The recent death of Peter Hobday, the former Today programme presenter whose cosy middle-England tones are fondly remembered from the Thatcher years, is a reminder that complaints about the show are nothing new.
Back then the BBC Radio 4 flagship news programme was accused of lacking political sharpness, and of parroting lobby groups’ demands for more public spending. The presenters included Sue MacGregor and the waggish John Timpson – old-school broadcasters.
As for Peter Hobday, who was known for his rotund physique, my mother was convinced that she could hear the sound of his laboured breathing down the microphone. He could take a joke, though. After a travel report about an abnormal load on the A40, Timpson remarked that it was probably Peter Hobday.
It’s true that some listeners have drifted away from Today. (Including me, switching over to the drama of LBC phone-ins.) But Private Eye’s “Number Crunching” feature reports its audience at 6.6 million, “its worst in a decade, but still absolutely vast”; and compares it to the Beyond Today podcast, aimed at attracting the young, which languishes at 35,000.
A few weeks ago I was called to appear in the 8.50am light-chat slot. They wanted to discuss obituaries (my job at the Telegraph) and the question of when does truthfulness drift into gratuitous cruelty, score-settling and trashing of a reputation?
It was my first time in the studio and I was apprehensive. Easier to stand in your kitchen in your dressing gown and talk down the phone. Even sitting in the back of a van equipped with a mini-studio involves little of the tension of Broadcasting House itself.
As an infrequent broadcaster, I always experience nerves. It helps if you know your subject. Then it can be enjoyable – easier than sitting down at a keyboard and trying to fill the dreaded blank page.
A friend of mine likes to caution, sighing and shaking the head, that one botched appearance on Today can be “career-ending”. I tried not to dwell on that thought as I settled into the leather seats of the hydrogen-powered hybrid car that picked me up at 7.30am.
But my mouth had dried up and my throat felt croaky, since I had barely said a word that day. So I chatted freely with the driver and asked if we could stop off at a Tesco Metro to get a bottle of water.
I brought this with me into the studio, after five minutes in the green room talking to the campaigner for widening access to elite universities who was scheduled for the slot before me. He seemed a seasoned performer.
Once the two of us were ushered inside, all was dark apart from the ruby glow of clocks and equipment. We sat like statues, silent before microphones the size of mangoes. Perhaps they were still switched on while a correspondent’s news report burbled in the background. Using both hands I gingerly tipped my Volvic bottle to take a gulp.
Everything looked state-of-the-art and new, not messy like the photos from Peter Hobday’s era. Mishal Husain sat opposite me and Sarah Smith was on her right. Mishal looked me straight in the eyes and smiled, in a way that immediately reassured me.
She held up a piece of paper with a query scribbled on it. I answered with hand signals. The atmosphere was of tightly choreographed professionalism.
Like the conductor of an orchestra, Mishal raised a hand in the direction of some people on the other side of a glass wall, and a pre-recorded excerpt of an obituary was played.
Then our conversation began. Halfway through, Mishal asked one of those “What’s your favourite?” questions that have the effect on me of instantly switching off every single neuron in my brain.
I explained, truthfully, that my mind goes blank in these circumstances, as if this was a peculiar but fascinating hazard of the obituarist’s trade.
Luckily, in the time it took me to say that, an example had forced itself into my consciousness: good old Liberace. Some recollections of his classic Telegraph obit brought a friendly chuckle from Mishal.
It was over. A few more seconds of statue-sitting and we were off air. Mishal generously carried on the conversation afterwards. Then, as I walked out through a big open-plan newsroom, Sarah Sands, the editor of Today (and former editor of two newspapers and Reader’s Digest), who has since announced that she is to step down, came over with a warm greeting.
As I walked back to the hydrogen-powered car to head to work, my phone started buzzing. Just as I do when I hear a friend or colleague on the radio, others were messaging me.
That brought home the incredible reach of the Today programme. It is a fixed point in the lives of millions, of all sorts, high and lowly. What other current affairs show anywhere in the world has such status? I felt guilty for ever having turned the dial to alternative listening.
Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph