Many schools remain closed after Christmas, but at 10am there was a vibrant sense of ringing bells and sharpened pencils on the BBC’s two leading radio talk networks. Emma Barnett took over Woman’s Hour on Radio 4, while Naga Munchetty took the spot Barnett had occupied until December on Radio 5 live, placing two of the younger generation’s best presenters in a scheduling rivalry. Barnett started by reading a letter the show had received from the Queen congratulating this year’s 75th anniversary of Woman’s Hour: a 35-year-old presenter’s counterintuitive traditionalism, although the segue into a specially recorded song by former Spice Girl Mel C indicated a willingness to span the generations.
Munchetty also started with music, reading her menu of upcoming shows to a pounding drum ‘n’ bass track, which mainly served to make the show sound different from the reign of Barnett and the other presence of Munchetty on BBC One Breakfast News. The opening monologues spoke similarly of looking forward to “getting to know the listeners,” part of the greater trend of contemporary broadcasting towards emotionality: each presenter’s question most frequently asked of interviewees was “How do you feel? ” Unusually, the hiring of two women would not change the gender balance on the airwaves; women have occupied the 10 o’clock time slot concurrently.
And both have done holiday changes on their new programs before, but getting the keys to the front door and being able to redecorate is another matter entirely. The challenges are the opposite for the presenters.
There are now several more solo prospects for Munchetty, most familiar with co-hosting TV formats punctuated by pre-recorded news.
Barnett, who was used to presenting three hours of radio airtime on her own, is only reduced to 43 minutes, with a short story or drama dedicated to the last quarter of the “Woman’s Hour” that the host merely presents and announces. The program, most recently hosted by Dame Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey, also has a reputation for being tightly scheduled; their bosses rapidly brush off presenters who wander from the runway.
Some viewers have considered it too serious – Garvey often audibly felt she was trying to find more humor – and too beholden to the agenda of social services. Barnett’s 5 Live style was based around social media-fueled politics, showbiz and debates; today, there was a feeling that she needed more songs to engage with.
The most interesting question was the degree to which she would understand the implication in the title of Woman’s Hour (anachronistic to some, contentious to others) that she has a limiting mission, considering that her appearances on 5 live and Newsnight were targeted at the entire audience. Barnett began very much in the West, with what was called a “first interview” with Sonia Khan, the Treasury a “first interview” This was a scoop less than it should have been.
Surprisingly, the Barnett interview was recorded live, possibly due to the legal issues of the BBC about addressing the myopic Durham researcher without an editing safety net. Khan then declined repeatedly to “go into what happened then” when Cummings dismissed her, preferring to “focus on the lessons.” (Could the show have seen that coming, considering the recent out-of-court settlement with the government by the ex-assistant?) Barnett used her considerable interviewing skills but sounded increasingly irritated, telling Khan at one point that she “had to have an o o”
The second argument should, in retrospect, have been the first.
A discussion between two men – the admirable Richard Ratcliffe, whose wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still under house arrest in Iran, and former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, was daring for “Woman’s Hour,” and probably reflective of Barnett’s expected versatility of content. This segment bristled with news. The default diplomatic Hunt, who obviously wants to return to the Cabinet, was made to.