Today’s decline accelerates as flagship radio news show looks for a voice

The audience for the BBC’s flagship radio news programme the Today programme is plummeting, down 800,000 listeners to seven million according to the most recent Rajar figures.

And editor Sarah Sands, latterly of the London Evening Standard, and star presenter John Humphrys, now 74, are taking a right old kicking. As BBC “institutions” tend to do when they hit choppy waters.

While it’s true that Today now has more competition from digital media – where presenters are not so burdened by the need to be impartial – it’s also true that it’s less compelling than it used to be, less newsy certainly. This is partly Sands’ doing who seems to have made the same mistake that newspapers and magazines did when they were blitzed by the internet. They reasoned: people get news from elsewhere so we need to do more in-depth, long format pieces. Wrong: journalists love these, readers (mostly) don’t.

Sands has tried to make Today more magazine-like but that’s not what people want when they make room in a crowded morning to listen to a news programme.

All this while many news interviews are cut short to the the point of pointless, not helped by the seeming requirement to cram in two opposing points of view.

The Today programme has lost its bottle with politicians, formerly its victims now with the upper hand. This can be dated way back to 2003 when reporter Andrew Gilligan filed a report accusing the Labour government of “sexing up” a dossier it produced to justify the invasion of Iraq over Saddam Hussein’s (non-existent) “weapons of mass destruction.” In the furore that followed, orchestrated by Tony Blair’s spinmeister Alastair Campbell, Gilligan (who didn’t get all of it right but got the gist of it – a real story) and director general Greg Dyke resigned. The BBC abandoned Dyke to his fate, disgracefully.

Since when Today has been on the back foot, with only a craven BBC management intent on preserving its own privileges to defend it.

Today has created its own problems too. Presenters James Naughtie and Ed Stourton were moved out to make way for Nick Robinson and Justin Webb. Robinson’s OK but he doesn’t have Naughtie’s winning, if eccentric, personality, Webb seems to be there to bring a more right wing perspective irrespective of his abilities as an interviewer. And the Beeb needed to find a job for its returning Washington correspondent.

Mishal Hussein and Martha Kearney are now in situ, bringing a more even gender balance. But Hussein chivvies away at her interviewees, which can be painful to listen to. Kearney has yet to show she’s better than Sarah Montague with whom she swapped jobs following a typically convoluted BBC row over pay.

It’s astonishing to think that outspoken columnist Rod Liddle was once Today’s editor but Today, under Liddle, managed to be fresh and newsy and somehow keep the wolf from the door.

Sands blames the audience fall on a lack of news stories that people want to hear about. And, of course, we all get sick of Brexit. But it’s not the stories that are to blame, it’s what Today does with them.

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