Why is Radio 4’s Today programme losing so many listeners?

The flagship news programme has shed 800,000 listeners over the last year. What’s its problem, asks Ben Dowell

Radio 4 Today presenters

Today, Radio 4’s flagship news programme listened to by the great power brokers of this country, appears to be in a bit of trouble.

Advertisement

In the last year, the early morning current affairs show has shed 800,000 of its weekly listeners, down from a record 7.8 million people between April and June last year to an average of 7 million in the same quarter this year, according to figures from ratings body Rajar.

The BBC points out that last year’s comparative period included major news events such as the general election and the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, and that across the same three months in 2016 its audience was 7.3 million weekly listeners – only 300,000 more than the current listenership tally.

This is all true. But it is clear that the programme has been struggling for a while now under the stewardship of (relatively) new editor Sarah Sands, and also that it has come in for more than its fair share of flak. Not all of the problems are of the BBC’s own making or the fault of its formidable roster of presenters Nick Robinson, Mishal Husain, Justin Webb, Martha Kearney and John Humphrys. But something is amiss.

As the many hundreds of tweets expressing disgust with the programme over the last year demonstrate, Today has been unable to completely satisfy every sector of public opinion in our increasingly polarised political age.

Brexiteers sniff that the show is stuffed with liberal elite Remainers who push a pro-EU, pro-soft Brexit agenda. Remainers complain about the constant balancing of stories on this most difficult of subjects with the same faces (Jacob Rees-Mogg et al). You only have to type the hashtag #r4today into Twitter in the morning and the fury and bile spills out.

Today cannot be all things to all men, and when you are irritating both sides perhaps you are doing something right.

But one has to assume that those who threaten to switch off are following through on their promises – and choosing an alternative at breakfast time.

It has to be said that the Sands’ editorship has offered up fresh flaws.

When she took the job just over a year ago she said that she wanted it to be like an “ambassador’s party” that held power to account.

For me, and many others, that statement had the slight flavour of being a closed shop for elites. And a Ferrero Rocher-style cocktail party doesn’t exactly scream firmly directed, hardcore editorial values.

This was something we witnessed when Today broadcast from London Fashion Week earlier this year, and didn’t really seem to understand what the event was about. Sands also didn’t help her cause when she was quoted earlier this summer as saying her female presenters are “better on fashion” while John Humphrys “holds power to account”.

I have also long thought that the programme’s formula of balancing hard news stories with fluffy arts pieces is a little embarrassing. And it seems to have got more pronounced under the ambassador’s party approach.

The fluff pieces are all too often obvious plugs for BBC programmes masquerading as news items. And when they are not, they are soft-as-water stories about a theatrical opening or a new classical music composition with only the slenderest of news interest.

I would like a Today programme that actually takes the arts more seriously – as another source of real news – and refrains from using it as gentle light filler to offset the shade of hard political coverage.

I am also not convinced about Martha Kearney who recently swapped her gig on The World at One (Wato) with Sarah Montague. Kearney was a wonderful presenter of Wato, an expert interviewer totally at home in the more reflective lunchtime programme. But to my mind her delivery on Today is far too slow for a morning news show and I think Today loses some urgency when she is on.

And Montague may also agree, if her slightly arch Tweet on Thursday morning is anything to go by:

And of course, there is the Humphrys problem. He is a man who, by his own his admission, divides audiences. When he quizzed Rupert Everett about coming out as gay, almost to the exclusion of anything else, some listeners objected. “Woeful” said one. “Atrocious,” said another.

The 74-year-old has been on the programme for 31 years – nearly half its lifetime (and not far off half his). Is it time he stepped down? Or is the thought unthinkable?

He’s still a great broadcaster but some people think his time is up.

Media expert and leading PR Mark Borkowski, who often appears on Today, tells RadioTimes.com: “The persistent Brexit hysteria has dulled [Today’s] edge. It feels so Westminster-centric. We know the pressures on the BBC which get passed on to news, but it doesn’t help that the presenters do not seem to have the authority they once had – nothing seems solid.  I think the programme has lost confidence.”

For me, Today will never be everyone’s friend – and nor should it be. But the rise of populist politics and the greater heat in our political discourse should be an opportunity. And it’s one that Today is missing. Rather than igniting interest in the show, it is putting people off, causing many on both sides to switch off.

Advertisement

And with the growing appeal of alternatives – podcasts, the internet, social media, Radio 5 Live, even (god forbid) Susanna and Piers on ITV, the BBC needs to think hard and fast before Today becomes yesterday’s news.