Roger Mosey, editor, 1993-1997
Today is the only job I’ve ever had that induced delirium. It was in my early days as a producer, and the combination of two 15-hour night shifts with little sleep in between and then a train journey home to Yorkshire resulted in me trying to climb into a cupboard at my parents’ house in the unshakeable belief that it was a lift.
Night shifts became more tolerable, although memories of Today include the conversations we had at four in the morning about why it’s the time humans are most likely to die and the grimness of the old BBC canteen’s overnight service. There may be a connection.
But from the moment the presenters went on air each morning to perusing the forest of press cuttings they generated, Today was never less than a high-adrenaline ride – and a vantage point of extraordinary privilege. We met prime ministers and presidents, we enticed princes and prelates on to our airwaves – and if the mood took us, we would bung the archbishops into our reserve studio and cut their contribution to two minutes in the unprized 8.56 slot.
For Today to hold its position for so long through the analogue era is an achievement, but its pre-eminence in the digital age may seem miraculous. Years ago, the number-crunchers predicted the marginalisation of BBC radio, and the screeching noise of the modern media often drowns out individual voices.
That’s why Today must maintain its sense of identity. Attempts to erode it are usually well-meaning. I had lectures from more than one Radio 4 controller about the need to integrate better with the rest of the network, while Today’s other masters in BBC News were simultaneously trying to stamp their hallmark through the programme.
At the height of the bi-media terror of the Nineties, we were encouraged to play reports by television correspondents who generally loathed working for radio and whose audio skills made it sound like they’d placed their microphone in a bucket some yards away from any interviewee. They almost – but not quite – made us want to do that link-up with You and Yours that the controller fancied.
The truth is that Today should have a wider frame of reference than just one radio network or one BBC division. It should be eclectic, broad in its culture, radical in its thinking. From a former editor, that may be a predictable view. But it needs to have an editor who puts his stamp on the programme and has a sense of authorship, as the current incumbent, Ceri Thomas, manifestly does.
Over the years, Today has caused frustration in the bureaucracy – if it’s so important, how do we control it? – as well as the pain for the whole organisation that we saw during Hutton. It needs to have accountability like any other BBC programme, and it cannot cut itself loose from what the corporation needs to achieve.
But the best way of ensuring its success – and getting credit back to the BBC – is to continue to allow the programme to breathe free. Appoint the best people to its plum jobs, support the presenters in their independence and let them get on with it – even if there’s a bump and scrape along the way. Blandness is the route to oblivion.
Kevin Marsh, editor, 2002-2006
It’s impossible to love Today. You can have an addiction to it. Be in awe of it. Respect or fear it. But you can’t love it.
You can admire – who couldn’t? – the grit of the poor bloody infantry. The producers who grind through 14-hour night shifts, sleep for a bit and then do it all over again.
You can be amazed at its influence. Wonder at its longevity. But it’s impossible to love.
Odd, that. I started listening to Today in about 1967 when my grandfather bought me my first transistor radio. I reckon I’ve listened to some part of about half of all the editions of Today ever since. It’s felt like every minute of every one.
Today is impossible to love partly because it’s become a British institution. Like disappointing summers, Wimbledon, Highland Games, the Lake District, the Proms, pseudo-ornithology, Stephen Fry, and so on.
Like all British institutions, while we can’t love them, we can’t bear the thought of them not being there either. Or being changed.
We harbour quiet, unspoken, private grievances and suffer rather than love them. But we can’t contemplate changing them – or, God forbid, getting rid of them. Because we know the world would be somehow lesser, thinner, more shallow if we did.
When you’re editor of Today, you get thousands of emails a week. Half tell you you’re a biased idiot; a quarter itemise your errors; an eighth tell you how they could do it better; and the remaining eighth tell you you’re doing OK.
These proportions never vary – except when you make even the smallest effort to move in the direction any of the complainers or improvers propose. Then 100 per cent damn you in the richest language.
Actually, Today editors are no more capable of changing the institution than Silver Stick in Waiting or the Garter King of Arms is of modifying the constitutional settlement.
All editors have tried, me included. But today’s Today has more similarities with, than differences from, that first recipe for a morning talk and comment show drawn up more than 50 years ago by a callow young radio producer called Robin Day. No editor’s stamp has ever been more than the grubbiest thumbprint in one corner of a half-century-wide canvas.
Sure, you can change the colour of the deckchairs. Maybe even move one of them an inch or two – when no one’s looking. But like all British institutions, it’s an organism.
Shift a misplaced limb and it lugubriously shifts it back when you’re looking the other way.
The future? Like all unlovable, unchangeable, unchanging British institutions, it will outlive us all. Its audience is growing, not dying – confounding the Eighties sharp-suits who told us it was all over.
Audiences were indeed gliding gently downwards in the Nineties. Right up to the end of the first year of this millennium. Before 11 September 2001, the numbers were losing contact with the magic six million, easing gently to a previously unthinkable five. Thence perhaps to four, or even three.
But the Today audience spiked – for reasons unhappily unconnected with the programme’s merit – on 12 September 2001 and has never fallen back.
During my three and a half years at Today, the audience never ducked below six million. And it doesn’t look like doing so in the near future, either. DAB digital radio, listening via TV and the internet is giving live, built, news radio – like Today – a new, extended life.
The lesson? There really is something in the British DNA that makes us confound predictions and cling to our institutions. Even the ones we can’t bring ourselves to love.