A day in the life of the Today programme

It’s 3.20am and Today programme night editor Tamzen Audas is bellowing down the phone line at Radio Five Live for using the same clip as her in its morning broadcast.

Otherwise, the Today programme office is quiet as I arrive to sit in on the early morning shift. There’s a team of four – editor, two producers and a broadcast assistant – working from 8pm Sunday night to 9am the following morning. Editors rotate between day and night shifts.

The final hour before presenters Sarah Montague and Edward Stourton arrive at 4am is the most pressurised as the team finish off the briefings on each story for the morning’s show.

The pressure is also on because Monday’s edition of Today is the hardest to put together, says Audas. The weekend makes it difficult to contact people for stories and the newspapers have, this week, proved unfruitful for leads.

The agenda’s looking something like this: DIY dental treatments, plans to promote use of UHT milk, the Booker prize, the Congo (‘a bit obscure,’quips Stourton), Michael Fish and a debate on abortion – to fill the big 8:10 slot.

There are briefs to be tweaked, questions to be asked (at one point, Audas demands the fact be ‘triple checked, I want it triple checked”). Post is opened, Montague especially enjoying her ‘fan mail”, one of which describes her delivery as ‘boorish”, but she takes it in good humour, especially considering it is 4.30am.

The early editions of this morning’s papers are scanned and stories corrected where necessary in the newspapers review. But very often, the programme will simply report what the papers write, says the editor. ‘Besides,’adds Stourton, ‘if we did check everything we’d never run anything from the Daily Express.”

As Today goes to air, Audas sits on the other side of the studio wall behind the four-desk team, like the captain of a ship. Ultimately, she says, the buck stops with her, which means she overrules everyone including the most tenacious presenters. ‘You have to take responsibility for what’s in the programme. What the editor says goes – it’s how it should be,’she says.

Criticism and comment are mainstays of the programme. As it moves into its final half hour, Audas keeps her eye on the clock but her mouse on emails. Abortion statistics are disputed, MP Ben Bradshaw’s claims challenged and a woman complains that she wasn’t forewarned about the abortion discussion and had to spend breakfast fielding questions on the topic from her eight and 10 year-old daughters.

The pace behind the studio wall can be frantic as guests are lined up on phone lines or in person. News items are shuffled around to keep to time slots. Stourton makes a squeamish face when a piece on the rise of Chlamydia is slipped into the latter end of the programme.

‘It’s not something one really wants to discuss at this time of the morning,’he says later in the post programme catch up. Here, the edition is reviewed and any issues ironed out. ‘The test is if it sounded normal, if it sounded good on-air. It doesn’t matter if it was frantic back here,’says Audas before she turns her attention to not falling asleep on the train ride home.

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