Nick Robinson has blamed the Today programme’s falling ratings on “news avoiders” who no longer want to face the world’s problems.
BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs show has lost more than a million listeners over the course of the past year.
But Robinson and Amol Rajan, his co-presenter, insisted that the slump was down to a general decline rather than dissatisfaction with Today in particular.
“People just want to avoid the news,” Robinson told Radio Times.
“Market research literally calls them ‘news avoiders’. We will all know people who think ‘I just can’t face the world any more’.”
Rajan pointed to a recent Reuters Institute report that showed a “precipitous drop” in interest.
However, while the Today programme’s audience fell in the first quarter of the year to its lowest audience since 1999 – 5.76 million listeners – ratings for rivals GB News Radio and Times Radio rose over the same period.
Today programme ‘has lost its mojo’
The Reuters report to which Rajan referred, which surveyed people in a range of countries, found that some are turning away from coverage of the war in Ukraine, politics and climate change.
It suggested that “less sensationalist, less negative, and more explanatory approaches” might help to tempt back listeners.
BBC insiders have suggested that the Today programme’s problems run deeper than a general malaise.
“Today has been cut to the bone as part of all the cost-cutting in News, and it no longer has the editorial independence it once had because so many things are centrally commissioned. That shows,” said one former Today employee.
“And the programme has lost its mojo. When was the last time you were gripped by an interview with a member of the Cabinet?
“Mind you, that might be due to the calibre of the Cabinet ministers.”
Robinson and Rajan are now launching The Today Podcast, a spin-off that they hope will bring in a wider audience.
“I am genuinely very excited. I listen to podcasts fanatically.”
Introducing The Today Podcast with @amolrajan and @bbcnickrobinson
Episodes drop every Thursday from October 5th.
Head to @BBCSounds to subscribe 🎧#R4Today
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) September 25, 2023
Billed as “the Today programme – unbuttoned”, it will have a more relaxed tone than the main show.
Robinson explained: “Tone is important. Being friendly, not being overly aggressive for the sake of it. It’s optimism, hope, as well as scepticism and scrutiny.
“It’s recognising that people are listening in this incredible, more intimate way. So that you don’t want to just be like: ‘Oh, shut up. Stop shouting at each other.’”
One of the most popular current affairs podcasts is The News Agents, hosted by ex-BBC presenters Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel.
Robinson suggested that both podcasts follow the same template: “Basically, ‘we listened to the Today programme this morning, and this is what we think about it’.”
Rajan said of The Rest Is Politics: “A lot of people I know listen to that and really like having their own worldview reinforced to them.” Robinson added: “We’re not centrist dads.”
According to Robinson, the influence of podcasts has led to Today interviews “loosening up”.
Rajan said the programme now better reflects the country because it has a range of accents, rather than all the presenters speaking in Received Pronunciation.
Both rejected rumours that the Today presenting team do not get along with one another.
“We’re very different, but you could smell it a mile off if people didn’t get on,” said Robinson.
Rajan said: “I’m full of unashamed love for Today. I’m also full of love for the BBC.
“I read the absolute filth and nonsense that’s written about it, devoid of understanding and context and nuance and all the rest of it, but I actually think there’s a lot to be grateful for.”