Today (BBC Radio 4)

Today, colloquially known as The Today Programme and BBC Radio 4 Today, is the BBC's long-running early-morning news and current affairs radio programme, broadcast on Monday to Friday from 6:00 am to 9:00 am, and from 7:00 am to 9:00 am on Saturday on Radio 4. It is the highest-rated programme on Radio 4, and one of the BBC's most popular programmes across its radio networks.[1] Consisting of in-depth political interviews and reports interspersed with regular news bulletins, as well as Thought for the Day, it has been voted the most influential news programme in Britain in setting the political agenda,[2] with an average weekly listening audience around 7 million.[3][4] It was voted the Best National Speech Breakfast Show at the 2016 Radio Academy Awards.[5]

GenreNews, current events, and factual
Running time
  • Weekdays: 06:00–09:00
  • Saturday: 07:00–09:00
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Home stationBBC Radio 4
Hosted by
Edited bySarah Sands
Recording studio
Original release28 October 1957 – present


Today was launched on the BBC's Home Service on 28 October 1957 as a programme of "topical talks" to give listeners an alternative to listening to light music. The programme's founders were Isa Benzie and Janet Quigley. Benzie gave the programme its name, and served as its first de facto editor.[6] It was initially broadcast as two 20-minute editions slotted in around the existing news bulletins and religious and musical items. It became part of the BBC's Current Affairs department in 1963, and started to become more news-orientated. The two editions also became longer, and by the end of the 1960s it had become a single programme two hours in length that enveloped the news bulletins and the religious talk that had become Thought for the Day in 1970.[7] In May 1977, Radio 4 controller Ian McIntyre cut it to two 25-minute parts, filling the gap with Up to the Hour. The new format was unpopular with BBC staff, including Peter Donaldson who on at least one occasion openly ridiculed the programme on air.[8][9] It also provoked comments in the diary columns of the daily newspapers. From July 1978, Today returned to its previous length and Up to the Hour was dropped.[10]

Jack de Manio[11] became its principal presenter in 1958. He was held in affection by listeners, but became notorious for on-air gaffes (announcing a documentary on Nigeria titled 'The Land of Niger' as 'The Land of Nigger', and referring to Yoko Ono as "Yoko Hama, or whatever her name is", for instance).[12] In 1970 the programme format was changed so that there were two presenters each day. De Manio left in 1971, and in the late 1970s the team of John Timpson and Brian Redhead became established. Timpson had been critical of the content, style and professionalism of Today—describing it once as "not so much a programme, more a way of telling the time" and being filled with "eccentric octogenarians, prize pumpkins, and folk who ate lightbulbs and spiders".[13]

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, under editors Ken Goudie and Julian Holland, Today made moves to broaden its appeal away from broadcasting a lot of national politics with London-centric bias. Presentation was split for a time between London, usually by John Timpson, and from Manchester, usually by Brian Redhead. The objective was to make it more of a balanced, national programme. The on-air humour of the two presenters and the split of locations made the programme very popular and influential. Brian Redhead was quoted, "If you want to drop a word in the ear of the nation, then this is the programme in which to do it."[14] This pairing lasted until Timpson's retirement in 1986. Other presenters during this period included Libby Purves in the late 1970s. John Humphrys and Sue MacGregor joined the rotating list of presenters in 1986. Peter Hobday who had first broadcast on the programme in the 1950s was a regular presenter from the early 80s and a favourite with listeners because of his relaxed, urbane style.

By this time the programme was benefiting from publicity gained after it became known that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a regular listener. Ministers thus became keen to go on the programme, but the tough, confrontational interviewing they encountered led to accusations that the BBC was biased. Criticism was particularly directed against Redhead, who was often seen as being on the left. Chancellor Nigel Lawson accused him of having been a Labour voter all his life during a live interview,[15] in 1988. The style of the male interviewers was analysed and contrasted with the approach of MacGregor, who was alleged to be giving subjects an easier time. The 'Big 8.10' interview that follows the 8 o'clock news had become an important institution of British politics, a position it retains.[16][17]

After Brian Redhead died in January 1994, James Naughtie became a member of the team. Peter Hobday presented the programme regularly until 1996; Sarah Montague replaced MacGregor in 2002. Carolyn Quinn was a regular presenter until 2008 as was Edward Stourton until 2009. Other more occasional presenters include the BBC's Stephen Sackur and Tim Franks.[18] Evan Davis and Justin Webb[19] were the newest regular presenters to join the roster until Mishal Husain in 2013. Husain became the second regular female presenter when James Naughtie began to cover the Scottish Independence referendum as a Good Morning Scotland presenter for two days a week, and across the BBC's output. Naughtie returned to Today before the 2015 general election.[20]

On 7 July 2015, the BBC announced that James Naughtie was to leave the programme, to become a Special Correspondent for BBC Radio 4.[21] Two days later, Nick Robinson was announced as Naughtie's replacement.[22] In April 2018, Martha Kearney joined the team in a straight swap with Sarah Montague, who left to take over Kearney's old role as lead presenter of The World at One.[23]

On 19 September 2019 John Humphrys hosted his last edition of the Today Programme, after 32 years on the show. His last major guests were former Prime Ministers David Cameron and Tony Blair, as well as drag personality Dame Edna Everage.[24]

Current presenters

Year beganPresenter
2009Justin Webb
2013Mishal Husain
2015Nick Robinson
2018Martha Kearney

Former presenters



Guest editors

Beginning in 2003, for over one week at the end of December, guest editors have been invited to commission items for one edition of the programme. These usually reflect their social or cultural interests and at the end of each edition the guest editor is interviewed by a member of the regular presenting team about the experience. Guest editors participating in the inaugural year of this feature were Monica Ali, Thom Yorke, Stephen Hawking, and Norman Tebbit, who is a frequent critic of the programme. Since its inception, notable guest editors have included: David Blunkett, who used the programme as an opportunity to 'turn the tables' on John Humphrys in 2005; Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose appearance on 29 December 2006 encompassed discussions of his growing concerns about the 'justification' for the invasion of Iraq, Britain's role in the affair, and the consequences for British armed forces; and Peter Hennessy, who, on 28 December 2007, led a visit to HMS Vigilant (a British Trident submarine) alongside its base at Faslane. The likes of Queen Noor of Jordan (2005), Bono (2004) and Sarah, Duchess of York (2004) have also pitched in for this one-day editorial stint to promote their causes and interests.

Notable features

Today regularly holds an end-of-year poll. For many years this took the form of write-in votes for the Man and Woman of the Year. This was stopped after an episode of organised vote-rigging in 1990, but was soon revived as a telephone vote for a single Personality of the Year. A further episode of vote-rigging, in favour of Tony Blair in 1996, forced the programme-makers to consider more innovative polling questions. In 2004 listeners nominated candidates for a peerage, in 2005 the question was set of "Who Runs Britain?" (though this, too, turned out to be rigged). Recent years have also included nominations for a "Listener's Law" (which an MP agreed to sponsor as a parliamentary bill, although he did not support the winning nomination, which he thought was not appropriate), and, in 2006, nominations were sought for the law that listeners would most like to see repealed.

In Thought for the Day, featured since 1970, a speaker reflects on topical issues from a theological viewpoint, the editorial responsibility lying with BBC's Religion and Ethics Department (a point often made on the Today programme).[26] Notable contributors to the slot have included Rabbi Lionel Blue, the academic Elaine Storkey, the Sikh Indarjit Singh and Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford. Over the years the slot has featured an increasing number of speakers from religions other than Christianity, though Christian speakers remain in a substantial majority. In August 2002 University of Oxford professor Richard Dawkins gave a non-religious humanist thought for the day; however, this did not replace the regular thought and was broadcast an hour later as an alternative thought.

In 1983 the long-running "Prayer for the Day", which had always gone on air at 6.50am, was moved to 6.25am and replaced by a "Business News" slot. It was later moved, out of Today against protest from listeners, to 5.43am where it is still received by an appreciative audience.

The programme has a regular slot for sports news and items, 'Sports Desk', between 26 and 30 minutes past each hour, regularly presented by Garry Richardson, Jonathan Legard or Rob Bonnet and occasionally by Alison Mitchell, Karthi Gnanasegaram or Chris Dennis.[27] If Parliament is in session the previous day there will be a summary at about 06:50 (Yesterday in Parliament[28]) presented by two from Robert Orchard, David Wilby,[29] Rachel Hooper and Susan Hulme.[30]

Journalist and historian Peter Hennessy has made an assertion, in one of his books,[31] that a test that the commander of a British nuclear-missile submarine must use to determine whether the UK has been the target of a nuclear attack (in which case he has sealed orders which may authorise him to fire his nuclear missiles in retaliation), is to listen for the presence of Today on Radio 4's frequencies. If a certain number of days (said to be three) pass without the programme being broadcast, that is to be taken as evidence that the orders must be executed. The true conditions are of course secret, and Hennessy has never revealed his sources for this story, leading Paul Donovan, author of a book about Today, to express some scepticism about it.[32] However, the longwave signal of Radio 4 is capable of penetrating to surface depths where submarines can rise, although it does not have the range required to be heard at this depth far from the UK's coastal waters.

Message boards

In 2001 the Today Programme created a system of message boards[33] allowing the users of its web site to challenge thinking on current affairs with all those contributing. Available statistics indicate the amassing, over five years, of up to 18,000 separate discussions – topic threads – sometimes with as many as 3,000 contributions per thread. However, on 16 November 2006 the programme changed its board policy so that only the producers of Today could start a thread, but all contributors could still join in with them. This action appeared to have been unattractive[34] to past contributors and, it seems, many stopped dealing with Today in favour of other outlets.[35] After the changes there were fewer contributions, but, on occasion, contributions made by the public were featured on-air in the Today programme. Message boards dedicated to the Today programme were discontinued around mid-2008 and listeners were invited to use the general BBC 'Have Your Say' board.[36]


A podcast, Beyond Today, was launched on 29 October 2018. Presented alternately by Tina Daheley and Matthew Price and aimed at a younger audience, the production team contains the same number of women from black and ethnic minority backgrounds as it does men.[37]


Today found itself in the midst of controversy again in 2002, when its editor Rod Liddle wrote a column in The Guardian that was extremely critical of the Countryside Alliance and which raised questions about his own impartiality. In the article, he wrote that catching "a glimpse of the forces supporting the Countryside Alliance: the public schools that laid on coaches; the fusty, belch-filled dining rooms of the London clubs that opened their doors, for the first time, to the protesters; the Prince of Wales and, of course, Camilla ... and suddenly, rather gloriously, it might be that you remember [why you voted Labour] once again." He resigned from his post on Today.

In the summer of 2003, Today once again found itself at the centre of allegations of political bias, this time against a Labour government. The controversy arose after Today broadcast a report by its correspondent Andrew Gilligan. The report alleged that a dossier the British Government had produced to convince the British public of the need to invade Iraq was deliberately exaggerated, and that the government had known this prior to publishing it. In his live 2-way (interview with presenter John Humphrys), just after 6.07 a.m., Gilligan asserted that the Government "probably knew" that one of the main claims in its dossier "was wrong". Gilligan's anonymous source for the claim was Dr David Kelly, a key adviser on biological weapons who had worked in Iraq – though it was never established whether Dr Kelly had actually used the words Gilligan attributed to him. In the furore that followed Gilligan's report, David Kelly's name became public and he was forced to appear before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Shortly afterward he was found dead having presumably committed suicide. In the ensuing public inquiry (the Hutton Inquiry), which reported in January 2004, the BBC was heavily criticised. This led to the resignation of the BBC's chairman, Gavyn Davies, the Director-General, Greg Dyke, and Andrew Gilligan.

On Friday 5 November 2010, the programme failed to be transmitted due to 48-hour strike action at the BBC. Transmission continued the next day, in spite of ongoing industrial action, as Evan Davis and Sarah Montague decided to break the strike.[38] Justin Webb disclosed he would have taken the same action, had he been scheduled to present that day.[38]


"Radio 4 on the whole is good for using serious female presenters, but the Today programme lets it down badly", commented former Today newsreader Alice Arnold early in 2013, pointing out that Sarah Montague was (then) the only female presenter among the regular presenters.[39] During 2010, editor Ceri Thomas acknowledged that the gender balance was not ideal, but faced criticism for saying in an interview that the programme was not going to be the "first place you'll see those changes because it's just too tough an environment for novices, frankly".[40] Radio 4 presenter Mariella Frostrup described the men involved in running the programme in an interview as "a bunch of misogynists",[41] but later retracted this statement by saying she had been "careless" in her vocabulary.[42]

In 2011, Guardian journalist Kira Cochrane and colleagues researched the female–male ratio in the British media for a month. Concerning Today they found 83.5% of the contributors were male and the remaining 16.5% female.[43] The issue was thought important enough for culture minister Ed Vaizey to request a meeting with the BBC in January 2012,[44] and for Director-General George Entwistle, at the start of his brief period in charge of the BBC, to advocate that the next new Today presenter should be female.[45]

An interview with David Cameron conducted by John Humphrys in 2006 received 200 complaints concerning Humphrys' aggressive approach and "excessive" interruptions.[46] Ceri Thomas became the programme's editor shortly afterwards, and was asked about this issue. "I'm not going to rule out the confrontational interview as it is on occasion necessary... [A]ll the evidence we've got shows that the audience is overwhelmingly behind John Humphrys in general and support our right to do [this] kind of interviews."[46]

In an article decrying the BBC's attitude to science reporting, Guardian science columnist Martin Robbins wrote, "The Today programme claims to be serious, but seems to work on the basis that the best way to enlighten viewers is to take two people and force them into a sort of intellectual-masturbation death match."Graham Linehan appeared on the show last year to discuss his adaptation of The Ladykillers and found himself ambushed by questions that weren't just hostile, but sometimes completely bizarre.[47] Expert Women's Days, intended by the BBC as a training exercise intended in part to increase the number of female interviewees on Today, took place in several locations in 2013.[48]

See also


  1. "Wogan's listenership close to 8m". BBC News. 2 February 2006.
  2. "BBC News tops MPs' survey". BBC Newswatch. 14 April 2005.
  3. "Rajar radio figures round-up: Radio 4's Today loses 300,000 listeners following departure of Jim Naughtie". Press Gazette (Press release). Progressive Media International. 19 May 2016. Retrieved 24 November 2016. According to figures released by Rajar, it had an average reach of 6.8m listeners per week in the first three months of 2018, compared with 7.1m in the first quarter of 2015.
  4. Sherwin, Adam (4 August 2016). "Brexit effect helps BBC Radio 4 Today programme win record audience". Today’s weekly audience soared to 7.35m listeners [...] The figure exceeded the programme’s previous record high of 7.18m in 2011, according to figures from listening bureau Rajar.
  5. ARIAS - the winners!. The Radio Academy (19 October 2016).
  6. Paul Donovan, ‘Benzie, Isa Donald (1902–1988)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 4 March 2017
  7. Lizzie Clifford "Thought for the Day’: Beyond the god-of-the-slots", Ekklesia [c.2009]
  8. Murray, Jenni (2 November 2007). "Fab Four is simply the best". Mail Online. Retrieved 27 July 2010.
  9. "'Voice of Radio 4' Peter Donaldson dies at 70". BBC News. 3 November 2015.
  10. Purves, Libby (23 October 2007). "Today turns 50". Times Online. Retrieved 27 July 2010.
  11. Jack de Manio. Radio Academy.
  12. Hugh Chignell (2 September 2011). Public Issue Radio: Talks, News and Current Affairs in the Twentieth Century. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-230-34645-1.
  13. Hendy, David (2007). Life on Air: A History of Radio Four. Oxford University Press. p. 50. ISBN 9780199248810.
  14. Today Programme. BBC Press Office. October 2007.
  15. Michael Leapman Obituary: Brian Redhead, The Independent, 24 January 1994
  16. Zoe Williams (3 April 2010). "When Newsnight got a wife". The Guardian.
  17. Elisabeth Mahoney (10 January 2012). "Radio review: Today interview".
  18. Tim Frank's Blog. BBC blogs archive
  19. "Justin Webb joins Radio 4's Today programme presenting team" (Press release). BBC. 26 August 2009.
  20. Jason Deans and Josh Halliday "BBC's Mishal Husain to join Today", The Guardian, 16 July 2013
  21. "James Naughtie appointed Special Correspondent for Radio 4". Media Centre.
  22. "Nick Robinson to become a presenter on BBC Radio 4's Today programme". Media Centre.
  23. "Sarah Montague leaves BBC Radio 4's Today programme after 18 years". Radio Times.
  24. "John Humphrys hosts his final edition of Radio 4 Today programme". BBC.
  25. Grierson, Jamie (30 January 2017). "Sarah Sands named editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 January 2017.
  26. BBC Religion and Ethics. BBC.
  27. BBC Radio 4 – Today. BBC (1 January 1970).
  28. "Westminster to your ears". BBC News (13 May 2004).
  29. David Wilby Archived 10 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  30. Susan Hulme Archived 10 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  31. Peter Hennessy. The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War, 1945–1970. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press. 256 pages. ISBN 0-7139-9626-9
  32. Paul Donovan: All Our Todays: Forty Years of Radio 4's "Today" Programme.London, Jonathan Cape, 1997. ISBN 0-224-04358-7 (revised paperback edition is ISBN 0-09-928037-X)
  33. Today Programme Message Board. BBC.
  34. Haines, Lester. (10 November 2006) BBC in Radio 4 messageboard punch-up. The Register.
  35. James St George Archived 15 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  36. Have Your Say. BBC News (1 January 1970).
  37. Tobitt, Charlotte. "BBC launches Today spin-off podcast with 'conversational and punchy' tone to reach younger on-demand audience". Retrieved 23 November 2018.
  38. Hastings, Chris (7 November 2010). "Dragons' Den star defies BBC strikers: Furious row as Evan Davis crosses the picket line to keep news show on air". Daily Mail. London. Retrieved 7 November 2010.
  39. Alison Roberts "Alice Arnold: You look at men of a certain age on TV and think: 'If you were a woman, you wouldn’t be there'", London Evening Standard, 8 January 2013
  40. John Plunkett "Radio 4's Today editor under fire over comments on female presenters", The Guardian, 31 March 2010. See also Ceri Thomas "BBC Radio 4: the fog of gender war", The Guardian, 5 April 2010 where he responded to the criticism.
  41. Alastair Jamieson "Radio 4 Today programme 'run by misogynists' says Mariella Frostrup", The Daily Telegraph, 26 May 2010
  42. Andrew Hough "Mariella Frostrup: BBC Radio 4 presenter 'regrets misogynists jibe'", The Daily Telegraph, 2 June 2010
  43. Kira Cochrane "Why is British public life dominated by men?" The Guardian, 4 December 2011
  44. Christopher Hope "Eight out of 10 guests and presenters on 'Today' programme are men, complains minister", The Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2012
  45. "BBC boss: next Today programme presenter should be a woman", The Daily Telegraph, 19 September 2012
  46. James Silver "'Humphrys could see me off too'", The Guardian, 10 April 2006
  47. Robbins, Martin (26 January 2012). "The BBC's problem with science". The Guardian.
  48. Maggie Brown "BBC to hold Expert Women's Days in Salford, Glasgow and Cardiff", The Guardian, 18 March 2013

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