The strangest reaction to my new job on the Today programme

The strangest reaction to my new job on the Today programme

It’s been quite a week. Three days ago it was “Today day” in my house. That’s not some weird new way of saying ta-dah to our 16 month-old. No, it was something I’ve been working up to for several months: my first shift hosting the BBC’s Today programme on Radio 4.

Today is a three hour programme with many elements to get comfortable with, so I’ve been rehearsing a couple of days a week for the last few. I’ve also been reading – a lot. The Today programme covers all different aspects of life and so despite already being a news junkie, I upped my intake even more. This had a two-fold effect: it gave me some decent and quite diverse chat around the dinner table to anyone that would listen (although a 16 month old and a six year old is a pretty tough crowd) and a few ideas to pitch from day one.

Of course I had some nerves. I was about to do something new, and radio is a weird job, regardless of the show, because you have an audience. In this case, a rather large one.

But at the same time, it wasn’t new. I’ve got 15 years of live radio air miles under my belt. I’ve taken two maternity leaves and come back each time to make work I am proud of. The Today Programme is created by a strong and welcoming team, and I found myself quickly getting into the zone, feeling the fear and doing it anyway, to paraphrase the bestselling author Susan Jeffers.

When it was announced that I was joining the show, a stalwart of British breakfast radio, there were a flurry of warm messages from friends, family and listeners. But there was another reaction that no other job move has prompted: concern.

It goes roughly like this (and is still going, two shifts in): “Oh my gosh. I don’t envy you. How are you going to cope with those early starts? What time do you have to set your alarm?” Then the questioner pulls a face like they’ve watched a cat eat its own vomit as I answer, “3.05am” in the cheeriest voice I can muster (the 05 is important as I need to feel a little rebellious). A swift reply follows: “Rather you than me,” or “I’ve done shift work. Make sure you nap.”

And that’s it. Conservational cul-de-sac reached. I’ve never had a reaction about a job change before that comes laced with such concern about my personal life. It’s quite touching, but it also has shades of the reaction I sometimes solicit when certain people find out I am an only child.

These folk look at me like I’ve been dealt a terrible hand, their faces etched with a mixture of concern and pity. I don’t always have the energy to disabuse them of their views but I’ll tell you: it was blimmin’ marvellous and I don’t know any different. (Plus I grew up talking only to adults so I learned a lot of interesting stuff way before my peers; had a rich imaginary cool crew, and still find sibling relationships utterly bizarre and enthralling in equal measure).

But back to the new job. Concern over my new 3am starts is more understandable and it is safe to say I was in denial about this element of the role while in prep mode. How do you prepare for the alarm going off at a time beginning with a three?

I asked some veterans of breakfast broadcasting and a couple of farmers in my life (a great combo) and the answer is: you can’t. They gave many amazing tips about blackout blinds, when to and when not to drink caffeine and what sleep-inducing supplements to take. But ultimately, you just have to suck it up.

In fact, the best three pieces of advice I received respectively from two broadcasters and one dairy farmer were: don’t hit the snooze button; it never gets easier so just get the hell up; and do not complain to anyone about being tired – it’s bad chat and you’ve got an amazing job. Quite.

The night before my first show, I completely failed to heed the other bit of the advice and get to bed unusually early. I eventually managed to fall asleep at 10.30pm after lots of reading and turning my political interview over in my mind, the first 8.10am slot of my tenure. I couldn’t quite see the structure of it yet but I was nearly there and nodded off dreaming of Westminster.

My first experience of waking up at 3.05am felt like being pulled out of a deep lagoon; arms heavy and body resistant. The sound of the alarm prompted feelings of how I imagine being battered in the face by a bear armed with a spiked bat might be. I didn’t understand what or why this was happening.

The it hit me: I had a new job to do and it starts NOW. I jumped up, splashed cold water all over my head, whacked on some blusher and concealer and pulled on the clothes carefully laid out the night before. I tried to remember to breathe too – but I didn’t want to wake the two children and my husband, who woke up especially to whisper: “good luck and go get ‘em” from his side of our bed, before promptly and wisely lying back down. So I took a deep breath when I got outside our front door, quietly closing it, at 3.25am.

It’s safe to say there are not a lot of people up and about in this new 3am land. I felt wired and like it was pretty transgressive being up at that time. And then I felt a bit nauseous pre my first brew of the day, which I drank at 4.30am, having gratefully received it from one of our lovely producers as I quickly worked my way through the running order, writing scripts in the office, sat next to my co-host Amol Rajan.

En route to the office for my first shift, I did spot two slightly worse for wear bleary eyed revellers, roughly in their mid-forties trying to flag a cab down in London’s Soho to finally go home (respect). But they were nothing compared to something utterly magical I spotted the second morning of my new routine.

Close to the BBC there were three beautifully dressed young women armed with tripods, portable lights and their phones marching with purpose. As they honed in on a traditional red phone box I realised that they had decided to use the quietness of this 3am land to stage a photoshoot in London’s deserted streets. Genius. I was listening to some Led Zeppelin on my newly minted Today Programme morning playlist as this wonderful sight unfolded. The riffs seemed the perfect backdrop to their creative use of time and resource.

Back to my first shift. Before I knew it, there was just five minutes to go until the red light went on and I said the words I had heard others say hundreds of times over the years: “Good morning. It’s six o’clock. You are listening to Today with…”

Except this time my name was in the mix. I also added in: “What a pleasure it is to be here,” because I meant it. Truly. When it begins, it is best. Nothing beats the moment a show starts because my favourite people are suddenly involved: our listeners. Radio for me is always a conversation with them. They are my North Star.

Yes, those first few moments were surreal, but having flashed a smile at Amol, who flashed one right back, and shared a grin with my new editors sitting on the other side of the glass, we were off and away. And weirdly, I felt like I’d come home.

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