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5 Live at 20 – BBC radio news and sport into the 21st century

Radio 5 celebrates its 20th birthday on 28 March, with celebratory broadcasts from its main studios at MediaCityUK beginning this Sunday.

Radio 5 Live was the last of the BBC ‘s analogue networks to go on air before the coming of digital transmission. The live news and sport station celebrates its 20th birthday on 28 March, with celebratory broadcasts from its main studios at MediaCityUK beginning this Sunday.

In the days before digital radio broadcasters had to exploit and maximise whatever space in the frequency spectrum was available to them if they wanted to offer new service and a variety of to their listeners. BBC Radio 5 Live began broadcasting on medium wave 20 years ago this month as a rolling news station with a high proportion of sport, building up a loyal listenership despite being confined to the mono, slightly unstable band.

While it retains its national AM presence, Radio 5 Live is now also broadcast on DAB and has a digital-only sister station, Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, which allows more than one sport or event to be covered in full at the same time. The station went on air in 1994, taking over the MW slot previously occupied by another BBC station, Radio 5. The earlier service began transmissions in August 1990 using the medium wave frequency vacated by music station Radio 2, which moved completely to FM at that time.

The success of Radio 4 News FM, which provided rolling coverage of the Gulf War during 1991, convinced BBC executives that an all news radio service was viable. Radio 5 Live went on air on 28 March 1994 with a new focus on news and sport from its predecessor’s old studios in an extension building of Broadcasting House in central London.

The first purpose-built 5 Live studio was opened at BBC Television Centre (TVC) in west London in 1995, the thinking being that the new network was very different from Radio 5. A second studio was added later; both facilities were equipped with DHD digital consoles by the time the BBC decided to move the station to the MediaCiyUK (MCUK) site in Salford, Greater Manchester.

The majority of 5 Live’s presenters and production staff moved up to the northwest in 2011 and into studios and offices on a single floor of Quay House, one of three dedicated BBC buildings on the central piazza of MCUK. Speaking soon after broadcasts began from the new facilities, operations manager Chris Houghton said a big challenge was having the entire station on one level. “It’s key not to make too many workflow changes,” he commented.

When 5 Live moved to Salford work was also underway at Broadcasting House in London, where studios for BBC Radio’s other national networks, as well as TV News and the World Service, were being built. This parallel development gave the opportunity to standardise equipment; Studer became the main on-air desk, working with VCS automation, which also provides editing capability. The VCS system runs in conjunction with the MOS (media object server) communications protocol and the BBC’s Broadcast Network Control System (BNCS), which, explained Houghton, allows it to “join up” with systems in studios in London.

The 5 Live floor at Quay House contains four main studios, preparation suites known as workshops, a central production control space called The Hub, the newsroom and offices for production staff. Technical facilities were installed by integration contractor IPE Systems, which was also involved in the W1 project at ‘New’ BH.

The two big studios for news, current affairs and sport broadcasting, S11 and S12, are identical and “flip-flop” between programmes. Each control room houses a 48-fader Studer On Air 3000 desk, with positions for the programme editor, a studio manager and a studio director. This last role was specially created for 5 Live and is part editorial, part operational.

In between S11 and S12 is a space for live performance and audience shows, which can be controlled from either control room. Studios S13 and S14 are similar to S11 and 12 but are smaller. S13 is used for digital-only service 5 Live Sports Extra, while S14 works on World Service sports output. The workshops feature 12-fader On Air 3000s and are designed to be used by journalists for interviews and preparing reports. One of these was recently adapted so that World Service reporter Mani Djazmi, who is blind, could use the suite without needing an engineer to help him. A software controlled, speech-based prompt system with a dedicated sound card and a special keyboard have been added so Djazmi can operate the desk himself.

Production areas, including the central Hub lines and circuits control desk, are linked to the studios using Delec intercom. Talkback between the control rooms and studios is based on Studer panels. There are several options for connectivity beyond the studios, including Wisycom RF systems, audio over IP (AoIP) circuits to and from London, Comrex AccREX codecs in the technical areas and, for location reporting, Comrex Bric-Link handheld units and the Luci Live AoIP app for iPhones.

To mark Radio 5 Live’s 20 years on air, Jane Garvey, whose voice was the first to be heard on the station, will return to co-host the Drive show with Peter Allen, who in turn will be trying his hand at presenting some of the other programmes in the schedule. A retrospective, 5 Live at 20, will be broadcast midday on 28 March.