Tips for Adulthood: Five Great BBC Radio 4 Shows


On occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

As someone who’s lived abroad for 14 years, I’ve often wondered what I’d put on my “Top Ten Things I’d Miss” list were I ever to leave the UK. I know what would go on the “Won’t Miss List”: how it gets dark at 4 pm in the winter…the endless chatter about the weather…and the Brits’ peculiar aversion to napkins.

But as we are in the season of giving thanks, it occured to me the other day how enormously grateful I am for the BBC, and in particular, BBC Radio 4. For those not in the know, Radio 4 is *not* the BBC World Service you hear piped into your local National Public Radio station in the US at odd hours during the day. Radio 4 is one of several channels that produces programming for the British domestic audience, and has its own, separate content.

I’ve written before about why everyone should listen to the BBC. This week, I talk about the particular shows I myself have grown to love…and you should too:

1.The Today Programme. The Today Programme is the BBC’s flagship news programme. It runs every morning, from 6-9 am, six days a week. When I first moved here, an American journalist told me “the entire country is riveted to this show from 7-9 am.” I’m not sure if that’s true, but there’s no doubt that this programme anchors much of the national public conversation. The BBC is frequently accused of being too left wing, but on this show, anyway, the presenters are just as rough on the Labour party as they are on the Conservatives. Have a listen to them grill just about anyone and ask yourself if you’ve ever heard anything like it on Morning Edition, where they presenters go out of their way to appear fair and balanced. (And yes, I use that term advisedly.) It’s really refreshing to hear journalists who aren’t afraid to take the gloves off, without devolving into shrill partisanship.

2. Profile. Profile is a 15 minute deep-dive into “the character of an influential figure making news headlines.” Although I don’t listen to this show nearly as religiously as the other four on this list, I’m never disappointed when I tune in. What I appreciate most about this programme – as with so many on the BBC – is its sheer breadth. They cover everyone from Professor Sarah Gilbert – the epidemiologist leading the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – to actor John Boyega – to Australia’s former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. I never cease to be fascinated by what I learn in 15 short minutes.

3. Saturday Live. If the tone of Profile is serious and respectful, at the other end of the spectrum we have Saturday Live, a Saturday morning chat show that is irreverant and at times, downright silly. At the beginning of each episode, the hosts pose a random question to their assembled guests, as well as to the listeners. It’s usually something along the lines of “Tell us about an unusual ritual you have” or “Describe a bad experience in a restaurant.” Throughout the next 90 minutes, as they proceed to do in-depth interviews with each of their guests about their careers, they intersperse answers to that question from listeners, along with their own. One of my favorite bits is the “Thank You” segment, where an audience member is taped thanking a stranger for an act of kindness, like coming to their rescuse on a remote motorway or returning a beloved item of lost clothing. Unlike some of the others shows listed here, this one rarely gets A-list guests. But it doesn’t matter. The kookiness of the tone – coupled with the genuine curiosity that the hosts bring to the interviews – makes it a deeply human show that’s often laugh-out-loud funny.

4. Desert Island Disks. This is a super-popular, long-running radio show that’s an unofficial “must do” if you’re anybody who’s anybody. The premise behind Desert Island Disks is quite simple: a guest is invited by the host choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island. It’s effectively a vehicle for getting famous people – whether Bill Gates or Bernardine Evaristo or Lin Manuel Miranda – to narrate their lives through music. Most guests select songs that speak to different parts of their lives: a piece that conjures up their childhood or family…something to capture the time they met their spouse…a tune that speaks to the most creative point in their career or the death of a beloved relative. In one of my occurring fantasies, I am a guest being interviewed on this program. (Hey, we all gotta dream…) Click here for my DID song list.

5. Broadcasting House. If there’s a theme in this list, it’s that – other than the Today Programme – my Radio 4 tastes clearly skew towards its weekend programming. Broadcasting House (BH) is a Sunday morning magazine programme where a panel of diverse guests – not all of whom are politicians – chew over the week’s news. I can’t exactly pinpoint why I love this show so much. A lot of it has to do with the host, Paddy O’Connell. Like most presenters on Radio 4, he combines erudition with a bit of cheek. My favorite bit is where he invites each of the guests is invited to choose a news story they found particularly noteworthy from the past week. They almost never pick the obvious ones, so you end up learning something you didn’t know about what’s going on in the country. Never miss it.

Do you have a favorite radio programme, BBC or other? Tell us why you like it in the comments section.


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