Briefing Notes: Beyond Today, BBC Podcast

Chloe Choppen
Chloe Choppen29th March 2019


John Shields, Editor, Beyond Today


Beyond Today

This is the podcast that is linked to Radio 4’s Today programme and appears daily Monday-Friday at around 5pm each day. It picks one story to focus on and usually has a long interview with a reporter who has covered the story and sometimes there’s a second interviewee who may be a reporter or other expert. There is no set format but it is an attempt to make more of the BBC’s in house expertise.

IBT members are welcome to pitch ideas to John and suggest topics that he should cover. A key element is that there has to be a strong character at the heart of the story who can deliver an interview that can run for 10+ minutes.

Beyond Today was launched 6 months ago and is constantly evolving. Its audience is higher than expected but the BBC does not publish audience figures for its podcasts so we don’t know the exact numbers. Some episodes are more popular than others – the foreign ones seem to get bigger numbers – but the range of subjects covered is deliberately broad in the hope that this will attract a loyal following who will listen on a regular basis.

BBC research identified a gap in the podcast market for intelligent content aimed at younger audiences. And the audience for the podcast is much younger than the Today audience, although there is some overlap. The connection with the Today programme is quite tenuous as it often features topics that have not been touched on by Today at all. But it also features topics that have been in the news.

Recent episodes have looked at the cyclone in Mozambique identifying corruption as a key issue that made people more vulnerable when the cyclone hit, because money had not been spent on the necessary infrastructure; the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir; whether we should listen to Michael Jackson’s music; what to make of the Jussie Smollett case; whether Grindr could be kinder.

Each episode asks a question in the hope that the answer is not exactly what you would expect so people keep listening. The running time is 15-20 minutes and there are two presenters who alternate, Matthew Price and Tina Daheley. The show is made by a team of seven – apparently other comparable podcasts have bigger teams, of up to 12 people. The seven people comprise: 2 Senior Editors; 2 Producers; 2 Researchers and one engineer.

They are beginning to get a better idea of what works well – often it’s a story that has had a little media attention but not much; asking a question as a way in to a topic works; taking you somewhere you wouldn’t normally go – so for example Quentin Somerville’s description of meeting Shamima Begum gave you the feeling that you were there with him.

The presenters are also important – both have a different style but they make you feel comfortable and their approach is informal and conversational.

John noted that there was a long tail – people were still listening to podcasts that had been recorded months ago. A large number (around 70%) listen to the whole podcast.

John explained that when the production team were debating which stories to feature they had a checklist of what they were ideally looking for:

  • Access
  • Surprise
  • Connection

The goal was that each podcast would have a central character who you would get to know. Of course it doesn’t always work like that. The character could be the subject of the podcast – Shamima Begum, Jussie Smollett, Michael Jackson – or it could be the reporter. They looked carefully at which reporters to use – they wanted people who were good storytellers and could engage audiences emotionally.

The most successful podcasts were ones where the answer to the central question was not what you expected so the podcast took you on a journey and you ended up somewhere surprising.

Most of the podcasts have a 48 hour turnaround. If there is one key interview then this will be prepped in advance by a researcher and a recording script would be drawn up. The interview might last an hour, then there would a whole day in the edit. John noted that a lot of time was spent in the edit not just crafting the podcast but honing the central question and the answer to the question.

When John first came across podcasts his observation was that the most successful ones served a niche so launching Beyond Today with such a broad remit was taking a risk. He’s happy that it has turned out well and he actually feels the broad range of topics covered is part of the reason why it’s successful. It now has the go ahead and funding to continue.


MG, 29.3.19

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