Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Not So Famous Five

It was described as a "hotch-potch", a "rag-bag" and even a "junk-heap" before it even went on air. It was Radio 5, the BBC's "education and sport channel" that launched twenty-five years ago today.

Radio 5's life was brief, just under four years on air, and short of a handful of programmes that transferred to its successor station Radio 5 Live or to the telly, it remains BBC radio's forgotten network. In this post I hope to revive a few memories.

The new station was born out of necessity rather than satisfy some long-term BBC creative policy. Having been forced to drop the simulcasting on FM and AM for Radios 1, 2 and 3 it was a case of using or losing the old Radio 2 frequencies of 909 and 693 kHz. (1) So in 1988  plans were made to launch a fifth radio network, the first since Radio 1 in 1967, as a sort of "leisure channel" bringing together sports coverage (from Radio 2), continuing education, schools and Open University programmes (from Radios 3 & 4) and, it was later decided, some new children's and youth programming. It was also to be the new home of Test Match Special, though in the event it stayed on Radio 3 for a while longer. Any gaps in the schedule would be filled with World Service programmes such as Outlook and Meridian.

The controller of Radio 5 was to be Patricia Ewing, (pictured above) who'd been Head of Radio Sport since 1984, and the launch was given as some time in 1990.  On the day the station went live The Guardian (2)  published Pat Ewing's Diary of a radio launch. Here are some extracts:

August 1989: A year to launch, although I don't know that at the time as the start date of Radio 5 is to be determined by the dates that the Government decides BBC radio should relinquish two wavelengths and stop simulcasting.
As I have just left the sports department, I have spent much of my time in the past five months visiting schools and colleges around the country - from Falmouth to Glasgow, from rural to inner city. The main objective has been to find out how schools and colleges use BBC radio's educational output but I find it has begun to formulate many of my ideas for Radio 5. Teachers tell me how difficult it is to teach children to listen in the television era and yet primary school libraries are stocked with cassettes of stories. Young people tell me that they want programmes which give them a voice and reflect the whole of the UK.  
November 1989: The building of Radio 5's operational suite is about to begin. This suite is to consist of two studios, a workshop and a phone-in area - our research showed young people wanted phone-ins on a national basis. To run it, we are planning to introduce a new category of staff - programme managers who will provide technical and operational support but will also work more closely with the production teams and take on certain production responsibilities. The Educational Broadcasting Council has expressed concern about schools radio transferring from FM to medium wave. So audience research has sent questionnaires to every school in the country in order to identify the number of schools that have only FM receivers and BBC engineers have developed a small convertor that enables medium wave to be received on the FM receivers. Gaynor Shutte joins as Editor, Radio 5.
April 1990: The north region has offered to provide a daily programme on Mondays to Fridays from 4.35 p.m. to 7.20 p.m. and all the regions have agreed to combine forces to provide a youth programme from a different region each night.
Andrew Parfitt joins as assistant editor. His main role is to produce our breakfast programme - a speech-based information programme - but in between time, he will also be helping to look after idents, trails and the running of the operational suite.
August 1990: We have completed a week of dummy Radio 5 programmes except for sport, who are still broadcasting for real on Radio 2 MW.
The press have questioned and queried the wisdom of Radio 5 - they don't like the mixture of output but they want us to keep everything that already exists. The young and young at heart appear to approve our aims and ambitions but others are very sceptical. Why should the BBC try to provide speech programmes for a younger audience, they ask?
The answer is that no one else is giving younger listeners the same choice as adults during the evening. By using radio strengths with plays, stories and feature programmes with a mixture of music, we will introduce a new generation to speech radio.

In May 1990 Pat Ewing spoke to Paul Donovan of The Sunday Times (3) about the launch schedule: "I interviewed her in the grey and burgundy office she has inherited from the controller or Radio 3 (good omens here for the continuance of cricket) and which she has decorated with framed dust jackets of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, framed photos of the drink Five Alive and a framed movie poster of The Five Pennies, just to concentrate the mind".

Donovan discovered that schools programming on BBC radio was being halved, from 466 to 224 hours a year. At the same time programmes for children and youngsters was being boosted to four hours a day, way more than existed at the time on Radio 4 with less than an hour a week for Listening Corner and Cat's Whiskers.  "A substantial number of schools are simply not taking the BBC's programmes any more", said Ewing because "many teachers regard them  as a passive way of learning".

With Radio 5 launching on Monday 27 August 1990, a Bank Holiday in the UK, the  first day's schedule was not typical of the normal weekday line-up, uncluttered by schools programmes and any sports coverage. Here's how the first full week panned out, as reprinted in The Independent (4).

On a weekday out of 18 hours broadcasting about 4.5 hours came from other stations: the World Service (though by the summer of 1992 this simulcasting was reduced to just 30 minutes per day), Radio 3's Lunchtime Concert and Radio 4's soap Citizens.

If you'd have been listening in the early hours of the 27th you'll have heard this tape loop of Radio 5's programme trailers all linked by Jon Briggs.

The first billed show at 9.00 am was aimed at young listeners, Take Five. This pre-recorded edition was presented by Bruno Brookes but the usual hosts were Tommy Boyd, Ross King and Andy Crane, with Michaela Strachan joining in 1992. But sneaking in beforehand, interrupting announcer Peter Donaldson, were that delightful comedy duo Trevor and Simon, popping over from BBC1's Going Live.

The first voice heard on air at 9.00 am - "Hallo, good morning, welcome to Radio 5" - was that of five-year-old Andrew Kelly, from Blackpool. Listen out too for a DJ audition tape sent in by a twelve-year old Matthew Wrighton - is this the same Mat Wrighton that would work for Kix96 and Vibe FM?

One of the big name signings for the station came on at 11.00 am when Johnnie Walker presented the mid-morning magazine show This Family Business, which became The AM Alternative from January 1992. At the time Johnnie was working for GLR and had been persuaded to join Radio 5 by producer Jude Howells. GLR manager Matthew Bannister was keen not to lose one of his star DJs so he agreed to let Johnnie present an evening music show five nights a week with complete musical freedom to play whatever he wanted.  Johnnie recalled that his Radio 5 programme "took a little while to bed itself in, partly because separate teams produced each programme, making continuity across the week difficult, but I enjoyed this new style of presentation and, within a few months, I was offered all five shows." (5)

The station's drivetime show was titled Five Aside with the "slightly tarnished old presenter" Martin Kelner. Listen out for the Mark Curry, one of two former Blue Peter presenters to feature on day one.

For much of Five Aside's run - it ended in October 1993 to be replaced by John Inverdale's Drive-In -the presenters were Julian Worricker and Sue McGarry. This clip comes from 31 December 1991. 

The evening shows, very much the youth-orientated end of the day, went under the umbrella title Vox Pops. At 8.25 pm was Euro-Mix in which Caron Keating looked at life and music across Europe. Euro-Mix was one of a handful of shows that lasted the distance on the station, through until March 1994, for most of its run with Robert Elms. (6)

The final show each day (apart from Saturday), before handing over to the World Service, was produced by one of the BBC regions. On Monday it was the turn of the South and West with The Mix presented by comedian Mark Thomas. The Mix ran until March 1993 and for most of that time was presented by Richard Coles. (7) 

It was Wednesday 29 August when I made this recording that provides a more typical line-up. In this sequence you'll hear the station start-up for the day with the somewhat dreary music and a pre-recorded announcement - does anyone recognise the voice? Apparently there were about 40 different musical logos for use during the day. Initially its World Service news and then 24 Hours before the start of Radio 5's breakfast show, Morning Edition, with Sarah Ward and Jon Briggs. The pace is seemingly designed to send you back to sleep rather than wake you up! Jon told me that "we changed a lot of things, including the extremely slow music within a matter of months." The show's producer was Andy Parfitt who promised "something different from the competition. It will be talk-based, like Today, but in between the news bulletins and time-checks it will have a more relaxed approach - longer features rather than snappy news". (8) Sarah and Jon presented Morning Edition until February 1992 when Danny Baker arrived (more of which anon).   

You'll notice the very detailed travel and weather update from Tony Barnfield at the BBC Travel Centre. Popping over from Radio 1 for the newspaper review is Simon Bates. There's also an edition of Poddington Peas. Morning Edition really was a bizarre mix.
Part of the kids radio zone in 1,2,3,4,5 included a story from Wiggly Park "a little urban-sited eco-system" read by Andrew Sachs. Here's an example that I think comes from 1994.

Poor old Radio 5, its days were numbered before it had hardly got going. And the Gulf War was to blame, or in fact BBC radio's coverage of it for six weeks in early 1991 on Radio 4 News FM, nick-named 'Scud FM' and known to some BBC producers and reporters as 'Rolling Bollocks'. "Its shown us there's an audience out there that likes to switch on the news when it wants, even if it listens only for a short time," said Jenny Abramksy, the then editor of news and current affairs. "If we were to set up an all-news station, we'd learn lots from what we've done." (9)

In April 1992 the press were already claiming "BBC plan to close 'unloved' Radio 5".  A BBC internal report (10) claimed that although the station cost £25m a year to run only 1 in 20 listened to it.  It went on to say that the network suffered from poor reception - hardly the fault of the programme planners - was insufficiently funded to offer programmes of a high standard and had a "confused identity". There was talk of replacing it with a new sports service whilst a 24-hour news service could be carried on Radio 4 long-wave. (11) Jocelyn Hay, chairman of the pressure group Voice of the Listener and Viewer denounced the plans: "Whether Radio 5 has got it right I don't know but I do know that I am meeting an increasing number of people who appreciate it. The sport in particular is something that is valued. If the governors decide at this stage that they're going to drop any of the radio services before there is a full public debate, then that will not be in the public interest".

The station did enjoy some successes. In October 1991 the post-match phone-in Six-O-Six (12) became an instant hit. In 1992 there were three series that all eventually transferred to BBC TV: sports quiz They Think It's All Over chaired by Des Lynam, Room 101 with Nick Hancock (via Radio 1) and Fantasy Football League with Ross King.

Radio 5 also got a real shot in the arm from February 1992 with the arrival of Danny Baker on Morning Edition. Danny had been with the station from the start, first on the Saturday lunchtime phone-in sports quiz Sportscall and then the aforementioned Six-O-Six. On Morning Edition he soon developed a great rapport with his on-air sidekick Danny Kelly and the topics for conversation ranged from the obscure and exotic to the everyday interspersed with music selection that went from the popular to the arcane. By the time I made this recording on 22 October 1993 the writing was on the wall for Radio 5 and Baker had a bit of a rant about the direction the station was going in. A week later he was to start on Radio 1 replacing DLT after that famous resignation.

In April 1992 Danny and his team spoke to the Daily Telegraph's radio critic Gillian Reynolds. Producer Andy Parfitt was effusive claiming Baker was "one of the warmest, most exciting, interesting presenters you could work with. Every morning is an adventure". Reynolds wrote that when Baker initially took over Morning Edition "the BBC's original idea was for him to react to the news of the day. He said no. It wouldn't be right, appropriate. He asked for a free hand, got it, used it to do a programme which is a dialogue between him, the other people in the studio and whoever comes on the phone line. There's a bit of music. There are lots of competitions. It is nowhere near as anarchic as it sounds, being the product of much solid work, preparation and co-operation It is as simple as only a real professional can make it". (13)

From 30 June 1992 this is Johnnie Walker with The AM Alternative. Note the use of the more brassy up-tempo imaging. 

On 11 October 1993 the BBC's Governors formally accepted the decision to replace Radio 5 with a 24-hour rolling news and sports service, to be called Radio 5 Live. This meant there was yet another shuffle of the deck with regard to the schools and education programmes which went back to Radios 3 and 4. Sports coverage was one of Radio 5's successes, having had the space in the schedule to expand on the coverage inherited from Radio 2. By 1993 the network had about 2,000 hours of sports broadcasting over the year, its importance to the BBC having increased, for football certainly, due to the loss of rights for BBC TV, e.g. the newly formed Premiership TV coverage going to BSkyB. The biggest loser were those programmes aimed at the younger end of the audience, only 75 hours out of a total of 1,800 hours would survive over on Radio 4. It was the same old argument as when the Beeb controversially dropped Children's Hour in the early 60s. Liz Forgan, managing director of BBC Radio said "The children's programmes are very good quality, but the question has to be asked: if the children are not listening , are we providing the right programmes for them?" (14) 

So when I made this next batch of recordings in March 1994 there was definitely an end of term feeling about the programmes, tinged with a little sadness that all the music and magazine shows were for the chop.

One programme that did transfer to Radio 5 Live was Fantasy Football League. By the time of this broadcast on 14 March 1994 the presenter was Dominik Diamond, accompanied by the man who seemed to appear in every other Radio 5 show, Danny Kelly.

For most of its run Hit the North had been presented by Mark Radcliffe but by October 1993 he'd moved across to Radio 1 to begin the late-night show with 'The Boy Lard'. For this edition on 16 March 1994 the presenter was Rhys Hughes.

As well as presenting The Crunch Liz Kershaw also
hosted Vibe! (Radio Times 28 May 1992)
Radio 5 shut up shop on the evening of Sunday 27 March 1994 but on the last weekday of broadcasting you'd have heard Morning Edition, now hosted by Michelle Stephens, an hour-an-a-half of schools programmes, The AM Alternative, a repeat of Room 101 and then the final edition of the lunchtime phone-in The Crunch. Former Radio 1 DJ Liz Kershaw had only launched The Crunch in November 1993 and she would move to Radio 5 Live co-presenting a Saturday morning show with the late Mark Whittaker.

In September 1991 Radio 5 had started a link-up the British Forces Broadcasting Service, under the title BFBS Worldwide for their BFBS Squad show, the first such regular link-up since the days of Family Favourites. (15) The first presenter was Simon Guettier, followed by  Francis Collings and then lastly Patrick Eade.

Between 4.00 and 6.30 pm it was the final John Inverdale's Drive-In. John, of course, was very much part of the network's sports coverage having presented the last ever Sport on 2, the first and last Sport on Five on Radio 5 and the first edition on Radio 5 Live. His drivetime show also continued on Radio 5 Live as John Inverdale's Nationwide. Here's part of that last Drive-In that also features, yes you've guessed it, Danny Kelly.

The last billed programme on Radio 5 was Across the Line. For the final part of the show Mike Edgar was joined by Nigel and Earl (Ian Crossley, aka Fine Time Fontaine, and Andrew Dunn), the comedy pair of "sorters out extraordinaire" to muse over the demise of the station whilst having a dig at Extending Choice and a certain carrot-topped DJ. The midnight news bulletin and final closedown announcement was read by Ricky Salmon.

Radio 5 actually went out on something of a high. The next set of RAJAR figures showed a weekly audience of 5 million. Noting that the incoming network enjoyed an advertising budget of £1m, as against Radio 5's budget of nought, The Guardian's Anne Karpf reflected: "It wasn't all brilliant, but it was fresh, innovative, and it was there. It's too late to indulge in what-ifs - like what if they'd sent seven million leaflets to the station's prospective audience and hired 2,000 poster sites, the way they're doing for Radio 5 Live? The facts are these. That news is a high-status commodity, over-valued by journalists and broadcasters". (16)

The outgoing controller Pat Ewing, who retired from the Corporation after 21 years service stated that: "Radio 5 is not being axed because it failed but to find a home for the news network. We have put on 250,000 more listeners in each of the last two years, and obviously I am immensely sad that we have not been given more time. Perhaps I should have banged the drum more." (17)

BBC Radio 5
27 August 1990 to 27 March 1994

1 - The BBC Year Book for 1990 describes the launch of Radio 5  thus: "This development, however, was not so much a new venture as a rationalisation of our radio services in preparation for the surrender of frequencies required by the Government for the commercial networks which are to be set up under the terms of the Broadcasting Act". It states that the networks weekly audience was 4.5 million. 
2-Radio reactive:bringing 5 alive today published in The Guardian 27 August 1990
3-Five goes mad for the young published in Paul Donovan's Radio Waves column in The Sunday Times 13 May 1990
4-Not on your wavelength, The Independent 22 August 1990
5-Johnnie Walker's autobiography seems to totally overlook This Family Business or at least confuse it with its successor. He likens the show to "Radio One and a half meets a younger Radio Four". See pp.306-8 Johnnie Walker: The Autobiography (Penguin Books 2008)
6- In 1994 Euromix was a Gold prize winner of a Sony Radio Award in the Specialist Music Programme category.
7 - Richard Coles was also a Sony Radio Award winner in 1992 for Best New Broadcaster. Other station award winners included Danny Baker, both a Sony and TRIC, the Sports team for their coverage of the 1992 Olympics and for commentators Jonathan Agnew, John Inverdale and John Rawling and Sport on Five itself.
8 - Quoted in Not on your wavelength by Robert Hanks (as above).
9-  Quoted in But won't it be a bore without the war? by Michael Leapman, The Independent 6 March 1991.
10- The plans were made public in November 1992 in the policy document Extending Choice which announced "the creation of a radio news network to start in April 1994. The experience of the 24-hour Gulf War radio news, backed by further research indicated that such a network would be welcomed by 25-44 year olds". This document and indeed the BBC's Annual Review overstate the Radio 4 News FM coverage, it averaged 17 hours per day not 24.
11 - The plan for a news service on long wave was, of course, thrown out. Officially some inadequacies in Radio 4's FM coverage were blamed added to which there was a very vociferous public campaign to 'Save Radio 4 on Long Wave'. See pp.344-360 Life on Air: A History of Radio Four by David Hendy (OUP 2007).    
12 - Originally the 6-0-6 slot was just billed as a sport phone-in so on the first edition Danny Baker also talked about chess, cross-country and fencing! The opinions he sought were "the rare, the maverick, the strange". See pp. 187-200 Going Off Alarming by Danny Baker (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2014)
13 - A rumpled air of success by Gillian Reynolds, The Daily Telegraph, 20 April 1992
14 - BBC cuts children's programmes by Maggie Brown, The Independent, 13 October 1993. The BBC wouldn't see an increase in children's radio programme until the launch of Radio 7 in December 2002 with programmes such as Big Toe and Little Toe. The editor of Radio 7, Mary Kalemkerian, had worked on Radio 5.
15 - Originally launched on the BFBS in November 1990 as Simon and the Squad with Simon Guettier, Rory Higgins, Janet Gerschlick and Alison Taylor.
16 - Going out on a high by Anne Karpf, The Guardian, 29 March 1994
17 - All over the place by Paul Dovovan, The Sunday Times, 27 March 1994

1 comment:

Robin Carmody said...

Some interesting memories and thoughts here. Certainly schools and adult education faded away PDQ after the old Radio 5 closed.

I can't help thinking the figures were principally going up at the end because football was already booming to a far greater extent than had been envisaged when the station was conceived. At the same time, I can't help wondering whether Tony Blair could ever have happened, in quite the same way, had the original long wave news network plans (which would have been more formal and Radio 4-esque than what we actually got) been followed through; his whole political approach was *so* in line with Five Live's.

One great advantage of the original Radio 5 was that it recognised, as so much of the British media has historically failed to do, that pop/youth culture exists in mainland Europe just as much as in the Anglosphere.

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