It's not me, it's you

Anyone who follows me on Twitter may have noticed my occasional outbursts of frustration about BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. You may have asked, “Why don’t you switch it off, or listen to something else?” I didn’t, because I wanted to believe Today could be good, that it could live up to its reputation as the premier agenda-setting news programme. But from today, I’ve given up, it’s over, we’re finished, no more. Today, it’s not me, it’s you.

Which is a shame. As I said, I want Today to be good. I want it to be in-depth and have an interesting agenda. I want it to be the radio equivalent of, say, the very best of broadsheet newspapers (not the highest bar in the world, but you’d think it might be possible). Instead, it all too often ends up as the radio equivalent of mid-market tabloids, leaving me with the same queasy, angry feeling I have if I glance through the Express or a shrieking local paper.

It’s not even like I listen to a lot of Today. I only ever hear a few minutes each morning, before I get up or while making breakfast. But that’s always more than enough. This morning for example, after dozing through ‘Thought for the Day’ (don’t get me started) I heard some treasury minister doing nothing but avoiding answering a straight question. So, fair dues, this isn’t directly Today’s fault but it’s so common, this non-interview with politicians, that there seems little point bothering. But the programme is so pleased to have interviewed a politician that the minister’s non-answer is the bit that is used, out-of-context, as a quote in a news story a few minutes later, making him sound quite reasonable, rather than the evasive, weaselly little shit he seemed at the time.

A little later Today covered the cat thrown in a bin story. They’re far from alone in this — it’s everywhere today — but I’d hope for some intelligence from a quality news programme. They started with a report from Rory Cellan Jones on the reaction to the video online, which is potentially the only interesting part of the story — how something like this goes viral, the over-reaction from people, the posting of her address, the police protection… it could be tied in to many previous internet witch hunts, like 4chan’s hounding of Jessi Slaughter. Instead Jones’s report was little more than detailing the numbers of people who’d watched the YouTube video or Liked the Facebook page. The rest of the report was an interview with reknowned animal-rights-fanatic, author Jilly Cooper. Can you guess what she thought about a cat being dumped in a bin? Yawn. This doesn’t illuminate or inform the story at all. “Obsessive animal rights author outraged by cruelty to cat” is not news.

This morning’s show didn’t even feature the whining, faux-dumb, overly antagonistic and superior presence of John Humphrys who manages to make the daily escapade unbearable.

But the show’s not all bad. Humphrys aside, the presenters aren’t, generally, annoying or dumb. I could listen to Evan Davis for hours, especially talking about the economy, something he manages to do both in-depth and with clarity. There are some good reports, but these get over-shadowed by all the dumbness that stands out, and the frustrating choice of other stories. Too often Today is an attention-grabbing, overly-brief, politician-pandering, technophobic embarrassment.

Which is such a shame. It’s supposed to be the UK’s premier radio news show. What’s worse, this is probably still true. As far as I know, there are no other decent, quality news options, particularly on analogue broadcast radio. (I’ve been told the World Service is worth a listen at that time of the morning, but I don’t have a radio that picks it up.) I don’t even know if there’s an alternative UK-based radio news programme I could listen to by any means that would be decent, digital or online. Is there? Surely, in this age of fragmented, multi-channel, distributed, bottom-up media someone in the UK is making something that reports the news with consistent intelligence?

I know a lot of people who listen to Today. But I know the same number of people who are always moaning about how awful it is. Which makes me think there must be a market, somehow, for a better thing. I don’t know what it is but I hope it’s out there somewhere.


  • I gave up on Today when 1 in every 3 times I woke up they were talking about whether the internet is rotting our children's minds.

  • evan davis on the bottom line is a lot better.…

  • "I only ever hear a few minutes each morning … But that’s always more than enough." Exactly so.

    "This morning’s show didn’t even feature the whining, faux-dumb, overly antagonistic and superior presence of John Humphrys" — don’t get me started.

  • The other big Radio 4 news programmes are somewhat variable, but whenever I hear The World Tonight it strikes me as being pretty smart. The fact that it dares to cover non-UK news for over half the show probably helps.

    Of the rest, PM is probably even more chatty than Today, but that at least has its own place. The news at six is like the ten minute bulletins in the morning, but stretched to 30 minutes, which is good if you like the just-the-facts approach. I hear The World at One even less often than the others, but I suspect it's a bit too much like Today At Lunchtime for you to enjoy it.

    tl;dr: try The World Tonight.

  • Stef always says the World Service is good.

    I get the feeling with Today that we're all attached by an umbilical that stretches back to Brian Redhead and we'll never be able to stop listening, despite our growing distress.

  • Yep, I've given up on Today. Life's too short. I can get the essential news I need from elsewhere; and there's so much amazing stuff to listen to (Speechification, other podcasts, thousands of radio stations, etc).

    The World at One is OK, I often have it on while making my lunchtime sarnie, but the interviews tend to be quite argumentative and can too easily descend into Daily Mail-esque baiting. World Tonight is decent. But as Cait says, the World Service is the place to go for something more balanced and based in fact.

  • I gave up listening to Today years ago. Humphrys and Thought For The Day were the main reasons. But I also grew increasingly fed up with their telling me what the news was going to be later on today, rather than what had already happened. It's reporting like that which keeps spin doctors in business.

    I spend 3-4 hours commuting each day. Thank Buddha for podcasts!

  • We get the World Service (in piecemeal fashion) through satellite radio, and it's high-quality, though there are a few stylistic niggles when it goes from reporting to interviewing. Newshour is good condensed morning listening.

  • I think that with the newer presenters it's improving a bit. I shout a bit less when it doesn't involve John Humphrys. The most irksome aspect are the 2 minute segments they jam in that contain almost nothing. I just wish they would just cover less better and in more detail.

    I much prefer PM which manages both the serious and the trivial far better and can manage the lightness of touch that seems to escape Today. Plus it seems to be one of the few programs on Radio 4 that really makes an effort to engage with it's audience. It's entirely worthwhile for the fairly frequent reports by Hugh Skyes which manage to be fairly 'From our own correspondent' in flavour and all the better for it.

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25 Aug 2010 in Photos

25 Aug 2010 at Twitter

  • 10:14pm: @shiftrunstop Well, I was confused and needed to find out...
  • 1:34pm: @moleitau Aw, thanks. It's only been there for 10+ years :)
  • 10:43am: @wearefriday The best two things... is it TWO cakes!?
  • 10:41am: @maryloosemore XBox 360! Not PlayStation. Honestly. It's like you have no interest in my gaming!
  • 9:36am: @danhon But, yes, there is interesting stuff in the cat/bin story. But it's not "Is that woman evil?" which was Today's and gossipers' line.
  • 9:35am: @danhon Yes, that was something that annoyed and affected him personally. It wasn't some stranger who did something a bit bad to a cat.
  • 8:49am: @benterrett Yes, I'm vowing not to listen to Today again. But that still leaves PEOPLE.
  • 8:43am: Already this morning I've heard Today and three separate groups of people discussing cat/bin woman. THIS is what you get worked up about?