Babble is the enemy of all good radio

Never mind emails and phone-ins - we need good hosts

What is happening to BBC 5 Live? The station grows less informative by the day. It still has a few stars - the odd presenter who can string a couple of sentences together and who sounds as though he or she might actually have done some homework. Matthew Bannister is a model of sanity in the deranged world of phone-ins, while Simon Mayo manages to make his afternoon show enjoyable in spite of the lobotomised droids who are often his guests. Peter Allen and Jane Garvey at 5 Live's Drive are as rigorous as ever. But, in the main, the station is intent on replacing news with hearsay, and serious talk with flabby banter. In April, two more factual programmes will be axed: Euro News, which is as old as the station itself, and Brief Lives, the obituary show.

I used to dip in and out of 5 Live throughout the day. Now, I avoid switching over to it at all, for fear of hearing, as I have done several times this year, a presenter making an uncorrected factual error. Some of the station's presenters are simply unendurable.

Anita Anand, who does the late-night shift, pulls off the great feat of sounding smug and hesitant at the same time. Stephen Nolan, of weekend phone-in fame, belongs to the shouty and ignorant TalkSport school of radio, an offensive style that leaves an even nastier taste in the mouth when funded by the licence fee. That he is now also to be found during daylight hours (he recently stood holiday cover for Bannister) is little short of bewildering. So, too, is the fact that 5 Live appears virtually bereft of the BBC's best news expertise; some correspondents are heard everywhere but 5 Live.

I thought I'd get this off my chest in this, my last NS radio column (in future, I'll be writing about television). In the 18 months I've been a radio critic, 5 Live is the only station that can truly be said to have got worse. OK, so its ratings are mostly up. But can it be said to be fulfulling its news remit? No, it can't.

I would urge the station's interactivity-obsessed controller, Bob Shennan, to listen (if he hasn't done so already) to Radio 4's spoof talk show, Down the Line. The gap between it and some 5 Live shows is so pitifully small ("Wars! Good or bad?") that it's a wonder anyone can tell the difference. Shennan should sort out his station's errant flimsiness now, because if and when 5 Live makes the move to Salford, far away from the rest of the BBC, this problem will deepen.

Now if, over at Radio 4, Mark "Axeman" Damazer could just stop smiling for a moment, let it also be noted that Saturday Live is still not working. Nor is Kirsty Young's desert island grass skirt rustling any more invitingly in the salty breeze. Still, I love Radio 4. Not a day goes by when it doesn't amaze me that as high-minded a programme as In Our Time exists at all. If Lesley Douglas, controller of Radio 2 and the brilliant BBC 6 Music, would just sort out Sundays, I'd also love her for ever.

Last, a few words for Roger Wright at Radio 3. It's a good thing that his schedule changes are taking effect as I shuffle off to my sofa and remote - otherwise, I would undoubtedly be starting a campaign to persuade Rob Cowan, the new presenter of the breakfast show, to stop begging for emails. I don't care if Barbara in Bradford likes Brahms. Radio 3 listeners don't want babble, they want music. Babble is the enemy of all good radio everywhere.

Pick of the week

The Write Stuff
12 March, 6.30pm, Radio 4
The literary quiz returns – and with it more ace parodies by Sebastian Faulks.

Lent Talks
14 March, 8.45pm, Radio 4
Cherie Booth QC – yes, she – reflects on the story of Zacchaeus.

Don't miss . . .

Birds Eye View festival

Film is one of the most male-dominated art forms, women making up just 7 per cent of directors worldwide. Birds Eye View seeks to redress the balance by providing a platform for a wide range of cinema by women.

This year's highlights include Shut Up and Sing - a documentary about the Dixie Chicks by the two-times Oscar winner Barbara Kopple - and East of Havana (pictured right), which traces the rise of Cuban hip-hop. There will be masterclasses for aspiring film-makers, and Jerry Hall speaks on the opening night.

At various venues in London from 8-14 March. More info from:

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war