Shennan: BBC move to Salford an “opportunity”

The head of BBC Radio Five Live tells James Silver of Guardian Unlimited that the move of the station and BBC Sport from London to MediaCity in Salford just a year before the 2012 London Olympics is a “great opportunity”

In 2011, Radio Five Live and the BBC’s children’s and sport departments (among others) look set to be relocated to the hideously named MediaCity:UK, a new purpose-built site in Salford Quays. Subject to last-minute contractual wrangles with the developers, MediaGuardian understands that the northwards move is expected to be approved imminently by the BBC Trust. While the prevailing mood of most of the staff involved is best characterised as somewhere between trepidation and torpor, Five Live’s controller Bob Shennan is brimming with enthusiasm and leading from the front.

Station management, including the boss, have already donned hard-hats for site visits a few weeks ago, even foregoing a Champions League semi-final jolly for the sake of a meeting with commercial partners (albeit one which was interrupted by regular text updates of the score). “Everything we think about now is focused on that horizon of the fact that, barring some significant change in BBC policy, Five Live is going to broadcast from Salford in 2011,” he says, sounding a little as if he has been rehearsing the words ad nauseam in the shaving mirror. “To me it is one of the great opportunities this radio station is going to have.”

A great opportunity it may well be but, as a former Five Live journalist, I know that there are staffers who feel rather differently about the prospect of packing their bags. Is there a great deal of suspicion about the plans, I ask? “Well, let’s look at it in two different ways,” replies Shennan, who is the station’s longest-serving controller. “First of all, there’s the overarching BBC strategy which is to better reflect the whole of the UK, a huge part of which is the move to Salford Quays. But for me I also think this move is a way for Five Live to significantly evolve and modernise. It is a moment, I think, which will position us as the beating heart of the BBC’s Salford move – a 24/7 radio station – which will thrive in that environment.”

Can he see the station’s best-known talents, Nicky Campbell and Simon Mayo, quitting the capital? “Why not?” he grins. “It’s a fantastic place to live.” Has he put his own money where his mouth is and gone house-hunting in the area? “I haven’t actually yet, because 2011 feels like quite a long way away,” he laughs. What is more, he claims, he is not overly worried about haemorrhaging staff. “In other walks of life, people relocate all the time. Some people will have commitments they just can’t walk away from. But this is about the long-term future of Five Live and we can’t just base it around individuals now. We’ve got to think about positioning the station for the future. It’s time we stopped seeing this move as some kind of punishment.”

Under Shennan’s stewardship, Five Live attained its highest-ever weekly reach of 6.7 million listeners in 2002. As ever, such benchmarks become something of a millstone for a controller. Despite success at the Sony awards earlier this month, in which Five Live Breakfast won best news and current affairs programme and the brilliant Sportsweek best sports programme, the latest Rajar industry ratings, covering the first quarter of 2007, were more disappointing.

With 5.87 million listeners, the station had shed nearly 300,000 year-on-year, although it was up slightly on the previous quarter. But perhaps even more worrying for Shennan was the news that rival TalkSport’s audience leapt by some 13% year-on-year and secured a record share. When asked about the latest figures he responds that he now prefers to use the combined figures of Five Live and its digital sister station Sports Extra, which was launched five years ago.

“Increasingly we’re operating in a world where our brand has to stand out. There’s far more competition than ever before and we’re now also competing in radio with organisations which may have originally been in different media, which come with very strong brands of their own, like the Telegraph, the Guardian or Channel 4.

“That’s why Sports Extra has been a crucial extension of our brand and it’s helped us reach an extra 100,000 listeners in the last quarter. The figures are a bit disappointing but it’s around about 6 million and our audience has been around there for a number of years.”

The latest Rajars were a record for BBC radio, with its channels now attracting a combined 56% share of the total audience, leaving the commercial sector trailing badly with just 42.1%. What does Shennan make of the argument that the BBC is now so strong it stifles its commercial rivals? “The BBC shouldn’t be punished for being successful within the scope of its remit,” he says. “If the BBC were to suddenly lose a huge amount of its share and reach, it would be vilified for failing to service its licence-fee payers. I think there is a very healthy mixed economy in the industry.”

Similarly, he dismisses charges levelled by some in commercial radio, including GCap boss Steve Orchard, that the BBC is paying over the odds for top talent, thereby forcing prices up. “My information is that the commercial sector offer significantly more for key talent than the BBC. I can’t talk about names. But I am aware of major, major bids that have been made by commercial radio for BBC talent that would dwarf the amount we pay. Our audience expects us to bring them the most entertaining, talented broadcasters around. Clearly there’s an inflationary element to the delivery of some key stars, but it’s only a handful of people.”

Shennan’s career actually began in commercial radio, at Hereward FM; from there he joined the corporation’s sport department in 1987. A fast-tracker, by 1997 he was head of TV sport, before taking the helm at Five Live three years later. There have been major developments at the station on his watch. “Built” and pre-recorded programming – including news “packages” and documentaries – have mostly been axed in favour of uninterrupted live output and ever-increasing audience participation, via phone-ins, texts, email and message boards.

Shennan is responsible for masterstrokes such as the hiring of ex-Radio 1 jock Simon Mayo – considered by many to be the brightest star on the network – the growing crossover between news and sport and, most recently, the airing of “around 120 rigorously-checked audience-generated original stories”, including an ongoing campaign by military families for free postage to send basic supplies to soldiers serving in Iraq.

But he has his detractors too. Most recently, the New Statesman‘s former radio critic Rachel Cooke rounded on the station in her column. Five Live, she wrote, “grows less informative by the day”.

Cooke continued: “In the main, the station is intent on replacing news with hearsay and serious talk with flabby banter. Two more factual programmes [are going to be] axed: Euro News, which is as old as the station itself, and Brief Lives, the obituary show. ”

Shennan has a reputation for being somewhat “thin-skinned” – indeed one senior newsroom hack likened him to Gordon Brown, saying he had “a long memory and a tendency to hold grudges”. However, in fairness, he is perfectly affable when I quote Cooke’s review to him. Perhaps he was quietly seething underneath.

“I’d say a couple of things to that,” he begins. “Both Brief Lives and Euro News were long-term fixtures and they’ve both been of a very high quality. We didn’t axe them to make way for expensive talent. There were a number of converging reasons, but I’d say key among those was the need for Five Live to continue to evolve and refresh itself.

Euro News used to be confined to a particular place in the schedule, but now [presenter] Paul Henley has become a European specialist across the station. This is a reinvention of the way we cover Europe. We are not going to abandon European affairs, but we’re going to decommission this built piece and reinvest that money partly in the way we cover Europe and also in other priorities.

“When the station began, quite a large proportion was not live. Today, very little on Five Live is not live. I promise losing those programmes was not done as some kind of act of vandalism. And I have to tell you, in all honesty, I’ve not received a single complaint from a listener about either of them, not one.”

Nevertheless, some claim that while he is certainly no vandal, Shennan has little appetite for foreign news on his network. He bristles a little at this. “There’s no deliberate policy to somehow cut Five Live adrift from international affairs. We still have access to a vast array of news-gathering correspondents all over the world who appear regularly on the network. But the truth is that we see our absolute priority as to reflect and report the UK to the UK, to make ourselves as relevant as we possibly can to our core audience.”

But one member of Five Live’s launch team, Tim Luckhurst, writing in the Independent on Sunday, contended that the station had indeed lurched downmarket, despite Shennan’s assurances to the contrary. Luckhurst wrote that under its current controller, Five Live had declined “from news pioneer to a bounteously funded competitor for commercial chat radio . . .”

By now I think I’m trying Shennan’s patience a bit. “That’s preposterous,” he replies. “Five Live has never been set in aspic. Tim’s viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles. There are people who will always be sniffy about us trying to understand what the real agenda is that our audience wants us to cover. But most commentators recognise there’s a huge gulf between Five Live and what you might call commercial prattle.”

Luckhurst, I imagine, won’t be on the Shennan Christmas card list this year.

Read the full interview with Shennan by visiting Guardian Unlimited (site requires registration, but no fee)