Why the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme is the UK’s Most Influential News Show
As BBC Radio 4’s flagship early morning news and current affairs show, the Today Programme has been delivering global news and hard-hitting interviews to listeners for more than 60 years.
Widely regarded as the UK’s most influential news programme, the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme is known for delivering intelligent, in-depth analysis of the day’s big stories, asking the tough questions and holding politicians, business leaders and industry experts to account.
In this post we’re going to conduct our own in-depth analysis to understand why the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme is the UK’s most influential news show.
But first, a quick history lesson on the Today Programme.
Introducing The Today Programme
Launched in October 1957, the Today Programme started out as two 20-minute breakfast-time segments, hosted by Alan Skempton on BBC’s Home Service (a national radio station, replaced by Radio 4 in 1967).
Fast forward to today, and the programme broadcasts on BBC Radio 4 every weekday morning between 6am and 9am (7am to 9am on Saturdays), setting the day’s news agenda for six million listeners.
What makes Today so influential?
There are three key factors that contribute to the enduring success of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme:
- Quality journalism.
Let’s look at them in more detail.
Longevity: A large and loyal audience
Today on BBC Radio 4 is the BBC’s longest-running news and current affairs show.
It must be doing something right, as you don’t last long in business if your product or service isn’t up to scratch.
Public perception is everything. Today has built a large and loyal following over the last 66 years: a following that trusts and respects the show and those behind the mic.
And as we all know, trust is a public relations must-have.
Earning consumer’s trust is an ongoing commitment. If you want people to believe in your brand and trust that you share their values, you need to work to earn it.
PR can help you build trust over the long-term, with a combination of:
Reach: Is anybody out there?
Yep. In fact, almost ten million people tune into Radio 4 each week, with 6.35 million pairs of captive ears listening in to the Today Programme for their daily dose of news. And that’s not taking into account the folks that catch up with the show on-demand via BBC Sounds.
With such a broad reach, Today is able to influence public opinion on a wide range of topics.
Boosting brand awareness and reach is a key part of a PR pro’s job. Bagging a client an interview on Today will turn both up to 11 on the dial.
For more on how broadcast media can level up the success of a PR campaign, read: Lights, Camera, Record: How to be Seen and Heard with Broadcast PR.
High quality journalism
The BBC Radio 4 Today programme is known for its no-nonsense interviewing style. And it’s an approach that’s rubbed many high-profile interviewees up the wrong way over the years.
Prime example: Boris Johnson. The former prime minister led a Downing Street boycott of the programme back in 2019, due to what he termed ‘election bias’. More on that later.
The programme’s no-nonsense approach to investigative journalism and hard news topics, such as politics, education, health and economics, is what’s kept Today relevant for so long.
And then there’s the show’s reputation for journalistic integrity, a key ingredient of its popularity. Without it, the programme’s loyal listeners would soon switch off.
When it comes to public relations, integrity is vital, particularly when disaster strikes.
Your customers are smart. They can tell when they’re being taken for a ride. Attempt to pull the wool over their eyes at your peril. Your reputation is much more likely to recover from a PR mishap if you’re open and transparent.
Credibility breeds credibility
The BBC is a global broadcasting behemoth. One of the most respected news organisations in the world, its reputation for impartial and accurate reporting reinforces the Today programme’s credibility.
For a more detailed look at the BBC’s public relations history, read: The BBC and PR: Why it’s a World Icon, and How it Can Stay That Way.
The Today Programme presented by…
You can’t have a successful radio show without people to present it.
The BBC Radio 4 Today programme has a rich history of well-respected presenters with extensive journalistic backgrounds. Most notably, veteran broadcaster, John Humphrys, who retired from Today in 2019 after 32 years on the show.
Humphrys has done it all in the world of television and radio over his long and illustrious career. He was the BBC’s first full-time US TV correspondent, lead presenter of the Nine O’clock News on BBC One, and he hosted BBC Two’s Mastermind programme for almost 20 years.
The current crop of personalities delivering the morning headlines on Today have enjoyed equally long and successful careers in journalism.
A former BBC Breakfast and Six O’ Clock News presenter, Justin Webb worked as the BBC’s Europe correspondent and a foreign affairs correspondent, before joining Today in 2009.
Nick Robinson became a presenter on Today in 2015. His career highlights include Deputy Editor of Panorama and On the Record, as well as Chief Political Correspondent at BBC News 24.
A multi award-winning presenter and documentary maker, Mishal Husain joined the Today presenting team in October 2013.
Amol Rajan holds the title of youngest Editor of a British broadsheet title, and the first from an ethnic minority background, for his time at The Independent. He’s also the BBC’s first Media Editor, a role which he continues to hold, while being part of the Today presenting team.
Martha Kearney is a BAFTA nominated reporter whose CV includes Political Editor on Newsnight, lead presenter of The World at One and work on investigative documentary series, Panorama.
These presenters have established personal brands (and credibility) outside of their roles on the Today programme, through many years of working in high-profile roles for notable media outlets.
Because of this, the team contributes as much to the continued success and influence of Today individually as they do collectively.
Personal branding is important, especially for start-up entrepreneurs and small business owners.
Gone are the days where CEOs could stay out of sight and let the brand speak for itself. People want to know who they’re buying from as much as what they’re buying.
The lesson? If you’re looking to change the world with your exciting new product, you need to get personal with your audience.
Of course, things haven’t always been smooth sailing for the BBC’s flagship news programme. It’s inevitable that a show that’s been around as long as Today will hit some bumps in the road.
Turn it off
Today has a dedicated fanbase. But there have been times in recent years where the show has tested the commitment of even its most die-hard listeners.
This is evidenced by the fact the programme shed 600,000 listeners in 2022.
According to figures released by Rajar, the low continues a five-year downturn since a peak listenership of 7.5 million in 2017. A slump that has some higher-ups concerned that the format has lost its appeal.
There are signs that audiences are moving away from the impartiality of the BBC in favour of news from stations like LBC, whose opinion-led format makes for more entertaining radio.
Whether this decline is a blip or a sign of worse to come remains to be seen. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the way audiences consume news continues to change.
And with so many options available, it doesn’t take much to make people walk away for good.
Life doesn’t stand still. Things change. And the tech and AI revolution is changing things faster than ever before.
The most successful brands adapt and move with the times.
Businesses that innovate and transform garner mass public attention, while those that sit on their hands fade into the background.
The BBC Radio 4 Today programme format has stood strong for a long time. However, just because something has always worked, doesn’t mean it will always work.
It may be time for Today to check in with its audience and find out if the service on offer is fit for the modern consumer.
Whose side are you on today?
The show’s ageing format may have contributed to the recent fall in numbers. But many point towards political bias as the reason for the drop.
As per a 2019 article in The Independent:
‘The BBC in general has come under fire from anti-Brexit campaigners in the past year – who allege that the corporation has been too soft on the Brexiteers and has failed to report adequately on the misdemeanours of the Leave camp during the campaign.’
The article points to the appointment of Sarah Sands as Today’s Editor marking a change in direction for the show.
‘The recent appointment of Sarah Sands – formerly of The Sunday Telegraph among other right-wing titles – as editor of the Today programme, is consistent with a broader editorial shift at the BBC, which anyway has always tended to lean towards governmental perspectives in its output.’
The BBC siding with the right is not going to sit well with left-leaning members of the Today audience. It could have contributed to the exodus.
But if (as The Independent suggests) the show lost many ‘exhausted and exasperated’ Labour supporters due to ‘the programme’s treatment of the party leadership,’ how does that sit with former prime minister and Tory party leader, Boris Johnson, boycotting the Today Programme less than three months later?
Oh boy oh boy oh boy(cott)
The government and the BBC were at loggerheads in 2019, with Boris Johnson and his ministers boycotting Today due to alleged political bias in the broadcaster’s election coverage.
An article in The Daily Express quoted a Downing Street source as saying: ‘The BBC speaks to a pro-Remain metropolitan bubble in Islington, not the real world represented by Wakefield and Workington.’
So is the Beeb, Radio 4 and the Today programme, right leaning, left leaning or somewhere in the middle?
In a 2020 Reuters article, Sarah Sands, who left the role the same year, attempted to put the record straight. She said,
‘The BBC has a slightly wistful impulse towards social cohesion.’ She followed this with, ‘it desperately wants to do the right thing. It likes community rather than sowing division. This can mean a wish to police language.’
For more on the Conservative party’s PR wins and losses, read: Conservative Party PR: A Story of Tory Ups and Downs.
Straight down the middle
Nothing divides opinion quite like politics. So, when a large part of your job is to report on political matters, you’re walking a fine line with your audience.
Has Today haemorrhaged listeners due to the way it handles its political coverage and debate? Perhaps. But that doesn’t equate to biased reporting. The hosts seem to be making enemies on both sides of the political spectrum. And that probably means they’re doing their job, right?
There’s a world full of people with different opinions, beliefs and perspectives. And we live in an age where people can, and do, share their thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world at the click of a button.
As a business owner, you can’t win em’ all. Even the most mundane of decisions will divide opinion and spark intense debate on the likes of Twitter.
As long as what you do or say is in line with your brand values, and isn’t hateful, hurtful or illegal – the best PR move is to stand your ground. You’ll likely gain as many followers as you lose by sticking to your guns.