Emma Barnett on the Today programme review – so chilled John Humphrys will choke on his cornflakes

Although called Today, the 6-9am slot on Radio 4 this morning was really about the network of tomorrow. A few years ago, a senior BBC manager told me that the “future” of the Today programme was Emma Barnett and Amol Rajan co-presenting, though neither at the time was on the programme. This morning, the prophecy was fulfilled.

Recent Today debuts have been shadowed. In 2015, Nick Robinson cut short his first week after a heavy cold compromised his voice. Rajan, in 2021, admitted to needing rum to soothe an insomniac “panic attack” before his first dawn.

This morning felt distinctly different. Barnett started sounding calm, sober, healthy, well-slept. While she has left 5 Live and Woman’s Hour, they audibly haven’t left her. The interview with James Coates, son of Ian Coates, the school caretaker killed in Nottingham last year, was a human interest scoop but perhaps too strongly echoed the tone of earlier radio homes. As did her plea after a segment on sex education: “I’d love to hear your views! Be great to read out some of your emails!”

You hoped someone was near John Humphrys to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre if he choked on his cornflakes, although, if any emails arrived, they weren’t broadcast.

The relaxed tone was partly due, despite Rishi Sunak having just announced the impending end of the world, to an unusually slow news day. The biggest political interviewee was Gordon Brown, out of power since 2010. (In a possibly undermining gesture, Downing Street made the prime minister available to predecessor show Farming Today at 5.45am.) For her first 08:10 keynote interview, Barnett got policing minister Chris Philp, confidently ribbing him about having seemed, on Question Time, to confuse the countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.

Her bright style meshed with Rajan, who is increasingly introducing a note of editorial bonhomie. “Good luck to you and all your pupils!” he told a headteacher guest. “Hope that cough gets better!” a croaky guest was consoled. “Extraordinary interview!” he back-announced the Coates item. With Barnett regularly referencing her premiere presence – “pleased”, “a pleasure”, “delighted”, “thrilled” to be there – there was a Royal visit vibe, as if the presenters were state-touring the studio rather than working there.

That will pass as Barnett’s novelty becomes less. And, with Karthi Gnanasegaram on sports news, anyone giving a first listen or second chance to Today may have been surprised at its light, young feel. Although BBC bosses may worry – as when Barnett’s Woman’s Hour ran against Naga Munchetty – that the listener is being offered 5 Live twice.

The risk is mitigated because, while the younger breakfast show has regular co-hosts (Rachel Burden and Rick Edwards), Today chooses twos from a pool. As Martha Kearney is leaving after a general election that may be as late as next January, the Radio 4 morning show will, for up to eight months, have six presenters (at about £250,000 a year each) for 12 weekly co-hosting shifts.

This week and next, according to listings, these have been distributed as: Mishal Husain, Justin Webb, Robinson five programmes each, Barnett four, Rajan three, Kearney one. (Although a regular would otherwise have done the one filled by holiday relief Simon Jack.)

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That roster suggests a desire for a group without main presenters, but that feels contradicted by the booming Barnett fanfare: the final item was even a discussion of her 3am wake-up playlist. And, until Kearney goes, the programme feels crowded.

Rajan felt the right choice of opening co-host, seeming determined to avoid the ego-jockeying that may await the newbie in other duos. Recently a colleague of Rajan’s anonymously and, perhaps wishfully, told a newspaper that the University Challenge host will leave Today soon, but he sounded happy in the seat and there is a sense that this morning’s duo plus Husain, the show’s best political interviewer, will, with Gnanasegaram, be Today’s tomorrow.

The Guardian

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