Expert Ear: Today turning 50 and growing old gracefully

6am, Monday 15 October: Today opens with headlines and a bulletin – fresh evidence of a shortfall in NHS dental treatment, business groups lobbying against tax changes, the Chinese Communist Party congress, Palestine, new worries over Chlamydia, the anniversary of the 1987 ‘Great Storm”.

There’s obviously no killer story this morning, but the range is good – mostly domestic, but with a decent leavening of foreign news, some science and a slice of popular history.

Even so, you can bet it’ll be the dental story at the centre of this morning’s programme, not just because it leads the bulletin, but because it offers the most mileage in terms of political fallout at Westminster.

Soft launch

When it began in 1957, Today was the softest of BBC Radio’s ‘sequences”. Since then, it has hardened into the corporation’s political programme primus inter pares, never more comfortable than when jousting with a Cabinet minister and teasing out a soundbite for those ravenous political journalists tuning in.

All that will come later, though. First, Edward Stourton and Sarah Montague, today’s co-presenters, have to navigate a series of two-ways with various BBC correspondents and a succession of regular slots – weather, a review of the papers, finance, sport, news summaries, another review of the papers, more weather. Although the precise order has changed over the years, such fixtures give shape to our morning. They also capture the prevailing tone: relaxed but well-informed, serious and, yes, illuminating.

The most vivid moment in the first hour comes when the BBC’s Beijing correspondent, James Miles, tries to explain why we should follow the speech of the Chinese premier. It’s ‘like a cross between the Queen’s speech, an American president’s state of the union address and a Papal conclave”, he explains.

There’s no sign yet of the relentlessly over-excited style that turns so much news radio into a set of aural clichés and self-aggrandising hyperbole – instead, a solid, dispassionate briefing for the day ahead.

Short sport

For now, sport is kept short – wisely perhaps, since Garry Richardson sounds sleepy. In another hour, he’ll be wide awake, impishly revelling in England’s unexpected victory against France in the Rugby World Cup.

Arcane mystery

Financial news, on the other hand, hogs nearly a third of the opening half-hour. Clearly, business types listen in droves – and this is economics for the initiated: technical information unfolding in a litany not dissimilar to the Shipping Forecast in its arcane mysteries, though undoubtedly less poetic.

Later, the focus will shift to broader issues such as tax and the shenanigans at Northern Rock, and interviews wil become less insiderish. Today is clever this way: even the fixtures are constantly refreshed with tweaked running orders and new voices. The change is subtle. But it creates a kind of tingling, forward motion – the sound of a programme acutely in tune with the waking world.

Primetime

More listeners are arriving. There’s a gear shift after 7.30am – for the next hour it’s as if we’re hearing a different programme: Today Primetime. Information is less specialised, and – characteristically – there’s a move from reporting the news to making it.

The health minister, Ben Bradshaw, defends the Government’s record on NHS dentistry. He does well on a sticky wicket, sounding properly briefed, staying calm. No drama, then. But there’ll be a soundbite for the 8am and 9am news bulletins. The box marked ‘agenda setting’can be ticked.

A suitably serious debate about abortion follows, then a light-hearted interview with weather forecaster Michael Fish on the 1987 storm.

After 8.30am, another change of gear. As the audience is ebbing away, there’s the chance for something esoteric: living history in the Valleys; a eulogy to woodlands; Albert Camus’ wartime journalism.

Right wing

Old problems continue to dog the programme. Given the right-wing bias of the newspaper industry, the paper reviews sound a trifle too Daily Mail-ish for comfort. The sampling is rather narrow, too. What about a few foreign papers? Or something leftfield from the blogosphere?

There’s more arts news than of old, but it’s tolerated rather than embraced. And this morning’s co-

presenters are rather too much at the patrician end of the vocal spectrum for my own tastes. But, thankfully, the programme’s less Westminster-obsessed than I expected. And less obsessed with listener interactivity than I feared. Across three hours, the diet is varied, the tone unostentatiously serious. Today reaches 50 in good health.

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