Rolling news, radio style 

17 November 2014

19921016 Guardian - BBC sets date for 24-hr radio newsThe 1990-1991 Gulf War had shown the BBC that there was an appetite for 24-hour radio news. The so-called “Scud FM”, officially titled “BBC Radio 4 News FM” had taken over the VHF frequencies of Radio 4 on the outbreak of that conflict, providing a full news service 17 hours a day.

There was, the BBC felt, nowhere else to put it. You couldn’t shift BBC Radio 1 elsewhere: the FM network was not yet complete so many listeners were still tuning to 1053 and 1089kHz. BBC Radio 2 had just given up its medium wave frequencies and much of its remaining speech programmes to the new BBC Radio 5. BBC Radio 3 couldn’t be touched because it’s BBC Radio 3 and you mess with it at your peril.

That left BBC Radio 4. Most listeners were still tuned to the longwave frequency; a plan to start promoting the idea of Radio 4 as an FM service was due to start but hadn’t began. So Radio 4 – the speech network – became Radio 4 LW and Radio 4 News FM.

That couldn’t continue. The government of the time wanted all radio stations to stop simulcasting programmes on two frequencies (usually FM and MW) and start offering an alternative service on one of the two. BBC Radio 5 had been the start of that. The BBC also saw FM as better quality, easier to manage and more future-proof than AM broadcasting.

By 1992, plans were afoot for the launch of a BBC Radio News service, and the best place to put it seemed to be Radio 4’s longwave frequency – the publicity for Radio 4 FM having kicked in once the Gulf War was out of the way.

But Radio 4’s listeners were a conservative bunch. They liked their longwave as it was reliable and could be heard when they were in their second homes in France or on holiday in the Highlands. FM was fiddly – as they drove to work or visit friends they wanted Radio 4 all the way, not “frequent” changes of FM frequency as the car sped down the motorway.

Until this point, the BBC had been proud of the relatively new Radio 5. It got a lot of things none of the other stations wanted – sport and education and the types of things once slotted into the Third Programme’s off-hours. It was convenient to have it. But with people loudly complaining about losing Radio 4 LW, a new idea formed at the BBC.

Stories started to appear denigrating BBC Radio 5. A ragbag. A mix of ideas and styles. Not enough listeners to be viable. The Cinderella network. The BBC seemed to agree with each of these criticism. John Birt, the new Director-General, was from news and current affairs. He wanted a news network. Radio 5 was in the way of that. The stories of how poor Radio 5 was performing (it wasn’t – by the time it closed it had more listeners than had ever been anticipated) now had Jon Birt’s voice added to them. Yes, he agreed, it was poor. If we shove some of the elements back where they came from, we’d have a national network going spare. We could put the news and the sport together there on medium wave, save Radio 4 longwave (although it is replaced for long periods by Test Match Special, made homeless from the closure of Radio 3 MW and Radio 5) and please everybody.

That was what happened. BBC Radio 5 Live launched in March 1994.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Andrew Bowden 17 November 2014 at 3:53 pm

I was a Radio 5 listener. It was a slightly odd station in its makeup, but then – and let’s be brutally honest here – so is Radio 4.

For my money, Radio Five’s crowning achievement was its regional shows in the evening. Hit the North from Manchester, with Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley (then known as Lard), Rave with Rob Brydon from Wales and whatever else there was.

Each show coming from a different region, and each giving a different region to the nation. It was fantastic stuff. So easy to do yet never replicated.

Ronnie MacLennan Baird 17 November 2014 at 11:47 pm

I listened to Scud FM. I listened to Radio Five Live, Thanks to BFBS, I still listen to 5 Live even today.

However, I miss Scud FM – it was more like a good broadsheet, compared to the tabloid that is 5 Live. (I used – heavy handedly – to joke that, instead of its old tagline “Live News, Live Sport”, it should have used “Live Tittle-tattle, Live Football” instead.)

The thing I miss most about Scud FM was that its attention span was longer: it actually played out press conferences in full (letting listener get the whole of the raw facts and form their own view), rather than getting bored and going across to something more trivial.

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