We all wake up listening to the Today Programme, which will likely shape our media engagements throughout the day. We were joined by the former Editor of the show, Sarah Sands, to discuss what it was like to lead the show, what makes it so influential and why are CEOs so intimidated by it?
Until early last year, Sarah edited the Today Programme, ran the Evening Standard, and wrote for titles such as Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.
How did you get the role?
As with any job, it required a lot of thought. However, Sarah noted that when she discussed the job opportunity with her husband, he said, “Yes… but as long as not the Today Programme”.
Ultimately, she felt that the show brings a lot of responsibilities to an editor, but at the end of the day it is the Today Programme and, therefore a huge opportunity.
She describes her first few days as ‘terrible’ and a real culture shock. She also saw and felt significant press interest at the time (mainly from the Daily Mail), which eventually subsided. Part of this helped to create a sense of cynicism within the show, and she had to earn the trust of her colleagues, especially presenter John Humphries – who she is now great friends with.
Sarah came from a Newspaper background and highlighted the main difference between commercial papers and the BBC. She notes that at newspapers, as long as you aren’t breaking the law, you are relatively free – but at the BBC, there is an enormous amount of restriction which you have to follow to the line.
How difficult were the editorial guidelines?
The BBC wants to break the news, but this poses challenges. Sarah believes the BBC is safest is in those world news moments rather than trying to build the plan – and highlights the recent furore raised around the infamous Panorama Princess Diana interview.
She said of her time at Today that she sometimes missed the sense of ‘mischief’ Newspapers have – the ability to run a story simply because it can be ‘fun’… Whereas at the BBC, she had to focus on impartiality and the impacts each story, guest and soundbite could have on the corporation.
At this point, she notes that journalists are not often ideological – which is how they can move from media house to media house who often have their own differing agendas, but audiences perhaps overlook this at times.
Sarah outlined that she believes that the BBC ultimately is doing as much as it can do – without policing peoples thoughts.
She gave the example of the recent clampdown of presenters voicing their opinions on Twitter accounts which she agrees was the right approach to take on balance.
Her view is that the public shouldn’t know what presenters think and how they vote – but also outlines that the challenge is around what people hear. The show is three hours long, so there is incredible balance – but often people only hear a clip or a segment of the show, allowing them to make snap judgements of the way the outlet is coming at a particular story or issue.
Her tenure was post-Brexit, which she describes as a ‘political war’. When people heard something that wasn’t sympathetic to their viewpoint – particularly on Brexit – it caused major battles.
Do you think Government tampering would threaten the BBC independence?
While she was in charge, there was a boycott on the Today Programme – which she believes came directly from Dominic Cummings or ‘the top,’ as she says. She felt it was a strange ‘punishment beating’ for no real reason other than to be disruptive.
In the end, it was lifted through pragmatism on the Government side – eventually reaching a point where Number Ten had figured the balance of interests on their side. But, she agrees that the Today Programme wasn’t ‘faultless’ in this grandstanding battle between the show and the Government – noting that increasingly audiences were finding interrupting of guests quite ‘annoying’.
As a result of this quiet period, the show probably focused on the developing situation in Wuhan more – when it wasn’t interviewing the select committee and Jeremy Hunt. At the time, the only groups looking and considering this issue were scientists – which meant early on, Today was focussing on lots of inquiring interviews.
And eventually, this issue helped the Government to return. Alongside the fact, they weren’t keen on Hunt having praise heaped on him.
But this gave a moment of realisation – there is a fundamental relationship between the Government and the BBC which is ‘difficult’. She asked the question of the BBC – is the corporation at their throat or at their feet? As the Government is ultimately the paymaster, this is a tricky rope to balance on for the corporation.
7 Million Listeners
Sarah discussed the various media options available to the public – but points out that radio is King within the morning slot. The Today Programme regularly delivers 7 million listeners while the highest rating TV breakfast show offers 1.1M and is almost incomparable to print media outlets at this point.
She quotes Brian Redhead, Co-presenter of the Today Programme between 1975 until 1993, that the Today Programme is “whispering in the nation’s ear” and how she has used that term – but was rebuffed, saying that the show no longer speaks for the nation. This is an area Sarah believes the BBC and Today have to wrestle with.
She talks about the listener of the show – and outlines how, rather than metrics and demographics, she considered whether they had learned enough about a topic if it is covered.
That became the marker and success of the show and is seemingly present now.
BBC Business Unit and what role does it play?
Sarah discussed how the unit was changing as she left – but during her time, she had a dedicated presenter and team but also had strong relations with the business unit team.
Now, the BBC have moved towards centralising the commissioning of the story more which acts as a package that can suit various programmes throughout the day, meaning less dedicated Today Programme business output and more involvement from the Business Unit.
How much is it breaking news or planned?
The Today Programme tries to be a breaking news story – she highlighted examples such as Grenfell and the Manchester Arena Terrorist attack and significant deaths such as Robert Mugabe.
There was a view amongst some producers – looking at newspapers who were running breaking content – that perhaps the show should switch and approach their stories instead to stay relevant. Her view was that Today should stick to delivering what it has planned because she feels they need to feel confident about their own content rather than simply chasing rivals. It was these stories that stick in peoples minds – rather than the ongoing rolling news commentary. Again, this underpins her strategy of what has the listener learned by tuning in.
She pressed editors to ‘go for quality’ which she admits does take longer to prepare for.
She also discussed the impact on guests – noting that calling at 4 in the morning or late evening and then perhaps dropping does not help build relationships. But, again, this led the show towards planning more than reacting.
This is particularly true for female guests – who are more hesitant to come on to the show. As such, forward planning is vital for the team.
What makes a good guest? 5050 gender split?
Sarah posed a question on this – are we portraying the world as it is or as we would like it to be? And is this the right approach? If men mainly dominate science – shouldn’t we hear from men alone? On the other hand, she highlights a vital role in creating role models to change things for the future.
On reflection, she believes it has to be actively addressed – it is incredibly easy to go 30 minutes without a female voice as there is an underlying status quo that will reassert itself.
She agrees that it is the right thing to do to focus heavily on this area in principle. She gave the example of the increased take-up of young girls taking up science over the last few years – which provides evidence and proof as to why the 5050 target matters.
What place is there for brands?
There is a bit of risk and reward – and the brand has to think about what they want to get out of it well in advance.
She advises that things that won’t get on simply talk to the great success of a company – and any brand can expect a question about remuneration and bonus.
She highlights that the show has an incredible planning team that create briefs who work overnight and will cover everything you have ever said… So be prepared especially if there is any discrepancy between what you are saying now.
In terms of advice, she recommends trying to aim towards the last half hour of the show – mainly where the show is a little more discursive. Always know that if you are just before the hour – they will cut you short.
Sarah talked about how the ‘clip’ – essentially a piece which will stick within the news agenda and follow in other programmes. This can be hugely beneficial to the brand as it will keep you within the news cycle throughout the day – but she noticed a trend of brands aiming for the ‘clip’ over the actual main discussion of the show.
Sarah’s test of everything is something that brands and PRs should consider – what have we learned at the end of the interview.
In terms of preparation, Sarah says speakers should do ‘quite a lot!’ ahead of an interview on the show. She notes that there is a risk of simply getting drawn into answering presenter questions – so know what you want to convey ahead of time clearly will set you in good stead to take back control.
The other key advice is to make time for the producer call ahead of time – what you say here will often dictate the questions. Making sure you are prepared for this call ahead of the interview will put you in a stronger position.
If not, you are totally in the hands of the interviewer.