Garry Richardson: 'There's a way of asking a question a third time'

John Humphrys isn't alone on 'Today' in giving interviewees a grilling. There's sports presenter Garry Richardson, about to celebrate 25 years on the programme. Matthew Beard met him

If the studio of the Today programme were a school staffroom then John Humphrys and Co would be a clique of serious-minded faculty heads with Garry Richardson as the track-suited PE teacher. Day after day he turns up an hour later than his cerebral colleagues and is frequently ribbed about his wardrobe, betting tips and extra-curricular activities.

This Thursday it will be 25 years since he was introduced as a cub reporter by former anchor Brian Redhead for his maiden sports report, an otherwise unremarkable summary of the previous night's league cup game between Manchester United and Nottingham Forest. Aged 49, he is the longest-serving presenter on the Today team.

He has developed a tendency to put interviewees on the spot - a healthy counterweight to some of the former sportsmen and women-turned broadcasters - and accepts his role as the provider of levity to BBC radio's flagship news programme.

"There's a lot of banter. They always tease me about the racing selections. It is the light relief on the programme when the high percentage of the rest is serious news and current affairs. It doesn't bother me, though. I wore a bright yellow jumper to work one day and Brian Redhead introduced the sports slot saying I looked like a 14-stone budgie." (There seems to be an enduring avian theme to his wardrobe as the turquoise sweater he wears under a sports jacket at our interview has a distinct touch of Alan Partridge.)

Richardson began his career with Radio Oxford, a natural for the sports department once he realised that his stints with the youth teams at Reading and Southampton football clubs (he is a fan of Oxford United) would not lead to a career in the game.

He moved to Broadcasting House in the early 1980s and got a reputation as a newshound when on several occasions he phoned the desk after finding himself near the scene of IRA bombings. Such was his youthful enthusiasm that editors suggested he might be in cahoots with the culprits.

By the end of the decade he had become one of Today's regular sports reporters, flourishing under his mentor Tony Adamson, the golf and tennis correspondent, and his boyhood idols, the late football correspondent Bryon Butler and commentator Peter Jones. He readily defers to the journalism of John Humphrys, James Naughtie and Ed Stourton and credits John Timpson and Redhead with improving him as a journalist. "Brian taught me never to waste a question," he says in a Berkshire accent much broader than his broadcast voice.

Colleagues note the contrasting career paths of Richardson and Des Lynam, who started at the same time, "Dishy Des" taking the more glamorous television route. Having established himself with the BBC, Richardson went freelance. He is comfortably earning six figures from a combination of Today, after-dinner speaking and his Sunday morning Sportsweek on Five Live, which is now produced by his own company, Frontpage Media. "He has the most envied contacts book in BBC sport and likes to control all stages of the process," says a senior radio colleague.

Sport on the Today programme is like travel news on Radio Five. It's not the main reason for tuning in, but you appreciate the service. This can have its frustrations for Richardson and Steve May, who alternates as sports reporter.

"The hard thing doing sport on Today is that unlike politicians who know the value of coming on, if you were to ask a sportsperson to come on at 7.25 they would say, 'Yes, that's just before Coronation Street.' When you say it is in the morning you get a nervous laugh. Having said that, we do get a few chief executives who know the value of it. I'm not saying footballers should necessarily know what Today is. You want to try to set the agenda but equally it's important to reflect the previous night's action."

Richardson comes on air for two minutes at 6.25 and his next two slots can be extended on negotiation to four minutes. But he insists he has not been tempted into a daily role on Radio Five, the self-proclaimed home of live sport, partly because of what he considers an over-reliance on the soundbite. "I think it is a waste of time. You'll hear a 14-second soundbite and it's a manager saying, 'We know when we play Man United today it's going to be a tough game and people have got to be on top of their game.' I think you want to try to get people to say things. If I have a four-minute slot on Today it's likely to include a three-minute interview."

As such a critic of wasting airtime, surely Richardson agrees with the reported views of BBC head of sport Roger Mosey that there are too many "celebrity" reporters, a view that is thought to have seen former Olympic hurdler Sally Gunnell lose her role as trackside reporter.

"The majority are very, very good," he says, singling out Match of the Day frontman Gary Lineker. "He could do things I could never do in broadcasting and has the credibility of someone who has scored nearly 50 goals for England. There have been one or two that haven't worked out and perhaps they are no longer working here."

Richardson is no poodle, having caused Anna Kournikova to threaten to walk out of an interview when he suggested she was out of her depth at Wimbledon two years ago. But he denies being that other breed of interrogator, the Humphrys-style Rottweiler. "I don't do [confrontation] that often, but people recognise it because it is a sports reporter. They expect John Humphrys or Jim Naughtie or Jeremy Paxman to ask those sort of questions. Sometimes a chairman or chief executive will give you answers that are not right and I know fans will be sitting at home saying, 'Hang on a minute.' There's a way of asking a question again and a third time."

His proudest moments were int erviews with Nelson Mandela, disgraced former South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje and an impromptu interview with then US president Bill Clinton during a rain interruption at Wimbledon. He persuaded tournament officials to pass a letter to Mr Clinton and 15 minutes later was interviewing him in the royal box in front of 18,000 on the centre court and live TV radio audiences. He hopes that if Chelsea win the Premiership this year Jose Mourinho will finally agree to an interview, but believes that football's top-flight neglect the media when they become publicity-shy after a defeat.

"It's a shame when people don't speak to the media now. Some of the football authorities should instigate the law where they have to do press conferences. With tennis players in Wimbledon, you know they are obliged to do one media interview. It should be the same in football given the money the BBC, ITV and Sky put into sport."

Whether or not his Today colleagues plan any pranks to mark his broadcasting anniversary, they will be aware that he can give as good as he gets. In an exchange with Humphrys recently, he raised the matter of the Welshman's six-figure salary and quipped: "At least Dick Turpin had the decency to wear a mask."

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