How will Today be tomorrow?

Radio 4's Today will soon have to replace its household names. Tim Luckhurst, author of a new book on the programme, looks at the search and the show's formula for success
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The Independent Online

The Today programme's reach – the number of people who tune in regularly at some point during the show – has risen to roughly six million. Peak listening from 7.30-8am each morning is close to two and a half million. No broadsheet newspaper approaches this scale of circulation. So what? Hasn't Today always been important, a fixed point in national life?

Not quite. In fact, until recently, not at all. Certainly the programme had a period of sustained success in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s. Communism was collapsing, the Conservative party was committing suicide in public. Opinion formers regarded it as their duty to "drop a word in the nation's ear" (as the late Brian Redhead put it). But all that ended and at the same time Today faced assault from all sides. The BBC launched Radio 5 Live, a well resourced rolling news service which, to many, seemed specifically designed to confine Today to minority status. Television news expanded on cable, digital and satellite. The legendary Redhead died suddenly and tragically.

Today held out until the 1997 general election but then its bread and butter was stolen. New Labour, powerfully aware of the show's ability to define the news agenda for other journalists and to make and break ministerial reputations, was determined not to submit to the treatment Today had meted out to the Major and Thatcher governments. A strategy to deploy ministers on less confrontational programmes was deliberately and efficiently employed. Access to the powerful began to dry up.

It was the changes to Radio 4 that caused a million listeners to switch off. Politicians became enthusiastic about new channels, Radio 5 Live, GMTV, Sky News, regional radio and television. People began to talk of Today as a dinosaur, a relic of pre-Blairite Britain. Today staff admit that the BBC's response was wrong. Today was encouraged to concentrate on gentler, social issues. Ill-focused discussions between academics and pressure groups replaced great theatrical confrontations between presenters and government. Few listeners enjoyed or endured the rambling "philosophical" discussions that appeared at a quarter to nine each morning, pitting two incoherent nonentities against a presenter who could not fathom what the discussion was supposed to be about.

Rod Liddle, Today's current editor, describes that phase as "awful". Jenny Abramsky, a former editor of Today now in charge of all BBC radio, admits that "Today was floundering". The listening figures proved it. James Boyle, controversially imported from the parochial Radio Scotland to be controller of Radio 4, says he predicted change would cost listeners in the short term. It is an answer to the wrong question. Radio 4 may have needed a new agenda. Today did not. It needed to find new ways of doing what it had always done. That was when Liddle took control.

Boyle deserves credit for the choice. He was on the board that appointed the young chain-smoking iconoclast many traditional BBC types regard with naked hostility. Liddle is not corporate man. He is flamboyant, controversial, unguard-ed in his comments to the press and determined to cause trouble. The BBC should consider itself fortunate that he is good at it.

Liddle set himself two objectives: he would restore Today's importance and its quality. The first task required hard-hitting original reporting. Only by revealing news politicians had to respond to could he bring back the big interviewees who get Today noticed. Liddle has done that by pouring resources into investigative journalism. Ministers have been forced to the microphone by the need to deny EU plans for a federal constitution, defend allegations that weapons used in the Kosovo conflict were useless and rebuff survey evidence of renewed crisis in the NHS. Slowly the grand confrontations have returned.

Beyond that, Liddle wanted fine-writing and lateral thought. His Saturday essays by Will Self (who used his Today slot to describe Comic Relief as a futile exercise in "tit-beating") and Frederick Forsyth have provoked fury and enthusiasm exactly as they were meant. Liddle is, in his own words, "a journalist" in a corporation which has tended to promote bureaucrats instead.

But before Liddle moves on to higher, not blander things, one big headache remains. Sue MacGregor will retire soon. The date is of her own choosing but will not be long delayed. John Humphrys admits that he will not "go on for ever". Of the core Today team only James Naughtie is in for the long term. The search for new presenters is under way but the BBC is making the job harder than it need be. Liddle has clear ideas about who he wants. He made private approaches to Alice Miles, a Times columnist with no previous broadcast experience, and recorded pilot programmes confirming his judgement that she would make "a natural interviewer". But the decision will not be Liddle's alone. His masters insist on a committee approach. It has already identified, and then abandoned, Today reporter Winifred Robinson. Now it is toying with Sarah Montague. Edward Stourton and Allan Little have both won contracts to present for 50 and 60 days per year respectively.

Expect decisions at the beginning of 2002, but don't assume Liddle will be there to manage them. The BBC is slowly coming to terms with his unconventional route to success. But Today's editor may still be encouraged into a lateral arabesque – corporatese for promotion into a job he doesn't necessarily want.

Tim Luckhurst's book, 'This is Today', will be published in September by Aurum Press, price £16.99