The Many Lives of BBC Radio Sport
9 Apr 2007 1 comment. tbs.pm/3211
Fair enough, I’ll admit I’m not the world’s greatest sports fan. Though I do follow the horses and like to see my local football team Carlisle United (which at the time of writing is top of League Two) do well, I rarely listen to Radio 5 Live – the home of sport on the radio (although the commercial Talksport might disagree.). That being said, there’s no doubt that the story of sports broadcasting on BBC Radio is an interesting one, whether the actual activity described is to your taste or not.
Today 5 Live, the digital 5 Live Sports Extra and Radio 4 are the national sports broadcasters for BBC Radio, with BBC local stations since their inception broadcasting their own versions of Sport on 5 and covering local midweek football matches. In a Rugby League playing area like Cumbria, Radio Cumbria and its counterparts in Lancashire and Yorkshire, have, since 1982, also broadcast live Rugby League commentaries involving local teams on Sunday afternoons.
But sport coverage on BBC Radio has changed a lot since the last war. BBC Radio was reorganised on July 29th 1945 into the Home Service and Light Programme. The Home Service, which had been the National Programme until the outbreak of war, became the more speech-based and serious of the two networks, as well as carrying regional programming, while the new Light Programme, formed out of the populist Forces Programme, was to cover music, entertainment and children’s programmes along with populist sports like football. In September 1946 the two networks were joined by the Third Programme, a pet project of then-Director General Sir William Haley, which broadcast classical music, serious drama, intellectual debate and educational programmes.
In the fifties, the Light Programme was the BBC’s main sports service throughout the decade, although the Home Service covered Rugby union, Wimbledon finals and county cricket on its regional wavelengths and included a regional sports round up called Sports Session on Saturdays at 6.30pm. Programmes such as Sports Parade, a sports review programme at lunchtimes; racing; the second-half football commentary at 4.00 pm; and a programme which survives into the 21st century – Sports Report, at 5.00 pm; would attract similar audiences to those that watched Grandstand until recently. But unlike the sports marathons of following decades, the gaps between these programmes would include music.
However, this was not ideal, either for sports or music fans. In the summer of 1957 the BBC introduced another long-running BBC institution, Test Match Special on the Third Programme, where ball-by-ball commentaries could now be accommodated on a minority channel rather than the sporadic updates on the Light. The Third Programme was also used to carry some of the World Cup matches in the 1958 tournament.
The main changes to BBC Radio Sport came in the sixties. Network Three, the official name for the Third Programme after 1957( the ‘Third Programme’ only applied to evening broadcasts, and it was known as the Music Programme and Study Session at other times), was given the task of broadcasting the Light’s Saturday afternoon sports programmes in the summer from June 13th 1961 onwards. How typical Network Three listeners must have felt at having Bartok replaced by Blackburn Rovers can only be imagined, but the move marked a major change in BBC Radio sports policy in the sixties.
Three years later, with the Light Programme facing huge competition from the pop pirates, the BBC decided to move the Light’s Saturday sports programmes all year round to the grandly named Sports Service on Network Three, leaving the Light to concentrate on music programmes. The Sports Service, as the name suggested, was a five-and-a-half-hour sports marathon, rather like the later Sport on 2, although the Home Service continued to cover Rugby Union, regional sport and the Wimbledon finals on a Saturday. With the creation of Radio 3 on September 30th, 1967, the Sports Service continued.
However, as the sixties drew to a close, the disjointed approach to radio sport had not gone unnoticed among BBC management, as well as the confused image Radio 3 had as a whole – essentially Network Three with a new name, carrying the pre-1967 programming strands like The Third Programme and Study Service. On July 29th 1969, the Broadcasting in the Seventies report was published which would see sweeping changes to the BBC networks. While Radio 1 was to benefit from extended broadcasting hours, the other networks saw huge changes from April 1970 onwards. All Saturday afternoon sport, barring Test Match Special, was to be moved from Radio 3 to Radio 2 from April 4th 1970 onwards, while Radio 4 was to lose its Rugby Union and Wimbledon coverage to Radio 2. As Radio 2 had far better reception than Radio 3, as well as a bigger audience, the Saturday moves made sense. Similarly Radio 3 ditched its separate programming strands in favour of a unified Radio 3 with a greater emphasis on music than speech.
Sport on 2 began its 20-year reign as the king of radio sports programmes on April 4th 1970. This radio version of Grandstand - which continued the BBC tradition of covering the second half of a top football match, as well as covering all the main sports events of the day – became a popular fixture on the station, also attracting a young male audience that would normally avoid Radio 2. Presenters such as Renton Laidlaw and results reader James Alexander- Gordon became as well-known as Frank Bough and Graham Goode on Grandstand.
However, even with Radio 2 established as the BBC’s main sports channel after 1970, there were some interesting diversions in the seventies. As Radio 1, on cost grounds, had to take Radio 2 programmes between 7 and 10pm, a live football commentary on Radio 2 would also be heard on Radio 1. Also, after September 1971, when Sport on 2 was being broadcast, Radio 2’s FM frequencies would be handed over to Radio 1, a practice which would last until Radio 1 gained full FM coverage nationally in February 1990, when the 88-91 FM sub-band was handed to Radio 2 to broadcast light music programmes as an alternative to Sport on 2. This was to only last until August 1990, when Radio 5 took over sports coverage and Radio 2, moving to FM only, was divested of its sporting commitments.
Similarly, when David Hamilton’s afternoon show was moved from Radio 1 only to both networks in January 1975 during a financial crisis, Radio 1 would take the Radio 2 sports desk at 3.45, but if Radio 2 wanted to broadcast a horse race or Wimbledon coverage, this would move to Radio 2 only, leaving David Hamilton free to continue on Radio 1. This arrangement continued until the dual broadcasting of this show ended in November 1977 and Radio 1 listeners were freed from the tyranny for some of the racing results from Pontefract over the latest offering from Pilot.
The end of the dual broadcasting arrangement finally, except between 6 and 7 am and on FM at certain times, ended in February 1979, which meant sport vacated Radio 1’s frequencies, although it appears that the station broadcast a half-hour sports round-up at 7pm on Sundays in the summer of 1972. However, while Radio 1 was officially a pop music station, one curiosity of a programme was broadcast on Friday nights in the eighties. Andy Peebles’ show, which supposedly majored on soul music, also heavily featured football reports and even used the Grandstand theme for a time. In its description in a 1985 edition of the Radio Times, the show was described as “Andy plays the best in soul music and takes a topical look at soccer.” Obviously Radio 2 would have been the logical place for a programme that featured football analysis and interviews with players, but since Friday nights were the home of the long-running Friday Night is Music Night and devotees of the show would be less than happy to have the Westminster Waltz followed by a ten-minute interview with Kevin Keegan, Radio 1 took up the sports baton on Friday nights.
The use of Radio 2 as the principal home of BBC Radio Sport must have caused consternation to people who wanted to hear light music. When Wimbledon was being broadcast, Radio 2’s medium wave frequencies would cover the sport, while FM would continue broadcasting music shows. Although FM had become commonplace by the early eighties on domestic radios, most car radios still did not have an FM facility, so motorists who wanted to hear the David Hamilton show instead of John McEnroe ranting at an umpire had no choice. Similarly the introduction of Sunday Sport in May 1984, a summer sports programme featuring some music and hosted by Stuart Hall, must have infuriated fans of Benny Green and Sing Something Simple. Also, horse racing commentaries and the sports desk at 3.45 would cut into afternoon programmes, and Radio 2 often used to send its afternoon presenters to Royal Ascot in shows that supposedly would “play the best in Radio 2 music with racing” (Radio Times), but devoted half the time to the activity on the racecourse.
Logically Radio 4, the speech station, should have been the home of sport – the station did have a sports review programme on Saturday mornings called Sport on 4 – but the intellectual nature of many Radio 4 listeners would have militated against replacing the afternoon play with racing, so Radio 2 remained as the sports network. However, in October 1988 the BBC announced it was introducing a new network from 1990, using Radio 2’s medium wave frequencies, that would take the sport from Radio 2 and educational programmes from Radio 4.
Radio 5, using the 693 and 909 kHz frequencies of Radio 2, which went on to FM only, opened on August 27th 1990. Radio 5, an eclectic and interesting network worthy of an article in itself, [consider yourself commissioned - Ed] took all the sports coverage from Radio 2 – which was now free to devote more time to music – as well as taking schools programmes from Radio 4 and some Open University programmes from Radio 3, and padding out its schedule with children’s programmes, regional programmes, some pop music and relays of BFBS programmes.
However, the next change came in February 1992, when Radio 3, under the terms of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, vacated medium wave to go on to FM only.(1215 MW became the home of Virgin 1215.) While few classical fans listened to Radio 3 on medium wave by this time, I do recall trying to listen to Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll on this frequency and it sounded like it was being played through a washing machine. 1215 kHz was the home of Test Match Special and the wit of Johnners and Blowers and friends. The then-Prime Minister, John Major, was a huge fan of Test Match Special and a campaign was launched to save it. The BBC made a compromise with this long-running cricket programme: from the summer of 1992, Radio 3 would broadcast Test Match Special in the mornings and Radio 5 would take over in the afternoons. For the first time, Johnners would be heard in stereo on FM instead of the 12-tone music of Anton von Webern.
More changes occurred in 1994. The new BBC Director General, John Birt, wanted the BBC to launch a rolling news service, similar to the 24-hour satellite television stations, on Radio 4’s long wave frequency. However, the easily-annoyed Radio 4 listeners, anxious not to lose their favourite programmes on long wave (Radio 4’s FM reception could be patchy in rural areas), for once made Birt back down. Birt then decided to make Radio 5 into a service of rolling news, talk programmes and sport; this would give the station a clearer focus and improve its low ratings. On March 27th Radio 5 was closed down and relaunched as 5 Live, the new station abandoning the more eclectic programmes of its predecessor. ‘Radio Bloke’, as the station was affectionately nicknamed, became a popular station among male listeners and became respected for its sports coverage.
However, the problem of Test Match Special still had to be resolved. The split between Radios 3 and 5 was not ideal for listeners to both stations; listeners to Radio 3 did not like their regular programmes being replaced by cricket; and cricket fans being told to retune to Radio 5 when 3’s coverage finished could miss a crucial moment in the Test. From the summer of 1994 Test Match Special was moved to Radio 4 long wave, where it remains to this day, representing the return of sport to Radio 4 for the first time since 1970.
While 5 Live continues to be the BBC’s main sport channel, Radio 4 has proved useful when the Six Nations Championship clashes with a second-half football commentary on Saturdays. In February 2001 Rugby Union returned to Radio 4 after a 31-year break when the long wave frequency was given over to the Six Nations.
On February 2nd, 2002, the BBC also launched Five Live Sports Extra as its first digital radio station. Sports Extra, as the name suggests, is a purely sports-based station that works as an addition to 5 Live. Suppose 5 Live is broadcasting the second half of a Premiership football match, Radio 4 is broadcasting the Six Nations, but there is an important Rugby League match that cannot be accommodated on these two stations: then Sports Extra will cover it. (The relationship is similar to that between Sky Sports One, which is the principal Sky sports channel, and Sky’s two other sports networks, which are used to cover lesser or clashing sports events.)
While Radios 4, 5 Live and 5 Live Sports Extra are the BBC’s stations for broadcasting live national sport, and BBC local radio devotes considerable time to local sport, Radios 1 and 2 still have sports reports, although Radio 3, no surprises, totally ignores the subject. The laddish nature of Radio 1 in the Chris Evans/Britpop era meant that sport, particularly football, could not be ignored on the station and “Chris’s ickle world of sport”, where Evans discussed sport with a reporter, was a popular feature on his show. Breakfast shows since Evans have employed a sports reporter, and the station broadcasts football results at 5.30 on Saturday afternoons. Indeed a sports-themed Saturday lunchtime show was introduced during the 2004 World Cup and the Olympics, hosted by sports reporter Mark Chapman.
Radio 2 on weekday afternoons features a ‘son of Sports Desk‘ after the 3 and 4 pm news and a longer feature, presented by Bob Ballard, at 5.50. During the Ashes in 2005 the sports report was extended until the 6pm news, with the station taking Test Match Special from Radio 4 for ten minutes and regular updates throughout Drivetime. However, it should be pointed out that Radio 2 at other times, except in passing conversation by presenters, does not cover sport.
Despite all the changes and moves over the last fifty years, certain things still remain the same. Sports Report still broadcasts at 5pm on Saturdays with the familiar and rousing Out of the Blue as its theme tune, while Sport on 5 continues the tradition of covering the second half of a football match and uses Number One as its theme tune, which dates back to Sport on 2 days.