Producing the Today programme

Around this time last year I wrote an article about my then job, which was managing the social media and website for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Not long after publishing it, I was given the chance to to move off the online team and become a producer on the actual radio show. I thought now might be a good time to write an updated blog entry about what this job involves and give some examples of what I’ve been doing for the past year for anyone who might be interested in hearing more about the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the show.

mishal

First of all, just to quash from the gate any suspicion that I landed this dream job by being some kind of ruthlessly ambitious careerist, let me say that this is a role that I never envisioned myself doing. Not because I didn’t want to, quite the opposite, but because working for a programme as prestigious as Today isn’t something I’d ever imagined myself being capable of, and I was acutely aware that the opportunity had come my way through circumstance rather than on merit.

I knew working on the main programme was going to be quite a shock to my system on a number of levels. Apart from anything else, it would be an enormous intellectual struggle; I obviously followed current affairs but knew my knowledge came nowhere near that of the rest of the Today team (probably the most intelligent group of people I will ever work with). My background didn’t match with many of theirs; I didn’t go to a private school or to Oxbridge for university. I did have a first class honours degree, but in Radio Production, hardly Law or History. I spent a far greater proportion of my teenage years studying the lyrics of Lil’ Kim than the theories of Karl Marx. For all of these reasons, I actually tried to talk my then boss out of offering me the job initially, but on reflection I figured that if I could work hard, keep my head down and try not to screw up too badly I might not be identified as a massive imposter. Plus, having done social media for so long, I was eager to get back into producing actual radio.

calm before the storm #r4today #studio #broadcastinghouse

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They started me off relatively gently, on the Planning team. On a planning shift you’re working on news stories which you know are coming. You can prepare for The Budget, the Scottish Independence Referendum or the publication of a government report because you know exactly on which dates they’ll occur, and you can start putting in interview requests early to people you know you’ll want to speak to on that morning’s programme.

You also get the chance to get out of the office a fair bit, doing background research on stories, speaking to potential contributors, recording audio – a far cry from day shifts which are spent mostly phone-bashing and scrambling to get things together exclusively for the following morning’s show (more on that later). One planing story I was assigned last year was about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s decision to stage a production of The Tempest specifically catered to an audience of autistic children. As part of setting up the story, I got to go along to their studios to record some audio of the actors rehearsing to play ahead of the interview we were doing with the director.

Attending #RSC rehearsals for #TheTempest for #r4today

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By the way, as you can probably tell already, most of the stories I mention in this article will be the lighter stories I’ve worked on, to avoid being insensitive in discussing the the behind-the-scenes process of fixing the more serious items.

Because of the required balance of light and shade in the programme, producers are asked to work on a huge range of stories. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable aspects about the job is its unpredictability. When you walk into the office in the morning you could be asked anything from “What happened with the rouble over the weekend?” to “Can you please go with Evan Davis to a sexual health clinic in Soho this morning for a story about sexually transmitted infections?”

#radio4 #EvanDavis #Todayprogramme #r4today

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Working on the day team is a much more tense affair than Planning. A day shift basically means you are working only on the next immediate programme that will be broadcast. These are 10-hour shifts, usually 10am-8pm or 2pm-midnight (although getting away on time is a rarity). You do four of them per week, instead of five eight-hour shifts. As a day producer, you’re normally asked to set up around 4-5 items. As with most jobs, when you start on the programme, there is no welcome pack or explainer to help you get your head around the inner-workings of the office. But you learn pretty quickly that, for example, booking a guest who appeared on the previous evening’s edition of Newsnight or Channel 4 News is a hanging offence, and that putting a Skype line on air is likely to end in disaster. Wherever possible we try and get guests in quality as opposed to on the phone, but it’s not always possible if they are abroad or in the middle of nowhere. We’re incredibly lucky to have a number of BBC resources at our fingertips, so if you want to speak to a guest outside of London, you can ask them to go to their local BBC regional studio so the interview can be conducted over an ISDN line, or even see if a local reporter to travel to them so we can do a simul-rec (where the guest is interviewed by the presenter over the phone, but their answers are recorded in quality so that the two audio strands can be stitched together in the editing process). If we can get a presenter on location, even better.

One of the things you pick up on most rapidly is the identity of each slot in the programme. When you think of a three-hour radio show, someone unfamiliar with Today may think we could organise it however we want, that we’ve got a blank canvas where the editor can put any story into any timeslot as they wish.

But after a while, you realise how rigidly structured the show is, and how much of the programme is already in place before you even begin working on it. You start to understand what type of story makes a 0650 or an 0820; quite a nuanced and tricky thing to put your finger on. Regular listeners know about and expect there to be some constants: The 0810 is always the most important story of the day; a typical sequence might include a reporter-led package immediately followed by an interview with a relevant or accountable politician. The 0740 is usually a single, four-minute interview, sandwiched between the newspaper review and Thought for the Day and is often a lighter, arts-based subject. The 0855 is usually the ‘closing disco’ (short for discussion) where two guests debate or analyse a topical issue. Something to end the programme on a relatively lighter note, basically. (For even geekier terminology, a discussion that features three guests instead of the usual two is referred to as a ‘trisco’). Literally every single slot has its own feel, and editors need to be careful to make sure each story matches the tone of its placing.

Where possible, we try and get in some live studio activity. If we’re doing an item about opera, can we get an opera singer into Broadcasting House to sing out the programme live? Or can we get the presenters to tweet a photo taken with a selfie stick for a discussion about how socially acceptable it is to use them? Can we put Sarah Montague on the roof of Broadcasting House on the morning of the solar eclipse? (The answer to all of these was yes). Such items help ensure the audio texture of the programme is varied and add some much-needed colour.

The other components of the programme, such as weather, sport, business, Thought for the Day and even the hourly news bulletins, are looked after by separate teams, and although they work very closely with us, you won’t as a day producer be assigned any of these slots to work on.

Not every item on the programme is live, of course. We often pre-record items for a number of reasons, usually because of some kind of logistical issue. Perhaps the guest is in the US where it would be the middle of the night when we go on air. Or maybe music needs to be mixed into the piece in between the guest’s answers, which can’t be done live. One main benefit of pre-recording is that it does afford you the luxury of being able to record an interview as long as you want. I often take in interviews which are 20 minutes plus, and then edit them down to around four minutes for air, which makes it a much better experience for the listener as you’ve pre-selected the best content for broadcast. On the other hand, these items take away from the live feel of the programme and make it sound less pacey, so we try not to do them unless we have to. Of the pre-recs I’ve done in the last year, one that stands out is the session I recorded with Paul Sartin of Bellowhead, where he discussed and played songs from a songbook he had curated for the a WW1 commemoration project.

In addition to speaking to big names from the world of music and politics, getting to work with some huge journalistic names is one of the most enjoyable parts of the role. Fixing interviews with people like Camilla Long and Fraser Nelson have been personal highlights this last year, and I even at one point got to go to the theatre with Maggie Brown, who fronted a piece reviewing the opening night of Great Britain (the Richard Bean play about phone hacking). And of course a continuing highlight is getting to work with one of my favourite human beings on planet earth, James Naughtie.

Other notable memories from the past year included working through the night as the Scottish referendum results came in, and I also particularly enjoyed organising some recurring features, such as the week-long series last summer when we broadcast a week of essays from guests suggesting alternative hobbies that people with no interest in football could take up while the World Cup was on. I had a think about this and came up with five different activities (such as knitting, baking, gardening) and found people to write and voice them, such as GBBO winner Frances Quinn and the Stylist/Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan.

With regards to how we decide which stories to cover, ideas come from all over the place. PR companies will call regularly offering stories and interviewees. BBC reporters from around the world will pitch ideas for packages. Producers are also expected to come up with their own ideas or angles for stories and discussions, which we put forward in the somewhat-terrifying morning meeting, which takes place every day at 1130.

Admittedly, we also closely follow what the press is doing. Despite the declining sales of physical newspapers, they still largely define the news agenda in the UK and the paper review is one of the programme’s longest-standing slots. As a producer, you’re expected to read, for two hours every day, a mixture of both right and left-wing newspapers and current affairs magazines like the Spectator and the New Statesman. Last summer I jacked up an entire disco off the back of a tiny nib there’d been in The Times about The Spectator’s policy of asking applicants not to list where they were educated on their CVs. A great starting point for us to have a debate about meritocracy. This kind of thing happens all the time, little snippets, throwaway sentences, in magazine features and newspaper articles provide ideas for entire items.

A decent editor will assign stories to producers based on their areas of expertise and interest. There are producers who closely follow Russian politics or know a lot about climate change, for example. You may wonder where that leaves me with my rather useless knowledge of Nicki Minaj B-sides, but fortunately arts and music items crop up quite frequently. One of my highlights of this year was setting up a discussion about the lack of ethnic diversity among the BRIT Awards nominees – for which I booked Edward Adoo and Clara Amfo – someone I’d been trying to get on the show for some time.

#lateagram #r4today #SarahMontague with @claraamfo & #EdwardAdoo

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It’s always great booking a guest who has never appeared on Today before, particularly if they end up doing a ‘good turn’ and becoming someone we can go back to in future. It’s especially good if you can book a large number of female guests – because as producers we’re constantly aware that the most common criticism made against the programme is the lack of women on air, something that has considerably improved since Jamie Angus took over as editor.

Anyway, although I work on a huge range of items, stories in areas I feel more familiar with (music, technology, arts, Scotland)  fortunately crop up often enough for me to feel like there’s something I can bring to the table. A recent example that springs to mind, thank you for asking, is a discussion about songwriting credits with Gary Osborne and Michelle Escoffery, which came about in light of the recent Blurred Lines plagiarism ruling. The disco I set up went out on the Saturday edition of the programme, which generally has a less newsy feel and often revisits stories from earlier in the week. Items can run for slightly longer as a result, and discussions can be more analytical and detailed, as this one was. The two guests clicked, both had interesting things to say, and the item was given seven minutes to breathe (unheard of during the week):

Even on the dreaded night shifts (8pm-9am), where your time is largely spent firefighting logistical problems and helping the presenters before outputting the live programme, there’s still some opportunity to make some creative radio. On one recent night shift I was working there happened to be an auroral storm, which was gaining a lot of traction on social media. Despite it being 2am, a lot of people were up to watch it, as the skies were lighting up with colour. I messaged a load of people who were tweeting about it, asked them to call into the studio, recorded them all describing what they could see, and stitched them all together for a standalone audio montage to play out when we went live a few hours later. A great example of how an item can be made using nothing more than Twitter, and how much us producers now rely on it as a guest-sourcing platform.

The most rewarding items to work on are the ones that generate news lines or move an existing story on in some way. We were vaguely interested in this story about a secret reference to Monica Lewinsky being painted into Bill Clinton’s official portrait without his knowledge, but weren’t sure how to make it work for radio. I made some calls to some well-known portrait painters to ask if they had ever done something similar, with the intention of setting up a discussion about whether it’s the artist’s prerogative to do such a thing, or whether it’s morally dubious. In the course of doing this, I spoke to Daphne Todd (former President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters), who came up with an anecdote of pure gold; that she had once painted devil horns on a sitter she disliked, before painting over them in subsequent layering so they couldn’t be seen. They would, however, she said, eventually bleed through and become visible, which will be quite a shock to the sitter when it happens. This is something she’d never revealed before, so I promptly booked her for an interview and she told the story on air. The papers had a field day with this, and I awoke the following morning to find a feature about it splashed across page 3 of The Times – who had tasked a couple of their arts journos with trawling through all of Daphne Todd’s previous works trying to figure out which painting it was. I can’t quite describe what it feels like to wake up and find something you played a part in making national news.

There are some downsides to working on the programme, of course. You are exhausted. All. Of. The. Time. I imagine this job is good preparation for having children in terms of sleep deprivation. Overnight shifts, for example, are 13 hours long and screw up your diet and body clock like you wouldn’t believe. You become ill a lot more frequently because of your weakened immune system making you more susceptible to bugs. You also can’t ever really switch off. In previous years, I spent my Sunday mornings listening to Erykah Badu with a nice latte recovering from the night before. Now I’m up at 0830 to buy the Sunday papers and watch the Andrew Marr show. Even when you’re on leave, you’re still watching PMQs, buying the papers, and, of course, listening to the programme. There’s also always the distinct possibility that you will be trolled by Louise Mensch on Twitter.

As with any news room, the atmosphere can get pretty heated. You have to desensitise upon walking through the door at the beginning of your shift. Press officers and guests may get cross with you for moving them to a less prominent slot or dropping their interview completely if there’s another breaking story, and you’ll be spoken to very sharply during high-pressure times by colleagues. On the flip side, the satisfaction you get when you listen to the programme and hear an item you set up going well or a guest you booked giving a cracking interview make the drawbacks more than worthwhile.

Justin

Quite simply, it’s a volatile job. In an average day your mood switches several times between ‘Bloody hell I did a good job of that story’ and  ‘Christ that was a total disaster I am such a hopeless idiot who should be instantly fired’.

As C.J. once said in the West Wing, I feel like I’m living out the first line of my obituary right now. I’m aware that this is an era I will look back on as being a professional and personal highlight of my life, where I got to work with some incredible people, and contribute to a massively influential programme. So I’m trying to soak it all up and learn as much as I can. I’ve no idea where I’m headed next, as this position came out of the blue and interrupted my career plan (becoming Personal Assistant to Ciara). For now, I’m just honoured and grateful to be working for such a prestigious radio show and doing a job that I adore.

@steviefm

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29 thoughts on “Producing the Today programme

  1. Thanks. A very interesting insight into a British institution! I look forward to more reading here. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in and ready to play)

  2. Reblogged this on Mavis's musing and commented:
    A story so familiar to me, and my colleagues and friends from my past life in the news room will agree with me.

    Though for me I started off my career with the objective of wanting to be in the TV industry. I also wanted to work for MediaCorp. And I did. I’m so glad for the opportunity that today I can proudly say I’ve been there, done that.

    Over the years I met many people, and many of them became my good friends now. Meeting new people, getting to know one another, that’s one of the greatest challenge and rewards of a journalist. You don’t know who you will meet, and you have to manage the relationships differently.

    Though I’ve left the industry, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it. It’s a personal career decision. I wanted to do more, but my respect for journalism never changed.

  3. This is so interesting. I am a huge radio 4 fan, you have a fantastic team and it must be such a great experience to work there. I very much appreciate the structure of the program, I don’t need to look at my watch to know what time it is.

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