how our regional sports coverage has expanded. In the 1980’s at Radio Scotland, we were restricted to second half football commentary plus - curiously - the last five minutes of the first half. Oh how we lived for those few extra minutes! Now BBC Local Radio has a massive commitment to sport, following their football, cricket and rugby teams with passion and professionalism.
Our online world has expanded hugely too. There’s commentary on many football and rugby union games online and, thanks to a partnership with BBC Sport and cricket’s governing body the ECB, we’re into a fourth season of commentary on every ball of every county cricket match. It’s popular enough in the UK, with well over a million daily unique browsers to our live radio and online page, but followed avidly too around the world by cricket fans who email and tweet from dozens of countries. It’s a service described in a magazine article as “unglamorous, odd, accented, addictive…imperfectly brilliant”.
Our television output has reflected the regions we live in as well. The Super League Show is essential viewing for rugby league fans each Monday, a slate of fine documentaries on everything from the financial plight of Portsmouth FC to the legendary Sir Stanley Matthews have been produced and, with BBC Sport now at Salford, it all feels very joined up.
One thing has not changed is the people I’ve worked with on sport at the BBC. They’re people with terrific talent who would shine in any era, from Peter Jones to Dan Walker, Bill McLaren to Eleanor Oldroyd. At Radio Scotland I listened to commentary on a cassette from someone who’d originally been in touch as a 17-year old Aberdeen schoolboy. A combination of luck and illness meant I decided to give him a chance on air, which he took with both hands. Derek Rae has since become an outstanding commentator, a Sony Radio award winner at 19, working at the BBC and in the USA, and now at BT Sport.
Attending a showjumping event abroad in 1996 I was rung by my boss, and asked to keep an eye on a rookie reporting from her first radio OB. She learned the ropes in no time, was more than ok, and I don’t think Clare Balding has done that badly since then.
In spite of the pressure the BBC has come under on rights over these 34 years, and I’ve heard reports of our demise more than once, we’ve remained a leading player in sports broadcasting. A peerless interactive offering, world beating on website and mobile, comprehensive national, regional and local sports news coverage adding to our TV and radio rights portfolio, I think the next 34 years will be a fascinating journey. I’ll be watching, listening and logging on, but sometimes wonder whatever did happen to that matchstick ship in a bottle?