In his new series, Johnny is considering the State of the Football Nation on TV and radio. This week he’s doing one of the things he enjoys most in life. No, not that. He’s sitting in his big padded chair and listening to his favourite football radio station. That’ll be 5 live then.
HOW MUCH IS IT?
It’s free. The BBC funds 5 live to the tune of £66million per annum out of the licence fee, with an additional £6million for 5 live extra.
This is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, especially when you consider the BBC blow £1.6billion on BBC One alone. As I only watch football and Masterchef on BBC One, but listen to 5 live for at least three hours every night and as much as eight hours a day at the weekend, the expenditure seems very lopsided to me. But then, BBC One isn’t aimed at me and my weird life.
As an aside, the best BBC channel is surely BBC Four and that only costs £63million. So if you pay your licence fee, you get an incredible amount of radio thrown in for nowt. That’s six national stations, BBC Scotland, and local radio, which in an era that increasingly knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, is little short of an incredible situation, especially given the high quality.
The core of 5 live’s football output is live commentaries on all competitions. With only talkSPORT for Premier League competition, they pretty much have the entire field to themselves, only occasionally having to give way to the commercial broadcaster, usually on a Saturday evening and Sunday lunchtime. They have exclusive European coverage.
Typically, you get 45-minutes of pre-game build up (75 minutes on Champions League nights) with a couple of ex-player pundits, sometimes a journalist as well, all interspersed with other bits of sports news. Post-game is either a ‘social’ – basically, half an hour or more of phone calls and post-game analysis, or at the weekend, 606.
Outside of that, there are discussion shows populated by ex-players and writers, such as the widely appreciated Monday Night Club and the Friday Night Social. Occasionally, they’ll have a special show featuring analysis of a contemporary issue in football, or a documentary.
I copiously praise 5 live presenters all the time, so I won’t dwell on them again, but Kelly Cates, Mark Chapman, Eleanor Oldroyd, Mark Pougatch, Caroline Barker, Will Perry, George Riley, Jason Mohammed, Alistair Bruce-Ball – and anyone else I’ve forgotten – are all excellent. They are superb at the job, each managing to be the right mix of informal and informative without being overbearing or obnoxious. All have great radio voices too, which is absolutely fundamental. Regardless of the wit and wisdom of a contributor, if they speak with an aesthetically unpleasant voice, it makes listening quite hard work.
Unlike some choice others, 5 live simply do not employ anyone to present the football who isn’t first class. And it’s worth thinking about just what a tricky, plates-on-sticks sort of job it is. You’ve got guests to deal with, you’ve got clips to play in, news to go to, often while you’re sitting in a stadium in the howling wind and rain. You have to encourage pundits to do what they’re good at, and discourage them from indulging in what they’re bad at. Sometimes, you must politely shut up some of the biggest blowhards in the business, control debates with a light hand, but balance out the opinions offered in the name of fairness and impartiality. And all the while you have to try not to be distracted by Chris Sutton giving you the stink eye, while Greeny spills hot coffee and pie gravy on your crotch.
Radio is such an intimate medium, often experienced alone, that you really do feel that the speaker is in the room with you. Unlike television, there is no hardware to keep you one step removed; radio is just a voice in the night, talking to you and you alone. Thus, the relationship between broadcaster and listener is a much more personal, close one than TV.
In these circumstances, to be able to have such a great presenting team who are a pleasure to spend time with is a tribute both to the individuals concerned, but also to those who employ them. There’s no defaulting to sensationalism, no sense that they’re trying to drum up controversy. It’s just good quality, intelligent, but never snooty, broadcasting which treats the listener as an adult and not as a dozy gibbon that needs prodding with a stick.
When it comes to the pundits they employ, they tend to dine from the more choice cuts on the ex-player smorgasbord. First amongst equals is Pat Nevin, who we rely on when some proper brains are needed. He also provides a connection to the real world as we know it and not the weird golf ‘n’ banter world of many an ex-pro. If I was to list every pundit they employ it would fill the rest of the piece, but basically, if they’re on BT Sport, they’re on the BBC as well.
Another reason to tune in is that 5 live has always called on journalists for insight. These days they regularly put the much loved Rory Smith on Monday Night Football, as well as some of the Sunday Supplement (the SS?!) regulars. It is always enjoyable hearing a modern, well-informed, intelligent journalist have to bite their tongue as a guest from the world of football goes off on one of their ill-informed, weirdly blinkered rants. The one that comes to mind this season was Sean Dyche’s extraordinary performance, which got more and more removed from reality, as the Burnley managed bristled at being critiqued by anyone outside of the game, whilst asserting everyone thought he was a dinosaur (which no-one had said or indeed believed).
When it comes to commentators, 5 live has many of the finest: John Murray, Darren Fletcher, Ian Brown, Ian Dennis, Conor McNamara, Jonathan Pearce and even occasionally Motty. I hope I haven’t missed out anyone. Mike Ingham has now retired, leaving Alan Green as the senior man. As divisive as ever, I find his acerbic grump amusing, and there’s no doubting his passion for the game. These are all wonderful broadcasters who mix passion with intelligence and keep the listener well-informed throughout.
Unlike many other media outlets, 5 live is good on diversity, so I’m pleased to say that they also employ a couple of pensioners in the legendary David “hello everybody” Pleat and Jimmy “that’s what I call…”Armfield – both of whom I could listen to talk for hours. Pleaty’s encyclopedic knowledge of players is almost laughably massive. I wave at the radio when he announces his presence and get that warm, second-drink-of-the-night feeling in my belly.
RECENT HITS AND MISSES
Every single game I’ve heard – and I’ve heard a lot, has been a hit. Every single one. Great commentary, great presenting and plenty of diversity in terms of punditry. They do live football brilliantly.
The tribute programme to Graham Taylor, hosted by Mark Pougatch, reduced me to tears more than once. It was the kind of show 5 live does so well, full of warmth and humanity and presented with the sort of classy kindness that was synonymous with the man himself. Sod it, I’ve gone again.
And if you’ve got any tears left, this, from last year, should have won an award. Stunning from first to last. Kelly’s interview with her own father, so very touching. Oh god, I’ve gone again.
Another standout was Jermaine Jenas‘s interview with Jake Livermore for the Friday Night Social. Friendly, empathetic and sensitive. JJ has been impressive all year, better on radio than TV.
A recent documentary about N’Golo Kante was stunningly wide-ranging, in-depth and, as ever, full of humour and insight into the development of this incredible player.
And if you want a bit of football variety. This is more wonderful, life-affirming football radio.
And talking of the Friday Night Social, it’s introduced some great voices. Matty Upson was especially good one week and a recent show had Ian Wright as a guest. Now, we see Wrighty all the time, but given a couple of hours to relax, stretch out and talk about his life in football, it was occasionally very touching, as well as being warm and amusing, yet without being silly.
I’d also like to thank 5 live for regularly employing Andy Townsend. He is great value on the radio and I think I speak for many when I say, oh how we had missed him in and around football.
Also, it is lovely to hear John Motson. Maybe it’s just the echo of childhood and the melancholy of times passed, but it is impossible not to feel warmth in the heart when he‘s on.
So are there any misses? Not when it comes to pure football. There are a few rather asinine, downmarket podcasts, but they are easily ignored.
LOVED OR LOATHED
You’re either a radio lover or you’re not. For a living, I sit in a chair all day and night and write about music and football, and when I’m not doing that I’m writing crime novels, so radio works perfectly in my life.
Also, as I get older, I fear TV is a waste of valuable life hours. I once went three years in the 80s without a TV, and never missed it. Today, I am virtually unable to sit and watch TV without doing something else, which mitigates against concentrating on a two-hour movie. But with radio, I can work and listen at the same time.
If you listen to a lot of 5 live, you will almost certainly love it and that was reflected in social media comments. I don’t think there is anyone who loathes 5 live, there are just people who don’t listen to the radio. As ever I’ve tried to represent the balance of view I received. There were so many, it was impossible to include them all.
‘Let me be absolutely clear: 5 Live Sport from Monday Night Club through to live broadcasts are so far ahead of the competition it hurts. I love all their sporting content. Suffice it to say that I firmly believe I have had the privilege of living through the greatest radio of any age. I doff my hat to them all. But I do love it most when Mr Pleat says ‘hello’.’
‘Got to love @Tim_Vickery and @dotunadebayo on the world football phone in. Best football show on the radio.’
‘Rory Smith is great. As are the specials they do e.g on Kante recently.’
‘Never understood why the BBC would ever entertain having Joey Barton on as a guest under any circumstances, but they have. Poor choice.’
‘My wife hates Robbie Savage on 6-0-6. She is Canadian and has no idea who Robbie Savage is or about football but she can’t stand him.’
‘Savage can also be very childish and contrary with his answers to callers. Fletch once asked “how old are you” after one call. Hilarious.’
‘So many first class operators – Barker, Cates, Chapman, Pougatch, Pleat, John Murray to name but five. Savage remains unlistenable though.’
‘Savage is what the BBC needs before it disappears into bland territory, however he incessantly talks over callers on his post match show.’
‘Love Kelly Cates and Ian Wright – Sunday 606 is far superior to Saturday. Alan Green is a legend.’
‘Love: Mark Chapman, Kelly Cates, John Murray. Monday nights a treat, unless Savage, Mills or Sutton involved.’
‘Likes: Monday Night Club and Friday Football Special – Intelligent well presented debate. Dislikes: 606, Robbie Savage and Alan bloody Green.’
‘Love: Although not directly sport, The Danny Baker Show and Mark Chapman. Murray and Fletcher on comms. Hate: Savage, Wright and Claridge.’
‘Chappers is imperious. However; Robbie Savage.’
‘Needs to try a little harder, too much sensationalist nonsense (Sutton, Savage etc) not enough quality. Only listen to Friday and Monday now.’
‘Sutton, Savage, Mills and co appear far too much for the little they offer.’
Love Chappers, Murray, Dennis. Even curmudgeonly old Pat Murphy.’
‘The ‘Give it Giggsy’ episode of MNC was a particular lowlight – truly dire. I felt sorry for Chapman having to listen to those three.’
‘Love Pat Nevin, most of the time. Claridge is good when he is at his most pissy.’
‘John Murray epitomises the art of commentary. Drama, pictures and a bit of fun mixed in. He rivals the masters such as Butler, Ingham et al.’
‘Afternoons when John Murray is skilfully anchoring live commentary while coordinating updates up and down the land are a joy.’
‘Love the Monday Night Club if it is a Monday without football. With Motty on it’s even better.’
‘Top-notch presenters and commentators – @markchapman in particular. Often more fun listening to a game on 5live than watching on telly.’
‘I hate the way they use nicknames – JJ, Denno, Greeny, Pougs. Uh.’
‘Far too many identikit recently retired Premier Footballers.’
‘I always think 5live is like a tabloid station in contrast to radio 4’s broadsheet.’
‘I did a talk to a room full of sports journalism students. Not one raised their hand when I asked if they listen to football on the radio.’
‘Everything where mark chapman is present (which is a lot) is almost always excellent.’
‘I’m obviously biased, but genuinely find that even after a long drive, I often don’t get out of the car immediately. I’ll keep listening to whatever they’re doing, but particularly sport. My wife sometimes comes and gets me, baffled.’
‘@markchapman is the man. Also the Sports Report theme at 5pm on a Saturday is still fantastic. Something about it I just love.’
‘Jenas very engaging with callers. Knowledgeable about other sports as well.’
‘Monday Night Club the best discussion prog on tv or radio. Kudos.’
‘No broadcaster captures the best sporting moments quite like @5liveSport does. @markchapman , Green, @bbcjohnmurray the best.’
‘Their commentary is still the best of all media outlets, watching the game with 5 live during big tournaments is a joy.’
‘Alan Green – I know he’s unpopular with some but his skill as a commentator is almost unrivalled. Great voice.’
‘Love: all the commentators (even Alan Green). Hate: nothing! Every aspect of their football coverage draws me in.’
‘Love it. Great commentators, some good co-comms like Mark Schwarzer, & Fighting Talk is always a great laugh.’
‘Monday Night and Friday night are brilliant.’
WHAT CAN THEY DO BETTER?
I’d love them to do a history show, looking at seasons or teams gone by, using archive recordings. They have such a great resource to draw on – I’m sure it would be popular. They do this occasionally but it’d be a great regular feature.
There is a sporadic European Football Show on Mondays after MNC, but it seems to get sidelined a lot. The recent one with Andy Brassell and Mina Rzouki was superb. It’d be nice if they could give a full two-hour show to European football every week.
Similarly, a Sunday Supplement-style show would be welcome. They do have regular journo input, but that could just be shaped into a weekly show. And while we’re talking about that roundtable format, how about a weekly commentators summit meeting? They’re some of the best informed and articulate people.
Regular female commentators would also be welcome and I suspect that is close to becoming a reality.
Quite why Danny Baker hasn’t been used more, still somewhat beggars belief. Would I be right in thinking that the suits are a bit scared of him? He’s one of the greatest broadcasting talents on the station, at least ask him into a MNC once or twice, please. Then again, maybe they have and he doesn’t fancy it.
Despite the fact that 606 won a gold award at last year’s ARIAS, with the judges saying they “found the presenters to be engaging, empathetic, challenging, and funny – bringing to life the passion, fears, hopes and dreams of every sports fan”, and adding that “This is the football phone-in others are judged by”, I do wonder if phone-ins actually haven’t pretty much had their day. I’m guessing the BBC see them as part of their public remit and that’s fair enough, but I’d much rather have articulate, intelligent discussion between informed people, rather than listen to someone barking half-baked notions down a terrible phone line.
Incidentally, why is the mobile phone network of such terrible quality in this country? There are people calling from the centre of big cities, but even so, the lines are distorted and broken and they dip in and out. Aesthetically that is a sonically horrible experience to listen to.
Phone-ins are, at best, a very hit and miss affair and are a hangover from the days before electronic communication. But now there’s no shortage of ways to get in touch with a radio station, so I do wonder what the worth of putting people on who, let’s face it, are sometimes badly informed and sometimes can barely string a sentence together, or can only speak in cliches. Hearing the poor presenter trying to pretend as though this is the wisdom of the ancients can be a very, very awkward listen. The exception I’d make for this is Tim Vickery and Dotun Adebayo on the world football phone in which still feels like it comes from an exotic place via the World Service.
But by and large, having the presenter read out tweets or emails is a much better way to let the public have their say.
These things aside, there is very little that isn’t superb about 5 live. Personally, because radio is my favourite medium, I forget that many people never listen to football on the radio at all, so would find my worship of the medium odd. It is a cliche to say the pictures on the radio are better, but a truism nonetheless.
If football radio isn’t a thing in your life, give 5 live a try. Their football coverage will make your quality of life better. Guaranteed.