Initially the plan was to broadcast a rolling news service on BBC Radio 4 's long wave frequency but this was met with considerable opposition, both internally and externally,  so the BBC decided to close BBC Radio 5 and replace the old service's educational and children's programmes with a new news service, whilst retaining the sports programmes.
The first voice on air, Jane Garvey , later went on to co-present the breakfast and drive-time shows with Peter Allen. The Times described the launch as "slipp[ing] smoothly and confidently into a routine of informative banter"  and The Scotsman as "professionalism at its slickest".
The tone of the channel, engaging and more relaxed than contemporary BBC output, was the key to the channel's success and set the model for other BBC News services later in the decade.
The first audiences were some four million, with a record audience of six and a quarter million. Among the key editorial staff involved in the design of programme formats and recruitment of staff for the new station were Sara Nathan, later editor of Channel 4 News , and Tim Luckhurst , later editor of The Scotsman newspaper and currently Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent.
The station also began to further its boundaries with the publication of the Radio Five Live Sporting Yearbook. The audience Appreciation Index figure did not increase, remaining at The station also broadcasts programmes live through the BBC iPlayer Radio website, which allows replaying programmes up to a month after the original broadcast.
The service is also available on the Radioplayer internet site partially run by the BBC.