Woman’s Hour has long been considered to be a safe, if slightly worthy, staple of the daytime Radio 4 schedule.
Until now, few would have described it as cool, and nobody would expect it to turn the airwaves blue. All that has changed now Lauren Laverne has taken the helm of a new late night version of the long-running show that is shaking up some of the cosier conventions of BBC speech radio.
After just a week on air, Late Night Woman’s Hour has already seen one contributor blurt out the word “fuck”, and hosted a lively discussion about “self-lubricating anuses”. It would be enough to make regular listeners – and daytime host Jenni Murray – choke on their breakfast tea.
Even Laverne admits she had trouble lowering her eyebrows after one particularly spicy exchange about the sex lives of aliens. But thanks to its 11pm slot, it seems the programme has escaped censure and is fast becoming a niche hit.
Listeners have praised its in-depth discussions on woman’s affairs and said it provides a refreshing antidote to some of the BBC’s other content.
Until now, Laverne, 37, has been best known as a DJ and presenter on 6 Music and for presenting the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage. The former lead singer of 90s band Kenickie has spent parts of her career fighting off assumptions she is a “ladette” more interested in pop culture than serious matters.
So although she is no stranger to highbrow output – having presented BBC2’s flagship arts programme The Culture Show – her appearance on Woman’s Hour has taken some by surprise. But she said the transition to speech radio has been easier than even she anticipated.
“Listening to five contributors all talking at the same time, keeping it moving, making sure everyone gets a chance to be heard ... it is surprisingly similar to doing a mix, just with human voices,” she said.
Unlike the magazine format of its daytime counterpart, Late Night Woman’s Hour takes a single discussion topic for each hour-long episode, allowing it to take a more in-depth approach.
The subjects so far have been women and fan fiction, why we lie, and the rise of dating app Tinder. Next week will see a discussions of female lust and another about women, drugs and alcohol.
Laverne became involved after she appeared as a presenter of a Woman’s Hour episode last year alongside a string of celebrity editors including JK Rowling and Doreen Lawrence.
“I got to know the team really well,” she said, “A few months ago we decided to do something a bit different, that would allow us to dig down into topics a little more.
“Because of my music radio background, I’m always thinking about the tone and feel of what is going out on air. It is meant to sound like a group of friends having a conversation in a pub. I like to inject a bit of mischievousness. That said, I’m not trying to stitch listeners’ eyebrows to their hairlines. Mine have only just come back down after we talked about self-lubricating alien anuses on the first episode.”
Laverne said Thursday’s show almost ended in disaster when a fire alarm meant the studio had to be evacuated.
“We had to move to the 5 Live studio instead,” she said, “Which is where the continuity announcers are based. They told me, ‘If you overrun, we won’t be able to do the pips.’ I was nervous in case I brought Radio 4 down in my first week.”
The final two episodes of the month-long run will be presented by regular Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey. She agreed that the new late night format is able to delve into areas the morning show cannot touch.
“I love it,” she said. “They’re the sort of revealing, intimate conversations it’s difficult to have at 10am, however hard you try.”
New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis, who was a guest on the first episode last week, is another fan of the new format. She said: “Lauren Laverne is a fantastic presenter. She is genuinely interested in what people have to say, rather than her own opinions. She has no ego, so she draws interviewees out of themselves.
“The format lets them talk about things in a way that is normally rare on the BBC, without spoon-feeding people. I’ve been on BBC programmes before and there is a tendency to ask very ‘level one’ questions that don’t really get below the surface of a subject.
“Late Night Woman’s Hour isn’t afraid to delve into niche areas a little more. It can also afford to be a little more explicit and adult. There was a very relaxed feeling in the studio. They offered us all beer, though we were all very parsimonious and stuck to tea and coffee.”
Writing online, Radio 4 listeners seemed a little shocked at some of the language they had heard on the show, but were full of praise for the format.
On Thursday, Laverne was forced to apologise after Guardian journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson let an expletive slip out in a discussion about Tinder.