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How to get a celebrity on the Today Programme

Jim Naughtie

Hard news, politics and business…..think BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and those sorts of topics dominate the running order most days. Think then how many listeners would have been as surprised as presenter James Naughtie sounded to hear the name Kardashian filter through the airwaves a few days ago.

Many listeners, he acknowledged, would need an explanation as to who the Kardashians are – their fame, stemming from a reality show and all the commercial spin-offs it has produced , had not filtered every corner of the world.   But, he said, either way “let’s not bother about it.”

Celebrities are so unlikely to appear or be talked about on the Today programme that their inclusion must stem from another reason – in this case the BBC’s love of talking about trends.

The Kardashians made it on to the programme, that many believe sets the news agenda for the day, because step-dad Bruce Jenner, who now calls himself Caitlyn Jenner, has opened a Twitter account that clocked up over a million followers in just four hours. This staggering result, which surpassed the record previously set by Barak Obama, was enough for the name Kardashian to make it on to Radio 4.

Someone from the BBC’s Internet Bureau was interviewed to explain how this happened – and concluded it was down to social media interest in transgender issues. So that’s a relief – Today hasn’t had a lapse and gone all low-life, there was reasoning behind this brief interest in celebrity.

That said the Today programme isn’t averse to some celebrity sparkle themselves. At Christmas they allow guest editors – last year it included the newly knighted Lenny Henry and Tracey Thorn, one half of pop duo Everything but the Girl but now a writer and columnist.

The lighter more populist slots are typically at 08:20 and 08:40. Today for instance the programme celebrated 40 years of Jaws! and spoke to the original script writer – a PR generated story but one with obvious mass appeal. A second PR generated story was the launch of an interactive art exhibition by Carsten Holler at the South Bank Centre in London. This ticked the quirky box which the programme likes and works on display, included slides, a flying machine, and moving beds that you can pay to sleep in overnight.

In general, though to get on to Today’s programme schedule you need to have a strong news story and a good peg for the story – that is a reason for doing a story on a particular day. Anyone, no matter who they are, getting a significant increase in their Twitter followers is not substantial enough for this flagship programme – there needs to be substance and analysis behind the story too.

Today likes to set the agenda for the day or have a new twist on an old story. A client we placed on the programme recently was a global property development company – they were chosen as “the voice of big business,” to give their feedback on the general election result and to look forward to the issue of a Referendum on Europe. Not nearly as titillating as Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner but in terms of credibility and influence an excellent PR result.

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