It attracts over 5m listeners, but it nearly didn’t exist at all. On March 29th 1994, BBC 5live sprung from the ashes of BBC Radio 5 which had closed down quietly the night before. That predecessor, with its strange mix of education, sport and children’s programmes displaced from other services, was not seen as having been a huge success. Unlike the other BBC networks, Radio 5 boasted no ‘stationality’.
The idea for the BBC to run a rolling news service was not a new one. In 1991, the BBC had risen to the challenge of Gulf War coverage by creating a second Radio 4. ‘Radio 4 News FM’ provided a rolling news service from 16th January 1991 until the 2nd March, as the more sedate Radio 4 proper continued next door on long wave. This hasty 'Scud FM' operation was impressive, not least within a Corporation often seen a structurally slow. Its architect, Jenny Abramsky, was certainly the sort of character to get it moving, not least because it was to face some internal opposition.
The fact that this huge BBC, recognised for the quality of its news, did not deliver a rolling news service was something of an anomaly.
BBC Radio 5 was launched in 1990, not on long wave, not least because Radio 4 listeners made clear they were not impressed by having it seized, but on Radio 2’s old medium wave frequencies, 693 and 909. Jenny Abramsky was unimpressed with the concept, summing it up thus: "The sports output from Radio 2 Medium Wave, all the Schools and Continuing Education programmes from Radio 4 FM, the Open University programmes from Radios 3 and 4 FM and programmes for children and young people from Radio 4 and some World Service output. This was a network with no audience focus, born out of expediency”. In 1993, DG, Michael Checkland, announced the BBC would launch a 24-hr news network on long wave funded from ‘efficiencies’.
So, who better to devise a successor than Jenny herself, which she capably did on 28 March 1994. It burst on-air on that Spring morning with the gifted Jane Garvey, as if it had always been there.
Now, on just AM and DAB, with no FM coverage, it attracts over half the audience of Radio 4, providing a conversational news station with decent agility, bearing in mind it still has to shoehorn in live sports coverage.