The week in audio: Times Radio; Newsbeat: 100 Days of Lockdown – review

The Times takes to the airwaves, but a lack of listeners prevents it from reaching Newsbeat levels of richness

Times Radio |
Newsbeat: 100 Days of Lockdown (BBC Radio 1/1 Xtra/Asian Network) | BBC Sounds

Times Radio started last week to not very much fanfare, mostly because its potential listeners are busy trying to work out whether they have a job any more. When is a good time to start a new radio station? Who knows? At least a lot of people are still stuck at home.

And having spent yet more stuck-at-home days doing yet more stuck-at-home activities, I’ve found Times Radio to be a warm and easy in-house accompaniment. The presenters are well-chosen: Calum Macdonald (ex-BBC Scotland); Aasmah Mir (ex-5 Live) and Stig Abell (ex-Radio 4); plus Matt Chorley, the Times political writer and podcast host, take us up to lunch. In the afternoon it’s the Observer’s primo agony aunt, Mariella Frostrup, in culture mode; followed by veteran ex-5 live political journo John Pienaar; Phil Williams (yes, he’s ex-5 Live too); and ex-BBC TV political journalist Carole Walker. From 1am until 5am you can hear highlights of some of the day’s programmes, plus a selection of Times podcasts. (The best of these is Stories of Our Times, mostly because it’s an almost exact copy of the Guardian’s Today in Focus).

Pre-launch, there was much speculation that Times Radio would be a rival to Radio 4. But aside from news shows, Radio 4 is structured around many non-live “built” programmes: documentaries, drama, panel shows with audiences. For the moment, Times Radio doesn’t have the resources to create these, and aside from a couple of pre-recorded phone interviews, everything on air is going out live. It’s less Radio 4, more a light version of Radio 5 Live. 5 Lite. Personally I’m up for that, though it should be noted that there were some initial tweets from Times readers who felt the 5 Lite tone wasn’t serious enough. Perhaps they’d rather eat their kippers to the sound of Simon Callow reading out the court circulars.

Guest bookings have been strong. First up last Monday morning was Boris Johnson, a coup; though Mir and Abell’s questions were soft balls. And actually, I nearly switched off before then, when neither presenter knew the origins of the phrase “a hard rain’s a-gonna fall” (Do they not Google? Plus Abell used to present Front Row!). But that’s just me.

I enjoyed the longer interviews on Williams’s and Walker’s shows, Frostrup is always impeccably prepared, and the Times has a myriad of interesting columnists willing to talk through what they’re writing about this week. But my favourite Times Radio moment so far has been John Pienaar’s interview with Bernie Ecclestone on Tuesday evening. Pienaar himself has a slight on-air awkwardness, but when combined with Ecclestone’s randomness and lack of self-awareness it made for proper fist-in-the-mouth, so-bad-it’s-good listening. “Black people there are complaining and there’s a lot going on,” said Ecclestone, re the US and Black Lives Matter. In case you hadn’t noticed.

The biggest problem for Times Radio is that, for the moment, it can’t take phone calls from listeners. Not enough people are listening to get high-quality contributors. There have been times during its programme discussions about football, or the Leicester lockdown, when it would seem natural to go to listener calls, but instead the presenter had to keep chatting to their official interviewee, or riff solo for a bit. In these chatty social media days, a lack of listener calls can make radio seem as though you’re being broadcast “at”. It feels patrician. But then, this is the Times.

As an example of how radio is enriched by contributions from listeners, the Radio 1/1 Xtra/Asian Network news service Newsbeat broadcast a 100 Days of Lockdown special on Tuesday. We heard from several young people. Some had no jobs; others were volunteering. One young woman’s dad had died of Covid-19; another’s was just about pulling through. A neonatal nurse cried about newborn babies not being allowed visitors.

In contrast, Times Radio has the stories popping up through the day of those who died from the virus, in short obituary format, which felt respectful but strange. The station needs to harness the unexpectedness, warmth, anger and humanity of living listeners to really do its job.

Three interesting independent UK podcasts

Penfriend: Attention Engineer
An interview series from musician Laura Kidd. Kidd talks with insight and warmth to (mostly) other musicians. Her opening show is with Belly’s Tanya Donelly, and is completely delicious; her latest is with comedian Bec Hill and is just as great. In between we get the likes of Charlotte Hatherley, Tom Robinson and many more. As a musician herself, Kidd understands how to talk to her interviewees, but these are not the back-slapping all-slebs-together podcasts that we’ve become used to. Instead, we learn about how to sleep on a tour bus and whether B7 is the most irritating chord. A really lovely listen.

Down to a Sunless Sea: Memories of My Dad
Is the brain the key site of selfhood? If our intelligence fails, are we still here? In this fascinating and moving series, Dave Pickering weaves conversations with his dad, who suffers from dementia, with those of neuroscientists, religious believers and others. Pickering’s music is also with us throughout. “Until I was 87, I lived the same life,” says his dad. “Then I became demented, as my neurons began to collapse, and I moved into a second life... I do feel I am a different person.” In another episode, when he can’t remember his own dad: “Your love stays, regardless of your memories.” Wonderful.

The Smart 7
There’s a general trend in podcasting for shorter shows, and this news show aims to give you everything you need to know in seven points, in seven minutes, launched at 7am every weekday. Presented by Jamie East, the Smart 7 knows its stuff, moving from politics to pop music to sport to silly telly people with ease and wit. News clips and blasts of music keep things moving, there’s no room for overt opinion and this is a nice way to get on top of news and culture without having to scroll through social media and get depressed.


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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