The week in radio: The post-Christmas lull saved by Today and their selection of guest editors

It was a mixed bag, but Lenny Henry offered rare passion and warmth

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The post-Christmas lull hit radio hard this year. Radio 4 was a shameless festival of repeats, while Radios 1 and 2 featured scores of substitute presenters as the usual suspects – Evans, Wright, Grimshaw et al – apparently declined to leave the house.

Thank God then for Today, which, instead of papering over the cracks with the broadcasting equivalent of supply teachers, brought in a slew of guest editors to blow away the cobwebs and bring fresh voices and viewpoints to what is the slowest news week of the year.

As with previous years, not all the editors managed to sprinkle the required fairy dust on this hatchet-faced institution. Perhaps it was the early start that made John Bercow sound as it he was sleepwalking through the programme, conducting an astonishingly tedious interview with the tennis star Roger Federer.

The Speaker of the House of Commons trawled every sports interviewing cliché in the book. This included asking: “Just what does [fans’] support mean to you?” I long for the day when a sporting mega-star would shrug and reply: “Nothing. Bollocks to the lot of them.”

If Bercow’s programme was inane, Mervyn King’s edition was baffling. Few would claim to understand the pressures faced by the Governor of the Bank of England during the financial crisis, but his fond reminiscences with ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke,  in which he described  the experience of steering the economy in its darkest days as “fun”, seemed close to suicidal.

Thankfully, the men in suits were dispensed with during singer and writer Tracey Thorn’s terrific programme that focused on a group that rarely get a look-in: teenagers. In discussing young-adult literature, the authors Caitlin Moran and Samantha Shannon talked about both the gender and generational gaps being widened by poor literary marketing.

Moran’s no-nonsense observation about YA role models made my heart sing: “If I was a teenage girl and my big female role models were all people in a dystopia who had to save the world, that’s quite a lot of pressure when you’re 13 and you’re still trying to find a top that makes your tits look good.”

Elsewhere, at Thorn’s behest, the writer Damian Barr talked to gay teens about how the internet had helped smooth the process of self-acceptance and coming out. Their testimony was enormously poignant. To the older generation the internet is often seen as the devil’s work, but here were youngsters showing it could act as counsellor and friend.

If Today’s guest editors are about offering alternative perspectives, few have taken up the challenge with such passion and warmth as Lenny Henry. Having charged the powers that be with the task of using as many ethnic minority reporters as possible, Henry went on to tackle issues of diversity and identity in literature, sport, politics, the media and comics, and commissioned first-person pieces from ethnic pioneers including Andrew Ramroop, Savile Row’s first black tailor, and Diane Abbott, one of Britain’s first black MPs.  

Throughout the programme, Henry’s detractors inevitably took to Twitter to carp about divisiveness and his apparent hijacking of a news programme with his own ethnic agenda. One charming specimen wished Henry would catch Ebola.

That a black man concerned with respect and equality had been allowed to take over Radio 4’s flagship news programme prompted such racist ire showed exactly why his voice is so vital. It’s only a shame that his stewardship was the exception rather than the rule.