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BBC Radio 5 is losing its audience. Why? And does it matter?

By Tony Attwood

In case you don’t live in the UK, or in case you do but don’t listen to the radio, I should explain.  BBC Radio 5 Live is the BBC station which covers sport.  In fact there are two Radio 5’s – there’s also a second digital-only channel which carries commentary on events when there are two events on at once that the station has the rights to cover.

The problem BBC Radio 5 Live has is that its audience is down.  Down 3.4% on the previous three months and down 6% year on the year.

Of course since this is a BBC station that does not mean much in terms of money – the station is funded by the “licence fee” – a tax that everyone with a television receiving device has to pay in the UK.  But the BBC does look at audience figures in the belief that if numbers go too low it might well come under government pressure to cut some of its services and let commercial broadcasters take over.

In this regard, the BBC does have a national rival – Talk Sprot.  Radio 5 has the rights to live coverage or some games, Talk Sprot gets some others.  Local stations also cover some games.

So why is the audience diminishing?

Obviously it is possible that Radio 5’s audience is on the slide because of things completely unrelated to football or any other sport.  It is on air all day long, and runs some news coverage, phone ins, chit-chat entertainment spots  which assume that everyone watches soaps every night, and similar sorts of thing.  The station has been travelling down market for years.

As for football however, it is more or less travelling nowhere.  It’s live commentaries on games are fairly much as they were five or ten years ago, and so can sound increasingly irrelevant and out of date.   The lead commentator is Alan Green who often baits Talk Sprot, and indeed Stan Collymore, which is quite an endearing feature, but his endless negative commentary on refs has for some years seemed odd.

Green thinks the refs are doing a poor job, and says so.  Fair enough.  Most people involved with Untold would agree.  But neither he nor the station ever go further.   The refs are doing a bad job because….    Why?  He never says.

Leaving the question hanging around like that certainly makes the whole debate seem bizarre, but resolutely Radio 5 doesn’t seem to want to enter that door.

Meanwhile on its lead football phone in (“606”) the mood has become singularly boorish with those taking the calls shouting down callers – and it is noticeable that virtually no pro-Arsenal calls get through.  If one does listen to the phone-in any calls about Arsenal appear to be from Anti-Arsenal Arsenal callers.  Sir Alex F-Word on the other hand appears to be venerated.

Indeed it is often the case that callers appear to have an agreed agenda, much of the time repeating the same phrase over and over, without any concept of debate.  The BBC must be aware of this, and yet do nothing about it.

Part of the problem with Radio 5 seems to me to be its mindset – which is one of being “there” at the “big moment” and clinging on to the “big moment” rather than giving out information about what else is happening.  What they don’t seem to get is that despite the propaganda from Manchester United to the effect that virtually everyone is a Man U supporter, this isn’t actually true.  The majority of their audience don’t support the club.  The same is true – what we all want is information – what we get is opinion, opinion, and opinion.

Thus to give an example, when Man City beat Man U to the championship at the end of last season the station spent half an hour talking to ex-players after the match, without once giving a run down of other scores.  It was as if the history of the clubs was more important to most of us, than what had happened on that day in football.

In many ways in fact Radio 5 seems to have become increasingly irrelevant by refusing to recognise the way in which football itself is changing and the way in which the world of supporters has changed.  One gets the feeling that they still see us as rosy cheeked people with scarves and rattles, excited because the man from the radio is here with a mic.  Rather than the fact that we know that anything we say that doesn’t fit with the station’s vision of sport is not going to be broadcast.

Elsewhere having won the right to cover international matches Radio 5 endlessly presents the notion that international football (particularly that played by England) is a “good thing” when there clearly is a very large number of people who actually loathe internationals as they disrupt the work of the club that they support and the club that pays the players’ wages.

It is indeed this refusal to accept an issue such as this as a debating point that singularly counts against Radio 5.  It is in effect selecting the issues that are acceptable, and the attitude within those issues which is acceptable.  And then it defines how we are supposed to talk about these issues.

The other problem the station has is its insistence on using the same old experts over and over again in the style of other stations.  Thus we hear ex-Arsenal players adopting the same position that can be heard repeatedly on other media – nothing is fresh, nothing is new, so there is no point is listening.  We know most ex-Arsenal players are told by the media to be negative about Arsenal, so they do, poor lambs.  It is on every station.  Do we need it on Radio 5 as well?

It is, I think, interesting to reflect on what Radio 5 is doing, at the time of the change that has taken place on Arsenal TV in which a highly negative anti-Wenger commentator was removed and a very positive presenter replaced him.  The breath of fresh air made the station worth listening to.  Yet it took ages for this to happen.  Radio, its seems, moves slowly.

This is not to say that Radio 5 should adopt a pro-Arsenal stance, any more than I want it to adopt stance which is pro any other club.  Rather I would like it to reassess the way it controls the debate and the way it looks as football programming on radio.  It is not, in my opinion, suitable to say, “International football is good” and leave it at that.  Rather it needs to open the debate and recognise the widespread hostility to international football.

It is not adequate to note that there is corruption in football around the world, but to ignore the notion that there might be some in England.

Radio 5 could be a good place to listen to discussion on football and match commentaries, but to be so it needs to throw off the historic approach to football on the BBC, and instead start to look for alternatives.

Untold Arsenal

 Ordinary is Pointless

29 comments to BBC Radio 5 is losing its audience. Why? And does it matter?

  • Maverick

    Tony,

    I know this off subject but can you please do an article on this………i couldn’t help but laugh.

    I know the sun is a trash tabloid but they are so pro manu it isnt even funny. But they have just done a report that says that the shares they are selling the broker fels are vastly over priced and are worth $5 or about £3 tops which makes the club worth only £530m and the clubs brand almost worthless because of what is going on at the club.

    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/money/4486305/Man-Utd-shares-alert-as-broker-claims-they-are-not-worth-half-of-launch-price.html

  • Sean

    So true what you say. Alan Green’s sour view is truly off-putting. I’ll still keep on listening, though 😉

  • SurreyGunner

    This is an interesting blog. I use to listen to radio 5, but I have stop. I think I falling out of love with football, the “experts” dont add value or add anything, secondly some of the phone ins are mindless.

    I think the BBC move to Salford has changed the presentation, this might change.

    There is a clear bias towards Arsenal, Gunner and Wenger I have complained but it still continues. If you an Arsenal fan supporter dont knock us.

    Last which bean counter at Radio 5 has made Savage a commentator on 500K a year, he is mindless. Sorry mindless footballer promoted to commentator!!! Radio 5 use to use Platt and Armstrong who had a real good analysis of teams.

  • Magneto

    Interesting article.

    As a long time listener to sport on BBC Radio – going back to the days when the dulcet tones of the late great Peter Jones & his sidekicks Bryan Butler & Alan Parry ruled the roost -I am not surprised that Five Live is losing it’s audience.

    Despite official denials by it’s management, the station has clearly been undergoing a process of tabloidisation for many years now, and is quite simply not as good as it once was.

    That, for me, is the main reason why audience levels have been plummeting.

  • Limpar

    Radio 5 has been going down hill for years, & I find the majority of their football chats with the likes of Steve Claridge etc outdated xenophobic & unbearable. Gaby Logan constantly regurgitates the half witted mantras of the pessimistic snobby journalists that are so common on all the other football outlets, as she obviously isnt intelligent enough to be objective so just jumps on the bandwagon during her monday afternoon show. I think she may have been sacked now but the show is still just as bad.
    There is definitely an anti foreign, anti arsenal , pro Utd bias running through the majority of their tedious debates.
    I prefer to listen to the shows on current affairs & politics which seem to be more educated, fair & less pompous

  • Limpar

    Not a sports correspondant , but Richard Bacon makes my ears bleed

  • Tralfamadorean

    The standard of sports commentary is declining, and this shows particularly in football. Halfway through an interesting move, and we are treated to some obscure statistic – with the crowd roaring their appreciation in the background, or the resident expert is wobbling on about an experience that – although one that he will take lovingly to his grave – forces the match information into a poor second place.

    I make a point of complaining to the good old beeb, but to no avail.My last moan was about them ensuring that Sky viewers had more BBC Olympic coverage than Freeeview. They told me that it was in the licence payer’s interest, and that it wasn’t in the same licence payer’s interest to waste their time answering me – so they wouldn’t respond further.

    You make a very good point about referees. Although I have heard Green ranting about a decision that when I finally got to see the incident it was very quickly clear that Green wasn’t even close to being right. The standard of refereeing has undoubtedly fallen – BUT refs are only supposed to give what they (or the assistants) see, and we often have the ability to see more than they can. I don’t believe that that excuses some of the shocking errors from last season.

    Finally are the media anti Wenger – anti Arsenal??? I don’t think that anyone who watches and listens can be in any doubt about the level of this unwarranted bias. There is almost an anti Arsenal cult within the media. My personal opinion is that it is all the fault of Arsene Wenger. If he wasn’t intelligent, articulate, and prepared to fight arsenal’s corner with the host of public school Johnnies – who seem to waltz into plum media positions, without any justification apart from being able to boast the right school and parentage – then they would leave us all alone….. Keep up the good work Arsene, and I have a feeling that there will be a need for mountains of humble pie come the end of the season.

    John

  • Barndoor Bendtner

    Unfortunately the standards of pundits, commentators, journalists and presenters are woeful almost across the board and on all media types.
    If you look at the excellent coverage of the Olympics you will note that there is a ray of hope, but there has to be wholesale changes. I’m not a regular R5 listener so I cant make specific references there, but Hansen & Lawro on MoTD demonstrate the disease in full HD.
    There is a wealth of ex-professional sports people out there that is yet to be tapped.
    I agree, it is not about being bland and unbiased, it is about expertise and being a fan of sport in general.

  • aj

    I too lost interest due to the very poor level of debate and the low intelligence of the particpants. Alan Green I cannot bear and I agree with SurreyGunner that employing Robbie Savage is inexcusable!

    One point you did not mention is the fact that it is broadcast on MW 909 & 693 for those without digital radios. I used to listen to 5 Live in the car but the reception is just intolerable.

  • Lanz

    Thanks for another interesting post. However, I have a question: are you serious about your statement that ex-Arsenal players are told by the media to be anti-Arsenal?

  • HR

    One name: Alan Green.

    Vile, bigoted, boorish, racist, unimpartial, unknowledgeable, sexist, mean, bemoaning, spiteful, blinkered, righteous, whining … (I think I’d better stop now.)

  • bob

    Tony, Limpar, SurreyGunner,
    As part of and beyond their falling ratings, this article and comments are great indicators of the micro/local sources of the anti-Arsenal bias (mood, opinion) and how it gets produced and reproduced and normalized across the UK. Imo, it’s really useful to notice that it’s right down to the choice of presenters, the narrowing and manipulation of debating points, the constant repetition of the Arsenal/Arsene As Outsider mantra, etc.

    Your bringing in the specific names (even as they come and go) of the presenters, pundits, players who are the mouthpieces of it really puts a face on the more general slander machinery. Imo, the most interesting question is who in the background – producers, management, owners – as specifically as posible sets these parameters for acceptable (and repeated) talking points and the limit of discussion/debate – and then on to the reasons why do they do so, beyond the fact that “everyone” does so. Indeed, why does everyone in the mainstream media do so? This is a remarkable story – even if seemingly normal from within the UK – a scandal begging exposure.

  • colario

    I don’t live in England and can only get BBC radio on the net. Radio 5 is not allowed to broadcast its matches on the net, so I don’t hear them and therefore cannot comment.

    I get all the talk football. ‘606’ has become a bore for me for there are basically two types of caller comment. The team won so hear something like ‘team were great’ The team lost ‘sack the manager or a particular player’. Comments on a dubious ref calls are made. Brian Green tends to go with the caller on these.
    The ‘Monday Night club’ can be of some use. The one I listen out for is Lee Dixion who often gives snippets of useful information.

    Any football spot that Colin Murray has taken over is now a waste of time as he seems intent on turning radio 5 into a cross between radio 1 and radio 2 music channels and Radio Comic. Most comments that he makes on football seem to me to be trival.

    As for Brian Green and Robbie Savage I think its a case of like or not like. I can’t believe that replacements for them would be worse.

    There was a time when I listened every day to Radio 5, now the only programme I hear regularly is Radio 5 Live Drive. This gives me UK news I wouldn’t get elsewhere. The main presenter is a spuds supporter, this fact gives the programme humour that I don’t get elsewhere, especially after Arsenal 5 spuds 2. That shut him up!

  • bob

    Lanz, Tony,
    Yes, this would be an all-important point to be able to nail down. There does seem to be a negative pattern with figures like Robson, Wright, at times Campbell. There are doubtless more, but these jump to mind. Then there’s the false-Arsenal fans like Cross John and Piers Morgan, whose rooting interest in AFC is often, imo, a fig leaf for the well executed stab in the back. Of course, outside the media, there’s the ex-Patrick Veira who as a VP at Citeh does arguably more serious hands-on damage to us. Although there are a few and far between counterweights like Ray Parlour, who from the little I’ve seen appears to be a (or the) steadily constructively go-to pro-Arsenal commenter (when TalkShite wants a pinch of that). I’m outside the UK media scene, so these are a few gleanings. I think it would be useful to have more comments with specific names to fill out the AAA football starting eleven, so to speak.

  • Woolwich Peripatetic

    As is fairly typical with these sort of things, they start at a fairly good level, go down hill, lose some of their audience and then decide to go mass market (ie lowest common denominator) and lose even more of their audience.

  • nicky

    I would listen to Radio 5 if a live Arsenal game, not on TV, was being broadcast. Better than nothing.
    Having said that, one mustn’t forget those folk who are visually impaired and who rely on the radio for such a great deal.
    Of course TV has largely blotted out sports via the radio, in the same way that it has largely replaced the cinema.
    Those of us who follow cricket find it useful to watch a Test Match mute on TV, with the addition of the excellent radio commentary.

  • Matt Clarke

    Good obituary 🙂

  • Laundryender

    I am a huge fan and admirer of BBC Sport. Their coverage on most events really is second to none. The Olympics coverage was wonderful; the Open and Wimbledon coverage is the standard bearer for world sport., but on football I am afraid the BBC really are poor, sadly when it comes to football the BBC has forgotten its code of ethics and its position of impartiality. On football matters the BBC has become personality driven and sensationalist. It lost me when they appointed the clown known as Robbie Savage. This man really does have nothing to say about football, life or anything that you would not hear in a school toilet, he really is that stupid! His response to me would be “how much money have you got, what car do you drive” (yes I have heard him say that to someone) to which I say, thank you Robbie, you have confirmed you are a twat!!
    I have written to the BBC more than once via its website, reminding them of their code and commitment to impartiality, I have also asked them why they allow unqualified opinion on football matters, and refereeing issues in particular. I recently wrote to them asking them why they allowed Mark Lawrenson to constantly attack referees for giving right decisions, proving that he clearly does not know the laws, so must be unqualified. I got waffle back about football being a game of opinions.
    The facts about BBC 5 live is it is in a competitive environment, and most of the competition is poor quality, but effective, so 5 live also try to wear that suit, alas it does not fit. The BBC being populist and sensationalist is a bit like SKY TV running the sky at night, inappropriate (Eastenders aside of course)
    The BBC should be about quality, honesty and impartiality, in most cases it is just that, sadly not in football, to sort it, simple, bring back Danny Baker and get rid of those ex pro footbaler celebrity wanabee Muppets.

  • I fuggin h8 five live realy ppl if u are going to listen to any sort of show or podcast listen to the young guys at football ramble or the guardian podcast. But I must admit the world football phone in in sick!! Boom!

  • Steve

    Due to my work I listen to a lot of sports radio coverage(talkrubbish and radio 5 dead as I like to call them). Radio 5 I don’t know where to start or more to the point will I finish moaning about their coverage & views. Alan Green a man who loves the sound of his own voice, if you listen to one the matches he covers then listen to one a week later he says almost exactly the same things no matter who the teams are(unless it l’poo or man u). His views on players and how they play is well rubbish, I have listend to matches and then watched them when I get home and I find myself watching a totally different match. What I do find annoying is they change commentators during matches why can’t they do a whole match?

    The 606 program is just a joke they are trying to be like talkrubbish but are failing and failing by a long long way. What I wish to hear are the fans views on clubs and how they are playing not some jumped up bloke who can chat a bit. Like talkrubbish they do not let the callers finish what they are saying and then have the last word 9/10 times moaning about what the caller has said with no chance for reply.

    Football has moved on, on TV and in the grounds but radio sports shows are stuck in a flux not really knowing what they should do. If the BBC keep going like they are with sports radio they will lose more and more listeners. They need to come up with an alternative to the shock-jock over the top pain in the arse that is talkrubbish. They need ex players who can talk tactics and explaine what is happening on the pitch not loud mouthed jurno’s who think they know more than the experts and talk down to the listener.

    As for talksport(talkrubbish) as long as they employ Stan collymore as an expert commentator I will not listen to his shouting and his ranting and fans who phone in.

    RIP sports radio 🙁

  • Stuart

    Nicky,

    I quite often watch the Arsenal on mute if there is a radio commentary. Sometimes is a bit out of Sync but 10 x better.

  • nyand

    The insanity of football financing echoes the craziness in commentators and viewers, probably highlighted by the beer consumption during matches. Being drunk, a state many viewers of football matches usually are in, is a stupor of self willed temporary insanity. Most of the commentators and fans on every football show seem to be on fits of willful temporary madness, just like football financiers.

  • colario

    Football is not confined to Radio 5. I come here having just listened to this on Radio 4 and will be available to hear for the next 7 days on the net any time. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01lt2vj
    Game Changer: 20 Years of the Premier League. You will hear our once very own David Dean but you won’t hear a single mention of Arsenal.

  • Stroller

    I find that nearly all of the commentators and ‘pundits’ (both radio and TV) carry a bias against the more skillful teams. This manifests itself in favouring the physical approach adopted by lessor teams (you can guess which one I’m thinking of) which when coupled with poor understanding of the laws drives me mad. How many times do you see or hear about some neanderthal crashing through an opponents legs in a bone-breaking tackle only for these so-called experts to leap to their defence with ‘I think he got a touch on the ball’ ?

  • bob

    Stroller,
    The abettors of crunch-bone/crime scene football ought to be in the same docket as Smith, Shawcross and the rest of the cleats-up mob that they encourage and excuse.

  • bob

    p.s. forgot Taylor in that unholy trinity of thugs for hire.

  • gooner murphy

    In my occupation I do quite a lot of driving and unfortunately I get to listen to both these awful radio stations. Radio 5/ 606 Alan green, Rob-Me Savage, Mark Law-rant-son Andy pansy Murray, need we say more, oh yes we can, annalistic skills combined score 1 out of 10 (they know their own name) debating skills -10, commentary 1 out of 10 they can say football in 4 tones, all in all a great team.
    As for talk sport rubbish Stan Hit me Collie hit more, Andy dig arse Durham, well I don’t think theirs enough additives to describe them.

  • Andy

    Based in HK I sometimes listen to Absolute Radio’s football show on Saturday post match. At least there is some Arsenal representation with IWWW and Ian Stone (from Alan Davies podcast fame)although there is a bit of negativity thrown in too.

  • ian

    So pleaased to read this article, i thought it was me and that i was turning into an obsessed and grumpy old man!

    The final game of the season was ridiculous, i cant complain that the presenters got excited about the finish, it was an amazing conclusion to the season but there was so much else going on. Relegations had yet to be decided and of course the final champions league place, all of these details were ignored, i remember some twenty minutes after the AFC game had finished, there had been no update. It would have taken a matter of seconds to update the scores and implications. It is seemingly as if the presenters believe that the only piece of interest the listeners have is what they want to talk about.

    With regards to Robbie Savage, i did write to the BBC and complain about him. You may recall last season a game where West Ham were two nil up and playing ten men, a West Ham player had the ball, and no opposing players went to him , so he stopped and adjusted his socks and shin gaurds. Robbie Savage described the act as “disrespectful” he then went on to say that if players are going to “show boat” then they “deserve to be hit”, he then carried on saying if he was on the pitch he would have “smashed him in the corner”.

    I did get a reply from the BBC, which basically said that the show was unscripted and the audience liked the forthright views of the presenters. I wrote back and said “so are you condoning attacking of footballers?” Again i got a response but all it said was “we are never likely to agree on this matter”.

    Its the same presenters complaining about Players that lose form yet dont realsise that them telling their audience its ok to kick people has a knock on affect.

    Phrase used to be dumbing down, question is how low can it be taken?