Briefing Notes: Radio 4 Today Programme
Please note that this meeting was held according to Chatham House rules so Adam cannot be quoted without his consent.
Adama.firstname.lastname@example.org Acting planning editor and senior producer
Ollie.email@example.com Planning editor
Today.firstname.lastname@example.org Today planning desk email
Planning desk direct line 020 3614 3622
How Today works
There are around 60-65 people working on the show, made of up two teams: the day team and the planning team. The teams aren’t fixed and people will move from one team to the other. The day editor has a main meeting at 11.30am for the next day’s show and stays until early evening. At 7.30pm the night editor comes in and takes the show right through until 9am the next day. In the evening, some items will get dropped as new news stories break.
There are several points of entry to Today. The main one is the planning desk which is run by Ollie Stone-Lee. Adam is standing in for him at the moment. Adam recommended phoning rather than emailing. He suggested making contact with someone on the team, and pitching your idea over the phone. Make sure you get the name of the person so that you have a named contact for the future.
You can also pitch to one of the specialist teams such as health, business or education – or to a correspondent in the field. Don’t pitch it to Mike Thomson as he no longer works full time on Today.
Adam spoke at length about how to write a decent press release. He suggested listening to the programme and then pitching something that will actually fit with the style of the programme. He doesn’t have time to read emails and press releases from beginning to end so the subject line or heading are key to grab his intention – these should be like a newspaper headline. The first sentence should sum up what the story is, emphasising what you have to say that is new. The sheer volume of ideas they get pitched is huge. He typically deals with 150-200 stories in one week. What they want to find when they read a press release is the human story – case studies are crucial. And if you are offering named experts make sure they are available, ideally to go into a studio, in London or elsewhere. Studio sound is much better than a telephone line.
The role of the planning desk is to come up with stories that can’t be set up in a few hours but need more planning. He gave the example of the Ebola audio diary by Geraldine O’Hara. They are also looking for stories that provide more texture – Today is not just a news programme. He gave the example of the interview that John Humphrys had done in Cardiff on the subject of dementia. They try to avoid doing too many packages as these tend to be dropped when a new story breaks.
The pitch has to be good and some ideas inevitably get lost in the system. Adam complained that many of the ideas he receives are not specifically targeted at the Today programme – they are just general press releases which obviously go to all media contacts on the mailing list. This is not the way to get your story on Today.
He gave an example of what he considered to be a good pitch – it came from a charity working on drugs and was about a new antibiotic – the story was summed up at the top of the release in two sentences. There was a list of possible interviewees and two strong case studies.
If you’re publishing new research make sure that the report author is available for interview and be very clear about the methodology.
Adam urged everyone to think on their feet – respond to stories that are in the news. If you have a report coming out next week but the story is in the news today then bring the launch forward since no one will want to return to the story next week.
He also advised everyone to try pitching something different – the programme is keen to find new ways of covering foreign stories. Hence the Ebola audio diary. Adam spoke about how Justin Forsyth had pitched the Liberia project and this had been a great way for the programme to cover both positive and negative stories from Africa.
He suggested being aware of other stories in the news when deciding the right time to pitch a story – Adam recommended subscribing to http://www.media-planner.co.uk/Static/index.aspx
Think of sound – this is a radio show after all. He was recently pitched a story about a new water mill generating electricity – one of the attractions of the story was the sound.
Feature children if you can – they are brilliant on the radio.
Adam said that Today were working hard to increase the number of women interviewed on the show – sometimes the guests would be 80% male. A low point was when they had two male experts on the show talking about breast cancer. He welcomed suggestions for good female studio interviewees. They would prefer to interview a female expert working for an NGO than the male chief executive.
He recommended that all potential female experts should register on Women’s Room and Her Say as he uses both sites to search for experts. Today does not currently have its own expert database but a new one will come online soon. http://thewomensroom.org.uk/ http://www.hersay.co.uk/
Adam spoke about Jamie Angus’s comments earlier this year when he said foreign coverage was putting off viewers. See
Adam said there was no detectable loss in listeners and he didn’t believe that foreign coverage per se was putting off listeners. What he did feel was that there were more big running stories and that the programme needed to be creative about finding new ways of covering the big story of the day. He said the Ebola audio diary was an example of a different type of coverage. Sending presenters to the location also helped – for example Mishal Hussein’s trip to Lebanon.
Adam broadly welcomed the fact that since the merger of BBC News and the World Service, some WS correspondents were available to file stories for Today. Adam gave an example of a trip he made to Kenya to look at radio and the changing media landscape, with Alan Kasujja, one of the Newsday presenters.
In addition to trying to recruit more women as studio guests, there were other changes afoot. They want studio discussions to have more light and less heat – it won’t be necessary always to have two opposing points of view. Adam noted that with discussions about climate change they have moved away from always interviewing a scientist and a sceptic – acknowledging that the sceptics represent a very small minority and should not be given too much air time.