Today (BBC Radio 4)

Today (BBC Radio 4)

Other names Today programme
Genre News, current events, and factual
Running time Weekdays: 06.00 - 09.00
Saturday: 07.00 - 09.00
Country United Kingdom
Languages English
Home station BBC Radio 4
Hosts John Humphrys
James Naughtie
Sarah Montague
Evan Davis
Justin Webb
Air dates since 28 October 1957
Website BBC website page

Today (sometimes referred to as "the Today programme" to avoid ambiguity) is BBC Radio 4's long-running early morning news and current affairs programme, now broadcast from 6.00 am to 9.00 am Monday to Friday, and 7.00 am to 9.00 am on Saturdays. It is also the most popular programme on Radio 4 and one of the BBC's most popular programmes across its radio networks.[1] It consists of regular news bulletins, serious and often confrontational political interviews and in-depth reports, and an often criticised religious slot of 3m 15s. It has been voted the most influential news programme in Britain in setting the political agenda.[2] The programme has 6.6 million listeners.[3] It was voted the Best Breakfast Show of the Year at the 2010 Sony Radio Academy Awards with an average audience of 10 million listeners.



Today was launched on the BBC's Home Service on 28 October 1957 as a programme of 'topical talks' to give listeners a morning alternative to light music. It was initially broadcast as two 20-minute editions slotted in around the existing news bulletins and religious and musical items. In 1963 it became part of the BBC's Current Affairs department, and it started to become more news-orientated. The two editions also became longer, and by the end of the 1960s it had become a single two-hour long programme that enveloped the news bulletins and the religious talk that had become Thought for the Day. Radio 4 controller Ian McIntyre cut it back to two parts in 1976-1978 (creating a gap which was filled by Up to the Hour), but it was swiftly returned to its former position.

Jack de Manio[4] became its principal presenter in 1958. He was held in affection by listeners, but became notorious for on-air gaffes. In 1970 the programme format was changed so that there were two presenters each day. De Manio left in 1971, and in the late seventies the team of John Timpson and Brian Redhead became established.

John Timpson: Presenter 1970-1986

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, under editors Ken Goudie and Julian Holland, Today made moves to broaden its appeal away from broadcasting a lot of national politics with London-centric bias. Presentation was split between London, usually by John Timpson, and from Manchester, usually by Brian Redhead. The objective was to make it more of a balanced, national programme. The on-air humour of the two presenters and the split of locations made the programme very popular and influential. Brian Redhead was quoted, "If you want to drop a word in the ear of the nation, then this is the programme in which to do it."[5]

This pairing lasted until Timpson's retirement in 1986, when John Humphrys and Sue MacGregor joined the rotating list of presenters (there had been others alongside Redhead and Timpson, including Libby Purves in the late 1970s). After Redhead's death in January 1994, James Naughtie became a member of the team. Peter Hobday presented the programme regularly until 1996; Sarah Montague replaced MacGregor in 2002.

Justin Webb: Presenter 2009-present

Carolyn Quinn was a regular presenter until 2008 as was Edward Stourton until 2009. Other more occasional presenters include the BBC's Stephen Sackur and Tim Franks.[6] Most recently Evan Davis and Justin Webb[7] have joined the roster of regular presenters.

The show reached a peak in terms of influence in the 1980s, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a noted listener. Ministers thus became keen to go on the programme and be heard by their leader, but the tough, confrontational interviewing style they encountered led to accusations that the BBC was biased. Criticism was particularly directed against Redhead, who was widely seen as being on the left. The style of the male interviewers was analysed and contrasted with that of MacGregor, who was alleged to be giving subjects an easier time. The 'Big 8.10' interview that follows the 8 o'clock news remains an important institution of British politics to this day.[citation needed]

Notable features

Today regularly holds an end-of-year poll. For many years this took the form of write-in votes for the Man and Woman of the Year. This was stopped after an episode of organised vote-rigging in 1990, but was soon revived as a telephone vote for a single Personality of the Year. A further episode of vote-rigging, in favour of Tony Blair in 1996, forced the programme-makers to consider more innovative polling questions. In 2004 listeners nominated candidates for a peerage, in 2005 the question was set of 'Who Runs Britain?' (though this, too, turned out to be rigged). Recent years have also included nominations for a 'Listener's Law' (which an MP agreed to sponsor as a parliamentary bill, although he did not support the winning nomination, which he thought was not appropriate), and, in 2006, nominations were sought for the law that listeners would most like to see repealed.

In Thought for the Day, featured since 1970, a speaker reflects on topical issues from a theological viewpoint; the editorial responsibility lying with BBC's Religion and Ethics Department (a point often made on the Today Programme).[8] Notable contributors to the slot include Rabbi Lionel Blue and Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford. Over the years the slot has featured an increasing number of speakers from religions other than Christianity, though Christian speakers remain in a substantial majority. In August 2002 University of Oxford professor Richard Dawkins gave a non-religious humanist thought for the day; however, this did not replace the regular thought and was broadcast an hour later as an alternative thought.

In 1983 the long-running "Prayer for the Day", which had always gone on air at 6.50am, was moved to 6.25am and replaced by a "Business News" slot.

The programme has a regular slot for sports news and items between 26 and 30 minutes past each hour, presented by Steve May or Garry Richardson.[9] It is an established in-joke that the presenters will pour scorn on the reliability of the programme's racing tipster. If Parliament is in session the previous day there will be a summary at about 06:50 (Yesterday in Parliament[10]) presented by two from Robert Orchard, David Wilby,[11] Rachel Hooper and Susan Hulme.[12]

Journalist and historian Peter Hennessy has made an assertion, in one of his books,[13] that a test that the commander of a British nuclear-missile submarine must use to determine whether the UK has been the target of a nuclear attack (in which case he has sealed orders which may authorise him to fire his nuclear missiles in retaliation), is to listen for the presence of Today on Radio 4's frequencies. If a certain number of days (said to be three) pass without the programme being broadcast, that is to be taken as evidence that the orders must be executed. The true conditions are of course secret, and Hennessy has never revealed his sources for this story, leading Paul Donovan, author of a book about Today, to express some scepticism about it.[14] However, the longwave signal of Radio 4 is capable of penetrating to surface depths where submarines can rise, although it does not have the range required to be heard at this depth far from the UK's coastal waters.

Message boards

In 2001 the Today Programme created a system of message boards[15] allowing the users of its web site to challenge thinking on current affairs with all those contributing. Available statistics indicate the amassing, over five years, of up to 18,000 separate discussions - topic threads - sometimes with as many as 3,000 contributions per thread. However, on 16 November 2006 the programme changed its board policy so that only the producers of Today could start a thread, but all contributors could still join in with them. This action appeared to have been unattractive[16] to past contributors and, it seems, many stopped dealing with Today in favour of other outlets.[17] After the changes there were fewer contributions, but, on occasion, contributions made by the public were featured on-air in the Today programme. Message boards dedicated to the Today Programme were discontinued around mid-2008 and listeners were invited to use the general BBC 'Have Your Say' board.[18]

Guest editors

Beginning in 2003, for over one week at the end of December, guest editors have been invited to commission items for one edition of the programme. These usually reflect their social or cultural interests and at the end of each edition the guest editor is interviewed by a member of the regular presenting team about the experience. Guest editors participating in the inaugural year of this feature were Monica Ali, Thom Yorke, Stephen Hawking, and Norman Tebbit, who is a frequent critic of the programme. Since its inception, notable guest editors have included: David Blunkett, who used the programme as an opportunity to 'turn the tables' on John Humphrys in 2005; Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose appearance on 29 December 2006 encompassed discussions of his growing concerns about the 'justification' for the invasion of Iraq, Britain's role in the affair, and the consequences for British armed forces; and Peter Hennessy, who, on 28 December 2007, led a visit to HMS Vigilant (a British Trident submarine) alongside its base at Faslane. The likes of Queen Noor of Jordan (2005), Bono (2004) and Sarah, Duchess of York (2004) have also pitched in for this one-day editorial stint to promote their causes and interests.


Today found itself in the midst of controversy again in 2002, when its editor Rod Liddle wrote a column in The Guardian that was extremely critical of the Countryside Alliance and which raised questions about his own impartiality. In the article, he wrote that catching "a glimpse of the forces supporting the Countryside Alliance: the public schools that laid on coaches; the fusty, belch-filled dining rooms of the London clubs that opened their doors, for the first time, to the protesters; the Prince of Wales and, of course, Camilla ... and suddenly, rather gloriously, it might be that you remember [why you voted Labour] once again." He eventually resigned from his post on Today.

In the summer of 2003, Today once again found itself at the centre of allegations of political bias, this time against a Labour government. The controversy arose after Today broadcast a report by its correspondent Andrew Gilligan. The report alleged that a dossier the British Government had produced to convince the British public of the need to invade Iraq was deliberately exaggerated, and that the government had known this prior to publishing it. In his live 2-way (interview with presenter John Humphrys), just after 6.07 a.m., Gilligan asserted that the Government "probably knew" that one of the main claims in its dossier "was wrong". Gilligan's anonymous source for the claim was Dr David Kelly, a key adviser on biological weapons who had worked in Iraq - though it was never established whether Dr Kelly had actually used the words Gilligan attributed to him.

Evan Davis: Presenter 2008-present.

In the furore that followed Gilligan's report, David Kelly's name became public and he was forced to appear before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Shortly afterward he was found dead having presumably committed suicide. In the ensuing public inquiry (the Hutton Inquiry), that reported in January 2004, the BBC was heavily criticised. This led to the resignation of the BBC's Chairman Gavyn Davies and Director-General (equivalent to Chief Executive), Greg Dyke; Andrew Gilligan also resigned.

On Friday 5 November 2010, the programme failed to be transmitted due to 48 hour strike action at the BBC. Transmission continued the next day, in spite of ongoing industrial action, as Evan Davis and Sarah Montague decided to break the strike.[19]Justin Webb disclosed he would have taken the same action, had he been scheduled to present that day[19]


On 6 June 2011 the comedy writer Graham Linehan appeared on the programme to discuss his adapting the Ealing comedy film The Ladykillers for the West End stage. During this appearance, Linehan took issue with presenter Justin Webb over what he saw as the attempted staging of an artificial argument between himself and the critic Michael Billington.[20] He later expanded on this criticism in an article in the The Guardian, saying "I'm talking about that very specific, very artificial, very Today programme format of a presenter acting as referee between two people who have been chosen to represent the opposing sides of a manufactured argument. It is a binary view of politics, of life and, as a result, it is also a dishonest one. Replace it with anything – anything – because anything would be better."[21]



  • Isa Benzie (Senior Producer) (1957)[22]
  • Elizabeth Rowley (Producer in Charge) (1957)[22]
  • Janet Quigley (Chief Assistant, Talks) (1957)[22]
  • Stephen Bonarjee (1960s)[25]
  • Peter Redhouse (1960s?)[26]
  • Alistair Osborne (1960s/1970s?)
  • Mike Chaney (1976–1978)
  • Ken Goudie (1978–1981)

See also


  1. ^ "Wogan's listenership close to 8m". BBC News Online. 2 February 2006. 
  2. ^ "BBC News tops MPs' survey". BBC Newswatch. 14 April 2005. 
  3. ^ "Today sets agenda for Radio 4" (Press release). BBC. 29 January 2009. Retrieved 17 March 2009. "The Today programme has 6.60 million listeners, up nearly half-a-million on the quarter (6.11m), almost 400,000 on the year, and its largest audience since the end of 2001." 
  4. ^ Jack de Manio. Radio Academy.
  5. ^ Today Programme. BBC Press Office. October 2007.
  6. ^ Biographies: Tim Franks. BBC Press Office. January 2011.
  7. ^ a b c "Justin Webb joins Radio 4's Today programme presenting team" (Press release). BBC. 26 August 2009. 
  8. ^ BBC Religion and Ethics
  9. ^ Garry Richardson
  10. ^ and a longer version on 198kHz long wave and a DAB R4 opt out after 08:30).Yesterday in Parliament
  11. ^ David Wilby
  12. ^ Susan Hulme
  13. ^ Peter Hennessy. The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War, 1945-1970. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press. 256 pages. ISBN 0-713-99626-9
  14. ^ Paul Donovan: All Our Todays: Forty Years of Radio 4's "Today" Programme.London, Jonathan Cape, 1997. ISBN 0-224-04358-7 (revised paperback edition is ISBN 0-09-928037-X)
  15. ^ Today Programme Message Board
  16. ^ BBC in Radio 4 messageboard punch-up
  17. ^ James St George
  18. ^ Have Your Say
  19. ^ a b Hastings, Chris (7 November 2010). "Dragons' Den star defies BBC strikers: Furious row as Evan Davis crosses the picket line to keep news show on air". The Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 7 November 2010. 
  20. ^ "Radio 4's Today programme 'poisons' debate, claims Father Ted writer". Daily Mail (London). 8 June 2011. 
  21. ^ Linehan, Graham (8 June 2011). "My Today programme ambush". (web only) (London). 
  22. ^ a b c d Today Programme Key Facts page
  23. ^ The Independent My Life in Media
  24. ^ a b Broadcasting - News - Evan Davis replaces Quinn on 'Today' - Digital Spy
  25. ^ Stephen Bonarjee
  26. ^ further information, at the time of this contribution, appears to be unavailable for this entry and the next four in this list
  27. ^ Jon Barton
  28. ^ Ceri Thomas

External links

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