BBC Radio 5 Live at 30 – Dotun Adebayo looks back

I first arrived at Radio 5 Live at the old TV Centre in west London back in July 1998, as a guest on what was then known as Late Night Live with Nick Robinson.

I remember the date because my appearance was predicated by an opinion column I had been asked to write for The Guardian newspaper on the impending birth of my first child and the awesome task of bringing a black child into a somewhat hostile world. A producer on 5 Live – I can’t remember who to this date, but clearly I owe them a drink – read the piece and thought I might make a good guest.

And this ‘magic of radio’ still exists at 5 Live today – the most accessible of the BBC’s national stations for a young ‘coloured’ boy from Tottenham to walk in and be a star.

How right they were. I was invited back the next night, and the next night, and the next night until I became such a fixture that an uncharitable boyfriend of an ex-girlfriend bemoaned the fact that every time he tuned into 5 Live it was like ‘Dotun Live’.

I was chuffed but I knew my place and was very happy to stay as an occasional guest.

But then an amazing editor at 5 Live, Marina Salandy-Brown, asked me to be the ‘voice of death’ for the station by presenting the Sunday morning obituary show called ‘Brief Lives’. It really was an amazing experience to present a programme about death that was much more about life. I know it sounds a bit strange but myself and my producer Lesley McAlpine had a lot of fun telling the life stories of the dearly departed – the great, the good and, sometimes, the notorious.

This was my big break. Until an even bigger break was presented to me by the then controller of 5 Live, Bob Shennan, who took me to lunch to discuss further opportunities. He told me that he had heard that the station was like ‘Dotun Live’ and offered me the opportunity to step in for Simon Mayo on his afternoon programme. He was stunned when I told him that the programme I really wanted to present was ‘Up All Night’, the global magazine programme that had kept me up on so many nights when my new born toddlers (by now I had two) couldn’t sleep. Years later, he confided that he was gobsmacked because no presenter had ever asked to do the graveyard shift.

Within a week I was deputising on UAN alongside the remarkable Anita Anand, and eventually became second fiddle to Rhod Sharp, the programme’s creator.

Oh, and let me give a big shout out to Moz Dee, Bob Shennan’s right hand man during this period who is a radio genius. Nuff said.

For the next eighteen or nineteen years I was happy as Larry. Radio 5 Live won all of the awards there was to win, and I got an MBE from Her Majesty.

For me, as a presenter, it is all about the place you call home. UAN’s languid style suited my broadcasting skills and the in-house family atmosphere made it my kind of place. Why would I leave? Other stations have tried to tempt me away, but I am 5 Live through and through. Only Nicky Campbell and Eleanor Oldroyd have been here longer.

I have to give props to both the former and current station controllers Jonathan Wall and Heidi Dawson for nurturing that 5 Live vibe. I think their hard work and passion is reflected on air and is no doubt the secret behind the absolute fanaticism of the station’s loyal listeners.

On 22 May 2017, I had the most difficult day of my broadcasting career to date. I broke the news of the Manchester Arena bombing on air. My nerves were shot to pieces from the endless misery that was unfolding, and I could not stop thinking about my own teenage daughters. I cannot tell you how emotional I was to see Jonathan Wall at 6am the following morning, showing the leadership we all needed.

Furthermore, Heidi has displayed an immense commitment and support to the station and its staff time and time again, not least in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder.

The Covid-19 pandemic, in my view, was when the station really came into its own. If ever there was a time when the 5 Live needed a platform to just talk, it was then – nowhere more so than on the overnight programmes. Lockdown highlighted the need for 5 Live more than anything in the 22 years that I have been at the station. All of the people who felt lonely or alone due to the lockdowns and Covid rules were looking for someone to talk to. A real human being. And I became that conduit. Heidi recognised this need from our listeners and ensured that I stayed on air, despite logistical challenges, to head a phone-in show that never received less than 350 calls a night during the pandemic. 500 calls per night was standard, and 750 calls was peak. It was a surreal time. Remember, this is between 1am – 5am every morning when we couldn’t logistically put more than 20 calls per night on air. It was remarkable and something that myself and the entire 5 Live team are immensely proud of.

These first 30 years are just the beginning. I may not get to the next 30 with you, but rest assured – you haven’t heard nothing yet.


Dotun Adebayo presents overnight on BBC Radio 5 Live 1am – 5am Monday – Thursday.