Written by Media, Radio, Sport

Five Live

On Monday there was a Radio Academy event in London with Matt Wells asking the questions of BBC Radio Five Live’s controller, Adrian van Klaveren.

The obvious area for questioning surrounded Five Live’s forthcoming move to a new facility in Salford.

As someone who listens to an awful lot of Five Live, I’m still unconvinced, although van Klaveren put up some persuasive arguments. BBC Radio probably is too metropolitan in its outlook, with some programmes coming from outside London based on all sorts of mistaken logic.

But I wonder if it wouldn’t have been smarter to move a station like Radio 2 up there? When all is said and done – and this was a theme at the interview event – it’s clear that Five Live is going to have to do an awful lot of “Down the Line” interviews.

While technically these will be fine, as anyone who’s ever heard a Radio 4 Today interview with someone sitting in the radio car in a remote place knows, it’s never the same as having the interviewee facing you in the same room. As things stand currently, Five Live often shares major interviewees with Radio 4 – especially politicians.[UPDATE: It’s probably worth noting that sometimes politicians are in other London studios – White City, Broadcasting House or Millbank and are doing “Down the Lines” – but the argument still holds]

Van Klaveren was at pains to point out that politicians do venture north and that they’ll be able to interview people up there. But if a major event is taking place in parliament, then it’s London where the people concerned will be found.

Partially as a result of all this, Five Live is about to see a significant scheduling shakeup as Simon Mayo heads off to Radio Two (and there’s no doubt that his loss will be felt), to be replaced by Richard Bacon, who’s late night programme will itself be replaced by Tony Livesey.

Gabby Logan also finds a place on the schedule in a lunchtime slot that means that Victoria Derbyshire’s programme loses an hour. That in itself probably isn’t a major issue, as I personally find the full-blooded phone-ins the worst aspects of Five Live. Although I’ve yet to be fully convinced by Logan listening to her Sunday programme.

And the recent “Rules of Chat” TV ad for Five Live does concern me. Previously the station has been about news and sport. Yes, it handles lighter stories, including entertainment news, but it was primarily news and sport. “Chat” seems to have sneaked in of late.

Logan remains an uncertain choice in my view, and the cynic in me wonders if, like the recent return of Anne Robinson to Watchdog, it’s not more about getting fuller value from an expensively contracted presenter – her TV commitments having dwindled a little with the decline in quantity of live football on the BBC.

Richard Bacon is less of an issue to me, and I well remember the howls of protest that met with Simon Mayo’s arrival at Five Live. They proved to be completely unfounded. But as Wells indicated, he will need to “step up” his game when he makes the move in January.

I was interested in Stephen Nolan’s situation. By far the worst programme on the station, with its pointless “White v Black” arguments which tend to go along the lines of this:

Caller A: “White is definitely better than black. It’s so much whiter!”

Nolan: “How can you say that when black is so dark? That makes no sense at all!”

Caller B: “No. Black is definitely better than white. The darkness of it wins everytime.”

Nolan: “I can’t believe you said that. White is surely the most light of the two and clearly better.”

Repeat – ad nauseum.

Specious though those arguments are, they’re nothing to the waste of flying Nolan across the Irish Sea to Manchester each week where his show is made and broadcast from. Nolan is a broadcaster on BBC Radio Ulster each weekday morning, and so on Friday he hops on plane to Manchester to make his weekend shows.

Having heard that “Down the Line” interviews needn’t be so bad, Five Live still feels the need to make his show out of Manchester rather than Belfast even though it’s technically perfectly straightforward for a predominantly phone-in show to come from pretty much anywhere. Yes – his production team are in Manchester, but there can’t be that many of them, and it just seems a waste.

Van Klaveren was adamant that presenters would not be trained or flown up to Manchester and put up in hotels. If they retained homes in the South East, that was their lookout.

Interestingly, this question cropped up again in a Q&A session with him on one of the BBC’s blog pages later in the week. And once again van Klaveren stoutly defended it.

An issue that I did ask him about in the open Q&A at the Radio Academy event was the scarcity of sporting journalism on the station. I still fondly remember On The Line, which started out on Five as weekly investigative standalone programme, before making a transfer to BBC Two. Unfortunately, once it was ditched by TV it never did really return, and yet it’s just about the only serious sports news outlet. Much of the rest of the coverage surrounding sport is based on panel discussions – usually with ex-pros. Per se, there’s nothing wrong with these, and they make entertaining listening. But taking a hard look at sporting issues and the sometimes touchy politics behind it, is something that only the BBC can really do, and there’s a scarcity of that.

The only other true coverage of these kinds of issues is to be found in an occasional Panorama from the likes of Andrew Jennings who specialises in investigating bodies like the IOC and FIFA.

Even if commercial broadcasters actually wanted to seriously address some of these issues, they’d be more concerned about damaging critically important commercial relationships – it simply wouldn’t happen.

I’ve said before that running a major global sport is the closest you can legitimately get to being an internationally recognised dictator these days – particularly in the West. Look at the people in charge of the Olympics, football (UEFA and FIFA) and Formula One. People treat them literally like visiting heads of state such is their power and influence, however “democratic” or not their sporting bodies are. Jack Warner of Trinidadian football association is the foremost of these wretched characters.

That’s why we need a BBC who’ll take on these bodies and not run scared. The Kennel Club is a relevant case in point, as has been coverage of greyhound racing.

Van Klaveren said that in fact this kind of coverage does exist but that perhaps it’s not signposted clearly enough. Where once a programme like On The Line (which successfully spun off at least two excellent companion books by the way) would exist in its own right, today’s Five Live tends towards broader programmes that are less distinguishable in the schedule.

It would be good if Five Live was able to gather together some of this journalism and house it – perhaps on the web – under a specific label.

[UPDATE: The full audio of the Radio Academy event is available either on their website, the Five Live blog, and here!]