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A little lady at Bloke FM

Critics said it would be rugby league interspersed with minor earthquakes. But a decade on, Five Live's news-and-sport formula is thriving. The presenter Jane Garvey recalls what went right

Tuesday, 2 March 2004

Thirty seconds after four, and our devoted fans are already in touch. "You two are crap." A warm welcome to another edition of Five Live Drive, the nation's favourite teatime news-and-sport show presented by a gobby woman and an old codger. It's a good thing texting wasn't big back in 1994, not least because we were often crap. Now, just occasionally, I think we're all right. It has taken a mere 10 years.

Thirty seconds after four, and our devoted fans are already in touch. "You two are crap." A warm welcome to another edition of Five Live Drive, the nation's favourite teatime news-and-sport show presented by a gobby woman and an old codger. It's a good thing texting wasn't big back in 1994, not least because we were often crap. Now, just occasionally, I think we're all right. It has taken a mere 10 years.

Looking back, I don't know why I worried about the launch of the station. It could never have been as bad as the BBC-baiters were expecting. Civilisation (Radio 4) was threatened. It would be Scud FM with added Old Spice. It would be Radio Bloke. Rugby league commentary interspersed with minor earthquakes, that's what they said. The quick fix was obvious. Let's get a little lady to start it up! That'll fox 'em.

I certainly fitted the bill. Relatively young and, er, female, I was fresh from the breakfast show at BBC Hereford and Worcester, where - as you can imagine - I'd learnt a thing or two about breaking news.

Still, for a fully paid-up (and unashamed) member of Anoraks UK, there is no bigger thrill than saying the opening words on a radio station. And I've done it. For someone who has been to a transmitter site (it was a long time ago; I was very young), moments don't get any bigger than this. I'd been promised that nothing would happen to me if it all went pear-shaped, but I have my doubts. A suit had handed me a discreet business card with the number of the BBC's counselling service, "just in case".

The day itself is now a near-total blur, although I do remember that as I waited to utter the immortal: "Good morning, and welcome to a new network...", some faint reassurance was offered by the presence of Adrian Chiles, the very regional business corespondent seated to my right. However, I'm not sure how I'd have reacted if I had been told I was destined to marry him. Funny how things turn out.

My other marriage is to my co-presenter, Peter Allen, ex-IRN, ITN and the Rainham Echo. Or the Colchester Herald. Anyway, he has some Essex connection, and his Southern-smoothie, golfing, happily-married-man routine contrasted sharply with me in those days, since I was a Northern, feminist, witty young-woman-about-town. (Or, as Peter would and did put it, "You're on the shelf.")

My sadness now is that I am beginning to agree with him much, much more. Sometimes, on air, I'm only pretending to find his opinions ridiculous. This is deeply worrying. He and I bonded because we were two total no-hopers who could barely read and write, hosting a radio breakfast show that no one was going to listen to. In the circumstances (4am, barely springtime, surrounded by people who thought we would last a fortnight), we had no choice but to co-operate. We were in it together, so tough luck.

The editor of the breakfast programme at the time, Bill Rogers, was an inspirational figure who had assembled a decidedly motley yet deeply enthusiastic crew, and many lasting friendships were formed on those all-night production shifts. It's hard not to feel a faint nostalgia for the innocence of those times now - a Conservative government in its death throes, the chance that someone other than Arsenal might win the Premiership, Osama bin Laden not exactly a name on everyone's lips, listeners who were kept at bay... They were able to call our phone-in, but they certainly didn't have access to the screens in front of the on-air presenters, bombarding us via text with inspiration and abuse. Who do these people think they are? And what will they be doing a decade from now? Running the joint?

One of Five Live's stated aims at its birth was to "celebrate the Regions", something, it was felt, that the more established national networks failed to do. Our early emphasis was consequently on GETTING OUT OF LONDON. And boy, did I GET OUT OF LONDON. (Not an enormous novelty for me, personally, since I'd never lived there before.) I began Celebrating the Regions at a cattle market in Cheshire, interviewing a guest about teacher shortages. The cows made a terrible racket but the guest was unaffected. He was in London. Then there was the week I spent in Cornwall one December. Tintagel at 6am was certainly atmospheric and I'm sure King Arthur did pitch up there a few times, but after three hours in sub-zero temperatures with only a hotel vacuum flask of weak coffee for company, I was past caring. Still, at least I wasn't in London. We're still at it now. I co-presented Drive from the packing plant of a pork pie factory in Middlesbrough just a few weeks ago, to the overwhelming indifference of the workforce. (We get quite a warm welcome in prisons, but maybe they're bored.) If you live in a "Region" and feel it's going uncelebrated, do get in touch. If I'm honest, I'm not fit to represent any "Region" any more. I live in west London, know an absurd number of people who work in the media, and have a Really Good Organic Butcher. I've sold out and I'd resign if I didn't enjoy my job so much.

Sport is of immense importance to Five Live, and to many of our listeners. Our sports commentators are the best in the business, bar none. I look back with great pride to the moment I think I convinced Peter of my genuine interest in football: I was able to name the 1974 World Cup final referee (Jack Taylor, fact fans) and he looked at me with total respect. Briefly, admittedly, but what a glow. Before Five Live, some people would have you believe that a passionate (or even passing) interest in sport rendered you a moron. I like to think that our listeners prove you can care about the MMR jab, Roy Keane's thigh strains and the strength of the Euro against the pound. There's plenty of informed, fluent debate on the station, as well as some ill-informed gibbering - not all of it from the presenters.

We do make mistakes, of course. There's too much: "I'll have to interrupt you there, Ted Blanket from the Parrot Breeders' Association, because we're crossing to Westminster for a statement from the Minister for Carpets and Underlay..." It's Five LIVE, yes, but let's not broadcast every damn press conference the world over. I think we've proved our worth, though. Cool, factual accounts of traumatic global and national events from some of the BBC's best reporters, speedy reaction from the experts, live coverage of a host of sporting events, and, increasingly, a platform from which the public can express their opinion: we're not perfect, but it's hard to imagine life without us.

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