It’s 5am on a chilly March morning in 1994 – and as early risers and media commentators tune in, acclaimed broadcaster Jane Garvey has this announcement: ‘Good morning and welcome to a new network, BBC Radio 5 Live, news and sport from the BBC, 24 hours a day’.

Cue a brave new undertaking from the BBC, a radio station with a bold mission to be the voice of the UK, discussing news stories listeners could relate to their everyday lives and sharing the passions of sports fans with live coverage and expert insight.

Now celebrating its 30th birthday, 5 Live has grown into an award-winning home for live coverage of major news events and iconic sporting tournaments, from the Ashes and World Cup to international rugby tournaments. The 2023 ARIAs (the radio industry’s Oscars) saw 5 Live taking golds for the daily live Breakfast Show, podcast series You Me and The Big C and Radio Times Moment of the Year for the incredibly moving live conversation when Tony Livesey won’t say goodbye to Dame Deborah James.

Great British Life: 5 Live Breakfast presenters Rick Edwards and Rachel Burden5 Live Breakfast presenters Rick Edwards and Rachel Burden (Image: BBC)

Household names like Rachel Burden, Nicky Campbell and Naga Munchetty host shows where 70 per cent of the schedule is news with an undercurrent of sport in everything 5 Live does. ‘It’s like a passion thread that runs through,’ says Heidi Dawson. ‘Our presenters all love sport and it’s all about understanding the passion of sports fans and why sport matters to people.’

Heidi is ideally placed to comment. Because over these last three decades, the professional and listening life of the BBC’s Heidi Dawson, Controller of 5 Live, has been inextricably entwined with the progress of the network.

As a teenager in Barnoldswick, Manchester United supporter Heidi was initially drawn to 5 Live by the phone-in show hosted by Nicky Campbell which is still a star of the schedule today. She remained a firm fan during her college years at Salford University and first jobs in journalism at the BBC.

Great British Life: Nicky Campbell's phone-in show was the reason Heidi started listening to 5 Live and it remains a key part of the scheduleNicky Campbell's phone-in show was the reason Heidi started listening to 5 Live and it remains a key part of the schedule (Image: BBC)

And then one day in the early 2000s, the then 5 Live Controller Bob Shennan found himself in a meeting with a rookie producer from the station’s Breakfast Show. How, she wondered out loud, could she herself become the Controller? So Heidi already knew that was what she wanted? ‘Yes. that’s a bit mad isn’t it?’ she smiles. ‘I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I have always wanted to run a radio station.’

Today, from an imposing Quay House HQ in MediaCity Salford that’s also home to the BBC’s Sport, Breakfast and regional news teams, Heidi has overseen both 5 Live and 5 Live Sports Extra since 2019. Last January, she was additionally appointed BBC Head of Salford to foster greater collaboration across an almost 3500 strong BBC campus that also encompasses children’s channels CBBC and CBeebies, North West Tonight, Children in Need, the BBC Philharmonic, 6 Music, shows for Radios 1,2 and 3 and business news, online and R&D operations.

A proud supporter of the BBC’s ‘Across the UK’ strategy (which will see the corporation invest £700m in creating opportunities outside of London by 2027) Heidi has long been a passionate advocate for the BBC’s investment in the North, both for creating career opportunities for local people and for reflecting audiences.

Great British Life: Media City at Salford, home to Radio 5 Live and a host of other BBC favouritesMedia City at Salford, home to Radio 5 Live and a host of other BBC favourites (Image: BBC)

‘There’s a special North West energy, creativity and authenticity that drives the teams here and I am looking forward to seeing how we harness that further to work even better together,’ she said at the time of her latest appointment.

‘5 Live is the only national radio station outside London,’ she continues proudly today. 'So when Breakfast’s Rachel Burden is on air, she can be talking about having to scrape the snow off her car in Cheshire before she can drive into work in the morning whereas all the other hosts in London are talking about getting on the Tube – presenters are talking about what’s happening in their lives in a way that is relatable if you live up here.’

Although this warm, unpretentious Lancastrian would probably reject the description of “high-flyer” there’s no doubt she has an impressive CV. And her passion for radio is obvious.

‘No other medium connects with you in the way that radio can, it’s company for you in your home, in your car. The audience have a personal relationship with favourite presenters, you feel like you know them, they’re part of your family.

‘Early in my career, to be honest, I found making TV slow and dull. What I love about radio is that you can make it wherever you are, on your own, go and record something and it’s on the radio within an hour – you feel close to your audience because it’s going out the same day.”

Heidi honed her craft as a producer working with the likes of Eddie Mair on PM, Nick Clarke on The World At One and UK election specials with Gabby Logan. Highlights included producing at the 2008 Olympics, as well as working on in-depth news specials in places like Iraq.

‘When you look back at my jobs and experiences I might not look like the most obvious choice to run a radio station,’ she says. ‘I was interested in what was happening in the Middle East so I went and worked as a producer in Jerusalem, I loved football so I went to a World Cup. But when you add all of those experiences together they have given me a well-rounded career so when the opportunity did come to move into the management team I had learned from lots of different people along the way.’

In 2013, promotion to the station’s management team was set against the backdrop of the transformation underway in how we consume audio content, when and where, from the growing popularity of podcasts, to the impact of social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook.

Great British Life: Heidi Dawson was brought up in Barnoldswick and now lives in DidsburyHeidi Dawson was brought up in Barnoldswick and now lives in Didsbury (Image: BBC)

‘Over the last ten years we’ve gone from being a big, live, exciting radio station to being a live radio station plus podcasts plus social media. When the BBC Sounds app launched, it transformed the way you can listen to radio, you can now pause and rewind live radio which was unheard of. You can take the radio with you wherever you are and listen back to what you missed.’

Innovation under Heidi’s tenure is also evident in the lineup of on air talent. ‘Almost every programme on 5 Live has a new presenter from when I started. The changes haven’t always been driven by the station but we have been able to refresh and change things round.’

One change which attracted much attention in 2021 was the move of Nicky Campbell after 18 years from 5 Live Breakfast to an eponymous 9am slot. ‘What made me first listen to 5 Live was Nicky Campbell’s phone in, he absolutely drew me in and remains the best in the country at it,’ says Heidi. ‘We wanted to take what Nicky was brilliant at and do more of it so he now has a two hour phone- in every morning.’

Of course, phone-ins are available elsewhere, including on main competitors LBC and TalkSport, but Heidi is clear about the distinctions. ‘The most significant difference is we have an impartial presenter and that enables you to make your own views. For me, phone-in hosts are like the conductor of an orchestra, pulling in various voices and sounds and not favouring or offering their views so you can make up your own mind. If you know the host feels a particular way that can be quite off putting, feel less inclusive.’

The mention of inclusivity almost inevitably leads to a gentle reminder that 5 Live has been nicknamed “Bloke Radio” in the past. A passionate sports fan herself, Heidi references a deeper societal flaw for why the moniker hasn’t entirely disappeared. ‘The risk is that people make assumptions that women don’t like sport and that is simply not true,’ she says. ‘I think about representation all the time. I went out to the Rugby World Cup for the opening match and Sonja McLaughlan was our main presenter with Victoria Turner producing and Sara Orchard commentating, Vicki Sparks our football commentator does all the matches for us – so we can always do more, but we are doing a lot.’

Away from the station, Didsbury-based Heidi spends time at her childrens’ football matches and the family often visit nearby parks like Fletcher Moss or go for tougher walks in the Peak District like Kinder Scout. Cibus Italian restaurant in Levenshulme is a favourite for meals out.

Plans for 5 Live’s 30th anniversary will be announced in the coming months, adding to an already busy year. ‘It’s the football Euros in Germany, the Olympics in Paris, we will have a UK General Election, and a US Presidential Election so there’s lots of big news and sport happening; 2024 is what 5 Live is made for and when you add in the 30th anniversary, you’ve got an awesome year.’

Heidi’s top three

A trio of favourite podcasts chosen by the Barnoldswick-born controller of Radio 5 Live

The Gangster series (‘really good storytelling rooted in the North of England’), Sports Strangest Crimes, and sports personality led discussions on the curated area called The Players Channel, like My Mate's A Footballer with footballer Patrick Bamford and comedian Joe Wilkinson.