Why city represents the best of Britain

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AS any listener to the station will know from the numerous on-air trails, BBC Radio 5 live is setting up in Sheffield next week for  Octoberfest 2012, three days of live broadcasts and events across the city.

A menu of news and sport programming, audience debates and interactive activities will bring some of the station’s biggest names, along with special guests, to the city to get involved with the action. Confirmed contributors include Nicky Campbell, Shelagh Fogarty, Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode, Stephen Nolan, Robbie Savage, Colin Murray, Al Murray and Nick Hancock.

This is the third Octoberfest and the first since BBC Radio 5 Live re-located to Salford. So why Sheffield? According to the station’s network manager, Paul Blakeley, “We look across the whole of the UK and decide which is the best place to come both editorially and logistically.

”Sheffield stood out because of the editorial opportunity for stories related to things like sport and music. We’ve got Jarvis Cocker on the Richard Bacon show and can look at music and the cultural heritage but there’s also industry and politics. Nick Clegg will be doing a public question and answer session.

“We’re looking to cover local stories and local personalities and what is relevant nationally. It’s got to work for the people of Sheffield and our partners at Radio Sheffield.”

It might seem odd that people will turn up to watch radio programmes which aren’t intended to have a visual element.

“Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film programme, for example, works brilliantly before a live audience,” says Blakeley. “They play to the audience and interact with them and it’s extremely popular and has already sold out.”

Shane Meadows who has filmed his This is England saga in Sheffield will be a special guest. When you think about it, Question Time could just be a phone-in, as it is on Radio 4’s version, but it is popular television.”

And so the Crucible can expect big audiences for recordings of Fighting Talk with Colin Murray on Saturday, building on the success of its Big Day Out in the summer, and then in the early evening Robbie Savage with special guests will host the football phone-in, 606, in the theatre.

“There will be a big screen at the back of the stage displaying Twitter and text messages,” says Blakeley.

It’s a big logistical challenge but, he points out, “Radio is fleet of foot, it doesn’t require the same amount of equipment as TV although we now include a visual element with webcams and things. But it won’t necessitate anything like the number of trucks you see for the World Snooker.”

That said, there is a lot of technical infrastructure and he is concerned that there should be as little downtime as possible so other stations have been factored in including Radio 3’s The Verb and a special edition of Steve Lamacq’s Round Table on 6 Music.  The objective of the event is more about the profile of the BBC itself than just 5 Live, says Blakeley.” It’s not an attempt to up the 5 Live audience which works over a long period of time.

“We’re UK-wide and a slight increase in listeners in Sheffield is not going to have that much of an impact and we are not going to visit every city around the country. So that’s not the object.”

And so the event not only includes live broadcast but a certain number of off-air activities such as The 5-live-a-side Challenge, an attempt to break the Guinness World Records title for the ‘Most players to play in a continuous 5-a-side football exhibition match’, while raising money for BBC Children In Need. That will be at the Sheffield United Academy at Shirecliffe. In Tudor Square there will be a 5 Live activity Igloo where visitors can try their hand at being a radio presenter, football commentator or TV weather presenter.

So a week ahead, what are Paul Blakeley’s biggest worries about potential problems?

“I guess the weather is probably the biggest worry because certain elements are outside and I suppose in the back of my mind I wonder if enough people will turn up for the five-a-side football.

“We need 441 to break the world record and we have many more than that already registered but it’s the slots in the middle of the night that will take some filling. But I have been planning it for months so it ought to go smoothly.”