Saturday, March 27, 2004

The BBC used to have a fifth network... what was its name?

Tomorrow is the tenth birthday of Radio Five Live, the BBC’s News and Sport network. Which makes today the tenth anniversary of the closure of Radio Five, the station which went to make room for it, and which, for the short period in which it existed, was the most exciting music outlet in the country.

It started, as did so many things back then, with Thatcher. She’d decided that simulcasting the same radio programmes on FM and AM was a waste of a scarce national resource - in other words, saw the opportunity to flog something and make a few bob. So, the commercial broadcasters were warned to make better use of their frequencies, or lose them (resulting in the sudden creation of the Gold channels on medium wave up and down the country) and the BBC lost control of the old Radios One and Three medium wave frequencies which went off to become Talk and Virgin. Afraid of losing any more ground, the Beeb resolved to make better use of its radio real estate, forcing Radio Two to finalise its move to FM only and to do something else with what had always been 433 and 330, but had become converted to 693 and 909.

The plan was to scoop up a lot of programming which had never had a proper home - Schools Radio, the Open University stuff that had long been chucked out on Radio Four Long Wave at weekends under the odd “Options” banner, and to build on some experiments which had been taking place to do radio for teenagers, like Steve Blacknell’s Pirate Radio Four, which had also opted out the speech network to offer a talky alternative to Radio One for the young people of the nation. Topped up with the first new kids programmes since David Ryder’s Playground had been dug up off Radio One, the station had an undeniable air of mish-mash, but in amongst the acres of space filling (The “Citizen’s Advice Bureau of the air”, the weather forecast which attempted to namecheck every town in Britain, and, of course, lots of sport) there were some wonderful programmes.

Best of the lot were the regional yoof shows in the evening - originally ninety minutes at 9.30, they quickly moved them up to ten to give them a full two hours. Except when the sport overran. Highlights included The Mix, from London, Scotland’s Earshot and Hit The North.

Named after a Fall song, presented by the then-unknown-nationally Mark Radcliffe from the BBC’s Oxford Road studios in Manchester (already, of course, a legendary name in the music pantheon thanks to the Duran-heavy midweek Whistle Test light of BBC Two’s Oxford Road Show), Hit The North provided an outlet for a range of comedy items of varying quality - Frank Sidebottom would often pop up and usually wear out a welcome, some sort of reportage that would sit well on Lamacq Live these days, the world’s worst jingle (“Hit... hit... hit the north”) and classic music which never paid very much attention to the supposed rule of representing the region. A vital element was missing, however, but a few months in a former member of The Creepers turned up to do a gossip slot (“I’m not one to gossip... but pull up a chair”) and one of the great radio double acts was born. Ironically, Mark and Lard lasted right up until yesterday, when their Radio One adventure ended.

But besides two northerners who said “knackers” a lot, Hit the North had another gift for the nation: the five song live session. Probably the greatest of these was The Verve - back when they were still Verve - who were doing so well Radcliffe encouraged them to extend a track by an extra few minutes, leading to Richard Ashcroft and Mark extemporising the legendary ‘Who’s on the news?’ right up until Nick Mullins had to do the eleven o’clock bulletin.

Hit the North nearly disappeared when, in a further spot of Thatcher-inspired fiddling, the BBC decided it should try and outsource a quarter of its radio production to independent producers, targetting the regional shows as an easy way of doing this. A clearly pissed-off Radcliffe made tart reference to the sell-off on air, but in the end the show survived through a management buy-out. It remained the same, with the sole exception that there was an “M and TV” production credit at the end.

The Mix wasn’t so lucky, though, and got replaced by Fabulous, allowing Mark Lamarr to spread his wings further than he was able to on The Word. This wasn’t so bad, though, as Lamarr’s quick wit and handy catchphrase - “thank god you’re here” - proved a fitting replacement.

At the other end of the day, Breakfast had been given over to Morning Edition, which struggled a bit to find its feet. The first format had been current affairs based, but with such a soft agenda that you needed wellingtons to get past some of the features. Andy Kershaw would pop in once a week to talk about World Music releases - Baba Maal with your Rice Krispies not being everyone’s taste - and there’d be horse racing tips and, quick, let’s review the newspapers until the schools programmes start. However, someone, somewhere, was struck with inspiration and the programme was passed to the bloke who’d originally turned up to do the football phone-in on saturday nights. Morning Edish on Radio Fish was born, and Danny Baker did the show of his life. With a management who was just happy to have someone turn up and fill the airtime, Baker was given the freedom and trust to follow his instincts and lines of thought, creating some great moments. Despite the need to keep stopping for Claire Balding to give the racing tips. Turning news reader Allis Moss into a sidekick, and treating the audience as a resource, it remains one of the high-water marks in British radio.

There were other good things about Five, too: The shouty soap opera of The Mall, featuring a guest appearance by Saint Etienne; Normski’s terribly named Vibe; the return of Johnnie Walker to national radio hosting a daily show; the original version of Room 101, which was always a much better radio format than a TV show. And, uniquely for a British radio service, there was never a single musical format on the station. You’d hear Fry and Laurie doing stuff from the Jeeves and Wooster album when you woke up, move through country and western and go to be with bhangra or the BMX Bandits. Even Six doesn’t come close in the sheer range of music that would find its way onto the air.

It lasted four years, until it was deemed to be in the way. The last part of the BBC’s great plan had been to create a 24 hour news service - Radio Six, based in a loose fashion on the Gulf War rolling news service, known as Scud FM. Oddly, the BBC’s own reports on the launch of Five Live seems convinced that Scud FM had been carried on Radio Five, even although its very name shows that it was actually an opt-out on Radio 4 FM. During the first Gulf war, Today had rolled on until the World At One kicked off, which had then expanded round until PM, and so on. And this was to have been the basis of Radio Six, which had its eye on 198 Long Wave. The only problem was, after contracts had been exchanged and the work begun, expats suddenly realised if they took Radio Four off long wave to make room for news, they would no longer be able to hear the station in France and Spain. They mustered, marched on Broadcasting House and, oddly, won. Quite why the management at the BBC made the decision to listen to a few hundred people who didn’t pay a penny in licence fees isn’t totally clear - the fact they all voted and all tended to be Tory voters may have been a factor - but listen they did, backing down and saving 198 for Radio Four. And Test Match Special. But BBC News wasn’t going to give up quite so easily, and so started looking for a new home. And they settled on Radio Five. The young network hadn’t got a very large audience - because it was mostly aimed at children and the odd specialist taste - and it was unlikely the few thousands who enjoyed Northern Ireland’s Across The Line would be voting Tory (“marching on the BBC headquarters”) in quite the same way. In addition, a lot of the talent the station had nurtured had already moved on - Hit the North had lost Mark and Lard to Radio One, Danny Baker had also gone there for his short-lived show in the old DLT slot, and so on, and the sports elements of the old Five were going to find a new home on what was possibly going to be called UK Live - so there wasn’t much of a fight put up by anyone to save Radio Five.

The big switch off came March 27th, 1994. The last week of the old Radio Five showcased all that was best about it - anarchic, unexpected, funny, and going far from quietly. Seven days in which everyone was pissed off; even the kid’s story Wiggly Park stuck two fingers up at management, with a final tale which saw the park levelled to make way for “newspaper offices and a sports centre.” Not until digital radio made more space on the airwaves would a station with such a wide-ranging musical remit be given the space to just get on with it and the chance to try out so many unexpected presenters. We tend to think that 6Music is basically the old Radio Five, but without the sports. Or the schools programmes. Or the phone-ins about neighbourhood disputes. And it was the launch of 6Music which finally made us able to forgive the BBC for killing off our Radio Five.


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

It wasn't just a few expats who scuppered the plan to put news on long wave, but a bunch of UK-based luddites (the campaign to save radio 4 long wave) who seemed incapable of tuning to FM when listeners to just about every other station had done so. Couple this with a BBC which seemed unwilling to make any effort to defend its perfectly reasonable plans, and the result is the loss of Radio 5, the unsatisfactory fudge of combined news and sport, and the continued wastefulness of simulcasting Radio 4.

Brian said...

It is worth noting that Scud FM did not carry any normal BBC Radio 4 news programming.

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