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Richard Bacon defends Radio 5 Live output

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Radio 5 Live DJ Richard Bacon

© PA Images / Ian West/PA Wire

Richard Bacon has hit back at TalkSport's criticism of BBC Radio 5 Live's output, suggesting that it's a "weak and insecure" bid to challenge its rival station.

Last year, TalkSport complained to the BBC Trust that 5 Live was failing in its licence requirement to allocate 75% of its schedule to "serious news", with the commercial station particularly singling out Bacon's two-hour weekday afternoon show for criticism. The Trust dismissed the complaint in April, but said that it raised "some significant and valid questions" for a service review of 5 Live and its sister station, 5 Live Sports Extra.

Today, Bacon presented his 5 Live show from the offices of The Independent in London, discussing a variety of media-related issues, including the recent phone hacking scandal at the News of the World. During the show, Bacon had to factor in a surprise interview with actor Hugh Grant, who agreed to contribute to the discussion at the last minute.

In an excellent interview, Grant talked about his rather difficult history with the British media, including scandals, injunctions and his incredible recent bugging of former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan. Bacon was also able to involve The Guardian's Nick Davies, who originally lifted the lid on the phone-hacking scandal, in the conversation, along with most of The Independent's senior journalists.

Speaking after the programme to Digital Spy, Bacon, who this month announced that he is expecting his first child, said that it was exciting to "generate an exclusive in somebody else's news room". He also said that the Grant interview epitomised 5 Live's unique approach to news.

TalkSport claimed that interviews with celebrities and television stars on 5 Live programmes do not represent serious news coverage. But Bacon joined 5 Live deputy controller Jonathan Wall in claiming that the criticism was "just not a fair representation of what [they] do", largely because the definition of news has shifted.

"There is loads of news in our programme, [TalkSport] are just not listening to us properly," said former BBC 6 Music DJ Bacon.

"We are constantly breaking court stories, taking statements from the Commons, and I often interview people who are in the news. I also often interview people from television programmes, but people from television programmes often are the news."

Bacon added: "The definition of news has actually broadened, but there is no question that stories about The X Factor and The Apprentice, and shows like that are all over the newspapers, even sometimes the broadsheets.

"And very frequently the interviews that I do - in recent times with Chris Evans, with Andrew Neil, with Michael Parkinson, and with Hugh Grant today - they will often then be quoted by other news sources, and by other newspapers.

"News isn't simply debating a statement from the Commons - it is now often about television and popular culture within a broader remit of news. The statement that [TalkSport] made about our programmes is not something that I recognise or accept."

Bacon suggested that TalkSport may have launched its campaign against the station because 5 Live is "so successful and has an awful lot of listeners". According to the latest data from the Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR) board, 5 Live had an average weekly reach of 6.65m listeners in the three months to March 31, down on the record 7.09m in the final quarter of 2010, but still ahead of TalkSport's weekly reach of 3.25m. Bacon noted that 5 Live's direction over the last few years has been "one of growth", meaning TalkSport may view the station as its "closest competition".

He added: "There are two ways to run a radio station; one is to really focus on making your offering as dynamic, creative and exciting as possible, and the other is to try and weaken the opposition. I think that trying to weaken the opposition is a weak and insecure way to run a radio station, and not one that I greatly have time for."

Bacon said that the "brilliant" thing about 5 Live is the "light and shade" in the station's output, including the ability to cover breaking news alongside celebrity stories and "trivial features". But TalkSport argues that the station should focus more on serious news, as well as provide move coverage to minority sports.

"I think TalkSport are trying to make [5 Live] more one particular tone and that is not what 5 Live is all about. It's not why people listen to it or why it's so successful," he said.

"What the station needs to do in the future is not for me to address, but in many ways it needs to carry on doing what it's doing now. Of course you will get people moaning about individual presenters, and there are people who don't like me, but that's not the point - you just can't make a radio station where every single listener loves every single bit of it. If anything, that would make quite a bland station."

He added: "The success of 5 Live is down to its character. If you force the station to cover a lot of minority sport and only serious news, then you would fundamentally change the character of the station and it would lose listeners, and TalkSport or whatever, they would go over to them. If anything, TalkSport's focus on 5 Live is rather flattering."

Also today, the first BBC employees started work at the new BBC North building at MediaCityUK in Salford Quays. Parts of Radio 5 Live are among the various BBC departments scheduled to relocate to the site, but the move has not always proved harmonious.

Many high profile BBC executives have declined to make a permanent move north, while top talent, such as Sian Williams and Chris Hollins from BBC Breakfast, have also refused to leave London. Sports presenter Hollins, a former Strictly Come Dancing winner, was vocal in his criticism of the move last year, saying that "it will be practically impossible to get the prime minister on set" when BBC Breakfast heads north.

Asked about the move of his show to MediaCity, Bacon stressed his commitment to the process of making the BBC more reflective of the UK regions outside of London. However, he also said that "we'll have to wait and see" how the move would affect the programme's tone and content.

"The bigger picture I completely support, because the BBC should be more representative, but there are going to be plusses and minuses," he said.

"The thing that my team have to work out is how we get the big guests on the show, because mostly they are in London. We'll have to work on that, whether we change the show a bit, or get them on a video link. It's definitely going to have an impact, but hopefully we can make it a positive impact.

"We will maybe change a bit of the content and tone of the show, I don't know, but we will also make sure that there is no impact on the quality, it will remain as good as it has been."

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