Woman’s Hour host Emma Barnett on taking over iconic BBC Radio 4 show

Emma Barnett writes about her big move to Woman's Hour and her love of radio.

Emma Barnett is moving to BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour

“Emma, We’ve lost the top two guests.” “What?” I replied to my producer,  sitting in a bar in Liverpool on the edges of the Labour Party conference in 2016. Both Labour’s Angela Eagle and Shami Chakrabarti had dropped out, and despite our collective efforts to talk them round, we had a gaping hole to fill in my BBC Radio Five Live show and not long before the “on air” light flashed red.

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It was week two of the three-hour daily show that would come to occupy the next four years of my life, and an absolute baptism of fire; a lesson in just how creative and steely one must be to survive and thrive in live radio.

As always, the team pulled it out of the bag and I somehow found something to say, and crucially someone to say it to. A warm body, or rather any body, I swiftly learned, is better than nobody to talk to. But the thing is, there is always somebody to talk to: the listeners. The listeners are the army – the heart and soul of any live radio programme worth its airtime.

If they weren’t the beating heart of all we in my trade do, why bother doing it live? There would be no point – other than, perhaps, to sharpen the game of our guests.

As a live radio host you are never alone, even if a member of the shadow cabinet has done a bunk and left you in the bar wondering whether it was something you said, or didn’t get the chance to say.

My love affair with radio began in the 90s at my childhood kitchen table over a bowl of Frosties, positioned next to a battery operated Sony radio with a silver aerial. Over breakfast, despite technically being alone, I was transported into the world of my “friends”. That’s how they felt to me, anyway, as I toggled the dial along the FM frequency between Key 103’s prank merchant Steve Penk and Radio 1’s first lady of breakfast Zoe Ball and back again, skipping the ads on the former.

I fell in love with the unpredictability of it all; the feeling that anything could happen, and you were a part of it. Not a spectator peering through the glass hoping to catch the eye of the cool kids, but a full mate totally signed up for the ride, and integral to the morning’s escapades.

Fast forward a couple of decades to my first shift on LBC. Cutting my live radio teeth on the 1-to-5am slot, I nervously opened my bone-dry mouth hoping to engage the listeners enough for them to call in, so I wouldn’t have to activate Plan B and get my grandfather on the blower to fill some dead air.  I soon found myself talking to a female bouncer coming off shift, who told eye-watering tales of what she’d witnessed. I was hooked. I floated out of the studio that morning into a nippy Leicester Square on such a high I could have done another four hours, after some emergency chips.

At the end of last year, I left my BBC Radio Five Live programme feeling like I’d had a break-up. After six years on the network and four years doing my morning news and interviews show – during which time we’d had two elections, two prime ministers, two US presidents, one proroguing of parliament, one Brexit and one global pandemic – it’s safe to say that not only had I been through a great deal with my team, but my journey with the listeners had been epic.

It is this relationship, which takes time and real effort, that I’m looking forward to growing with the listeners of Woman’s Hour – another army of people full of heart, humour and wisdom – as I begin my new job this month.

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You see, radio is personal; it’s one to one. Unlike telly, which is one to many, with radio, you are in people’s ears. Literally. And to be welcome there is a great privilege that you have to earn. My time marshalling three hours of live radio a day with an extremely quick-witted team at Five Live taught me that.

Speech radio at its best is a conversation on steroids, with the boring bits of regular chat missed out. Somebody asking the questions you want answering – even the most awkward ones – and seeing it through. Even if you as a listener can’t bear to listen, a listening host is key – otherwise, you can miss gold.

Take the example of former Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who came on the programme only a few hours after Theresa May’s draft Brexit withdrawal deal had been published. Without missing a beat, he smoothly claimed 80 per cent of the British public supported the deal – blink and you could have missed it. But when I challenged, Mr Stewart was forced to apologise and admit to making up the statistic live on air, “producing a number to try to illustrate what I believe”. That clip went around the world, even making it onto a late-night American talk show as evidence of fake news infecting British politics.

I don’t find it daunting to ask people to produce evidence for what they claim. Especially when they are public servants – which is what politicians are. They are also human, which is important to remember, too. But spinning a party line doesn’t wash with the public and I see this constant listening and questioning as baked into the DNA of my role.

I didn’t come up with it as my shtick, it happened organically. A listener once described the way I conduct these interviews as “politics down the pub”. I’m not afraid to say if I don’t understand someone’s reply, and it simply doesn’t make any sense to move on unless an answer to the question posed (not the one they would prefer) has been provided.

Live radio, properly used to its full glory, is a dance between host and listener. I have always asked listeners to interrupt me with their views, experiences and questions – and have often been able to glean different answers from all sorts of people by interviewing them in tandem with our listeners’ points flowing in on the trusty text message console. Although one memorable unwelcome moment of live audience interaction was during my six weeks of doing the show from home at the start of Lockdown One, when my two-year-old son shouted “Mummy!” just as Gordon Brown came on the line.

That sense of unpredictability is a key ingredient of live radio. That feeling that anything can happen; you can throw the script up in the air and run with something as it takes off.

One of my final Five Live shifts was a case in point. Mid-interview with a women’s rights campaigner trying to make shouting sexual abuse at schoolchildren and women a crime, otherwise known as catcalling, I decided to politely call time and instead ask our listeners if any of them had catcalled.

My reasoning was that there are only so many times interviewers can talk to women about this problem, which mainly affects them. What about actually talking to those who do it? Catcallers do exist, they’re out there – they ain’t unicorns. The silence was deafening, but with five minutes to go, the universe delivered.

Forty-year-old “George” (not his real name) had been shouting sexual comments at schoolgirls for years, after learning this “appreciation” technique from fellow builders in a van years earlier, as a younger man. We pre-recorded our very reasonable and genuinely illuminating conversation when I came off air and broadcast it the next day. The response to it was major, as most folk hadn’t heard the rationale and backstory of anyone who routinely does this – myself included. George didn’t leave our conversation pledging to change his ways and nor should he have done – but I felt there was a moment between us, when he asked if it was OK to think such things. I said of course it was, but ventured that you shouldn’t shout such remarks out loud.

This memorable can’t-switch-off radio would never have happened without the connection between me and our listeners. He trusted me enough to tell me something he knew would win him no fans. And I was immensely grateful.

On a far lighter note but equally memorable, another listener called Chrissie rang in a couple of years ago as she had got stuck in her kitchen after the internal door handle broke. She had called friends and family to no avail – so she thought to call us, her other family.

We didn’t let her down and, amazingly, after throwing the whole show behind her and developing a FreeChrissie hashtag on the fly, another listener, a locksmith called Phil, managed to liberate her with some advice involving an ice cream tub, which I still don’t comprehend. Regardless, we achieved our goal and released Chrissie to her pub lunch. Job done by the listener family and some excitable cheerleading by me.

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So, from now on, as I sit down in a new chair, presenting a new programme (for me), I sincerely invite you to turn the dial to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. If you do, I promise to show up. We’ve got a lot of getting to know one another to do.

This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.