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Radio 4 Today at 60: ‘There were many more reporters in the 1980s, the downside was they were all drunk’

By Dominic Ponsford

Radio 4’s Today programme marked his 60th anniversary on Saturday with a live broadcast from the Wigmore Hall in London hosted by John Humphrys and Sarah Montague.

The daily current affairs programme is as popular now as it has ever been, according to the Rajar system of audience measurement (in place since 1999). In the second quarter of this year it reached a record 7.7m listeners per week.

In a behind the scenes video to mark the anniversary, regular presenter Justin Webb showed how small the editorial team is behind the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme – with little more than a dozen editorial staff in the office and studio while the programme is going out.

He joked: “This is quite a tightly honed team. On the days when I was a reporter on the Today Programme in the 1980s there would be many, many more people – that was the upside – the downside was they would all be drunk. What you have now is quite sober people here who are actually working quite hard.”

Another upside is that Today’s five regular presenters are probably paid more now than ever before, as BBC salary disclosures from July this year revealed.

Top of the tree is John Humphrys, who has been a presenter on the programme for 30 years.

BBC Today presenter salaries as of July 2017 (includes payments for other BBC work):

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  • John Humphrys: £600-£649,999
  • Nick Robinson: £250,000-£299,999
  • Mishal Husain: £200,000-£249,999
  • Justin Webb: £150,000-£199,999
  • Sarah Montague: Less than £150,000 so not disclosed.

Today launched on the BBC Home Service as a “breakfast-time magazine, bringing you news, views and interviews.”

Current editor Sarah Sands said: “The Today programme has been a significant part British life for the last six decades, and will continue to be for many years to come. It is central to what BBC News and Radio 4 offers its audiences and even after 60 years it continues to go from strength to strength.

“Its journalism is renowned nationally and internationally and for good reason; listeners know that when they tune in the can expect to hear breaking news, reliable in depth analysis, interviews with key figures from all aspects of life and the uncanny ability of the presenters to get to the very heart of any story.”

Today tales (source: BBC):

  • Former Today programme editor Rod Liddle described the original programme when it started it as “a light entertaining magazine programme… an oral Blue Peter for sixty year olds”
  • Presenters in the 1970s included Michael Aspel (1970-1974), Barry Norman (1974-76) and Des Lynam (1974-75)
  • In the 1970s, the editor experimented with a 22-hour shift for producers from noon until 10am the next morning. It was soon abandoned
  • 1987: the Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson reacted to questioning by presenter Brian Redhead, saying: “You’ve been a supporter of the Labour Party all your life, Brian.” Redhead then replied: “Do you think we should have a one-minute silence now in this interview, one for you to apologise for daring to suggest that you know how I vote and secondly perhaps in memory of monetarism which you have now discarded.”
  • Margaret Thatcher (pictured below in the Today studio) was a regular listener to the programme. She phoned into the programme in 1988 because she had heard the programme’s bulletin announcing that Gorbachev would be cancelling his visit to London to return to the Soviet Union after the Armenian Earthquake. She wanted to the let the public knew that she knew he wouldn’t be able to visit London and understood why

  • Sue Macgregor recalled being so tired she once fell asleep in the middle of her own question to Lord McGregor, Head of the Press Complaints Commission: “I remember waking up, as if out of a dream, conscious I was babbling nonsense… this isn’t a nightmare, this is really really happening.”

Today in pictures:

Sarah Montague, Evan Davis, Garry Richardson, Mishal Husain, Jim Naughtie:

John Humphrys and Tony Blair:

Sue McGregor, John Humphrys:

Jenni Murray, John Humphrys and Brian Redhead:

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