The BBC Radio 4 Today programme is in dire trouble. It is haemorrhaging listeners and, according to latest reports, more than one million have deserted over the past year, bringing the weekly audience down to 6.7m.
This should, of course, be a matter of urgent and very significant concern. The reality is that in the UK, only the BBC – by dint of its guaranteed vast licence-fee income – can afford to put out such a heavily-resourced news and current affairs radio programme. If the Corporation can’t get it right with flagship programmes such as Today, it is failing in its core remit.
Those multi-million figures, by the way, are somewhat misleading. They are simply the total number listening at some point for a few minutes to the 17.5 hours each week of Today output. The peak audience (on which basis television audiences are measured) is normally no more than two million at 8am.
What is the reason for the sharp decline? Could it be the programme’s relentless alienating bias? And might it be that the format – devised more than 40 years ago – has ossified over the decades into a diet of engineered difficult-to-listen-to confrontation on lines dictated by the BBC’s Leftist, politically correct worldview?
Tim Montgomerie recently adroitly summed up this growing antipathy. Explaining why he had become an ‘ex-Today listener’, he said:
‘On reflection, it’s the lack of illumination on almost any topic (as much as the bias) that makes me glad to have finally broken free. The biases are to “the State must do something about X” rather than “how can X best be solved?”; to short-term gloom rather than to long-term context; to politics; to supra-nationalism; to liberalism over conservatism . . . and any bad news from Trump’s America over bad news from within Brussels’ empire (especially from Italy).’
The BBC, of course, is deeply disdainful and dismissive of such views. World affairs editor John Simpson summed up the Corporation’s stance when he declared in Radio Times: ‘I’m getting really fed up with the complaints and criticisms being directed at BBC News at the moment. Not so much from our usual critics, the hardliners on the Left and the Right, who habitually claim we’re biased because we’re not actually biased in their favour. No – it’s middle-of-the-roaders who are doing the complaining now.’
However the slump in Today listening is now so acute that the Corporation has been forced into remedial action. Enter stage left with much huffing and puffing James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio, who, of course, was formerly a Blairite Labour minister. He emerged this week from the corporate shadows in Portland Place as the man with a plan for tackling the decline – even though before his appointment to his current role he had no direct broadcasting experience.
His wheeze? A daily 20-minute Today podcast, dubbed imaginatively Beyond Today. Which 1A 1AA committee thought of that?
To be fair, there is no doubt that media audiences of all kinds increasingly prefer to be in charge of their own agenda, and in line with that podcasts have grown in popularity, along with visual services such as Netflix. According to Ofcom, the number of weekly podcast listeners has increased from 3.2m five years ago to 5.9m in 2018.
What appears to have got Purnell particularly excited, though, is that 49 per cent of these podcast enthusiasts are adults aged under 35, and because Today’s existing audience is significantly older, his plan envisages that the lost million oldies will be replaced by youthful eager-beaver trendies.
In line with that, Purnell has appointed 37-year-old Tina Daheley – previously a stand-in presenter of a range of BBC news programmes including BBC1 Breakfast – and Today reporter Matthew Price as the presenters of the new podcasts. They will be assisted by a production team of ‘mainly women’.
Their agenda? Well, Ms Daheley – whose Twitter account shows clearly her preferences – has not been backward in coming forward. She told the Observer: ‘Anyone who has been paying attention knows podcasts are hugely popular with under-35s, and if you’re serious about reaching that audience, it’s the logical thing to do. For me, a big thing is class and social background. We’re supposed to be holding a mirror to society and be representing them, but when was the last time someone who didn’t go to public school or Oxbridge presented the Ten O’Clock News?
‘The BBC gets a lot out of me. I should be thinking: “This is brilliant, I’ve got this whole area locked off, I tick all of those boxes in terms of strategy – young women, brown people, so-called C2DE demographics” – but I wish there were more of me. I had to work twice as hard and be damn good at my job to develop my career. I was doing 19 jobs and working for months without a day off [to get noticed] but there should be more people who look like me.’
So there we have it. Mr Purnell’s strategy to win back the Today deserters is not to address issues of bias, or to make an atrophied programme format less BBC agitprop and more accessible. Rather, it’s to ram yet more opinionated ‘diversity’ – in all its multi-faceted Corporation splendour and zeal – down our gullets. Whether we like it or not.
The first edition of Beyond Today was published on Tuesday. What had it to offer? Exactly the same BBC diet, with Evan Davis and someone from the BBC’s favourite think tank, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, warning that more money needs to be spent on public services.