In My Opinion: John Collins: My advice for Jonathan Wall, the new 5 live controller

SO, BBC Radio 5 live has a new controller – the former deputy controller, Jonathan Wall. He’s held in high esteem around the industry as a nice guy who listens closely and is up for new ideas. So I have a few…

Remember that 5 live is a news and sport station.

Last time the BBC Trust reviewed its license, there was surprise at the amount of non-news in the mix.

Former controller, Adrian Van Klaveren, addressed a lot of this, but I wonder at the continued presence of ‘The Moan In’ on Richard Bacon’s afternoon show – it’s more comedy.

And in the small hours of Sunday morning, listeners get to pick music for a ‘virtual jukebox’. The same callers phone in each week and excerpts of the songs are played, with one song becoming the winner.

Both of these features and others like them are better placed on other outlets.

I’m a big fan of presenters like Richard Bacon and Tony Livesey. They bring a lot to the station, including an air of quirky unpredictability. When pushed, they’re both superb interviewers. But too often they embark on flights of fancy that are neither news nor sport. Unless the station has too much airtime to fill, these should be tightened up.

The commercial stations regularly complain that BBC Radio has too many sports rights, and 5 live sports extra goes some way to getting them used on air. But some of the sports on the digital channel don’t even get a mention on the main 5 live station. For example, the NFL pops up at the very end of the season as part of the BBC’s Superbowl coverage – though for the preceding 16 weeks listeners don’t even get results on Monday mornings.

A significant number of 5 live listeners don’t particularly like sport. Now, sport is popular and attracts big audiences, but news doesn’t stop at 7pm. Can the station not mount a news programme online of an evening along the lines of Morning Reports?

The infrastructure is already there and it’s a prime time for news from the Americas where the BBC has staff and broadcast circuits? The same could be said for Saturday and Sunday afternoons, but let’s start with the busy days first.

The move to Salford did a lot to take 5 live’s focus away from London, but if anything it has had a chilling effect on regional coverage. There was an initial splurge on outside broadcasts from around the country, but my the feeling is that much of the station comes from Lancashire, Cheshire or the Home Counties.

We hear precious little from the ‘nations’ or the less accessible parts of England, despite the BBC having a network of studios. It’s worth bearing in mind that Manchester is every bit as remote to an Aberdonian as London – and probably much less important.

To me, that’s 5 live’s biggest problem. After all these years, it still feels like a slightly uncomfortable hybrid that retains gravitas in sport and sheds it in much of its speech. It’s somehow become less relevant away from the M6 than it was before and needs a firm and clear direction.

John Collins lectures in radio broadcasting at Reid Kerr College in Paisley, following a 25-year career on both sides of the microphone at both the BBC and in commercial radio in Scotland. He still pops up occasionally on the radio, at Clyde 2 on a Sunday morning. Pic: Michele Dillon.