Event with Anna Stewart, Editor of BBC Radio 5 Live Drive
5 Live Drive is a unique programme due to its open, conversational, and welcoming atmosphere. That’s no accident. The programme’s Editor, Anna Stewart, told us that she wants listeners to feel as though they’re tuning in to listen to their friends. We spoke to Anna about her experiences at the BBC, her insight into how to position stories, and what she thinks the future holds for the programme.
Anna first joined the BBC in 2004 as a Broadcast Assistant for 5 Live Breakfast. Since then, a lot has changed at the station, especially in the last 10 years as the team has relocated to Manchester. Anna described feeling like an outsider when she first joined. As a working-class person in a middle class London bubble, she cited having impostor syndrome. Since 5 Live moved, Anna described the atmosphere as much more nurturing and open to conversation. She also noted greater diversity in gender, race and, socioeconomics within the teams, which Anna considers to be one of the show’s great assets.
Another example of this is the changes to the BBC planning teams, which have now become much more specialised and important to booking stories. For instance, Business has become Work and Money, there is a Learning and Identity Group, and a Technology Group. These teams are spread out across the UK and allow for greater breadth and quality of stories.
“We need more Keith”
Anna noted that the pandemic, while presenting unique challenges, has allowed her to implement her vision of what she wanted 5 Live Drive to be. She did not want to be “another doom and gloom news show”, but instead to be a respite from them, in which people could smile and laugh. Describing seeing a video of a dancing bus driver named Keith, Anna remembers thinking, “we need more Keith”.
What Makes 5 Live Special?
Amid the recent news around the licence fee, Anna said that she had been reflecting on what made 5 Live indispensable. Being a mix between a news and sport station makes 5 Live unique, and has also led to interesting editorial decisions. Anna even described a situation where she had to choose between covering Brexit debates and Premier League football.
Specifically for 5 Live Drive, she feels that the show’s strength is its presenters. She described Tony Livesey as down-to-earth and “someone you would want to hang out with”. This culture and welcoming atmosphere is what Anna believes draws people back to listen to Drive regularly.
Anna also expressed pride in the fact that 5 Live was able to air stories that other news stations may not immediately think to. She explained that she didn’t want listeners to tune into 5 Live and think “I could have heard this story elsewhere”. One example of this was a postal crisis where people were not able to get their mail. Anna brought on postmasters, people who had missed out on important deliveries, and postal experts. This approach to storytelling in news separates 5 Live Drive from other shows.
“Cost of living, cost of living, cost of living”
When asked what the big trends that will dominate the news this year are, Anna responded, “cost of living, cost of living, cost of living”. While admitting that they do have to keep impartiality in mind, Anna said that hearing from real people about their experiences as well as from experts, is likely going to be a priority for the show. She also mentioned that this has been a priority for the newly structured BBC News commissioning team, and Impact Planning Group.
How to Pitch: Sell the Guest, Not the Story
While there used to be no planning at 5 Live, it has now become an important part of the process, especially during the pandemic when content was harder to come by. As mentioned earlier, Anna does not want listeners to feel as though they could have found the same story elsewhere, and is therefore keen to book opportunities that complement the tone of the show. This results in a prioritization of the quality of a guest over the story. For instance, if a spokesperson is a great speaker and provides a not-so-heard viewpoint, it is important to include these details in your pitch. In fact, producers are now willing to push back on stories and ask for a spokesperson who is female, racially diverse, who has a disability, etc. Anna believes that since these groups are still often not the ones providing their viewpoint on air, it falls on the producers to ensure diversity.
When it comes to brands, according to Anna the rule is that one organic mention is okay, but any more than that is a problem. She admitted that if guests are guilty of advertising too much, they are unlikely to get booked on again. When it comes to business-focussed spokespersons such as CEOs, the same rules apply. For these types of guests, it is especially important that they are relevant to the story and engaging.
Another important point to consider is the rise of Zoom, not only for logistical reasons during the pandemic, but also for sustainability and cost reasons. Anna admitted that ISDN is likely to become defunct as even radio news stations value visual elements to their communication. This is both so that it can be used on social and so that it establishes a better rapport with a guest.
From a timeline perspective, Anna advised never to call with a pitch while a show is on the air, with midday being an optimal time to pitch a story to air on the same day.