Sign O The Times Radio: Breakfast show review

... for anyone who felt that there wasn't enough Stig Abell in the British media already.

In France a skinny man
Died of a big disease with a little name
By chance his girlfriend came across a needle
And soon she did the same
At home there are seventeen-year-old boys
And their idea of fun
Is being in a gang called The Disciples
High on crack, totin' a machine gun
Sign O’ The Times — Prince

There was nothing as exciting as the events recounted by Prince in Sign O’ The Times during the first news bulletin on Times Radio, a station that already peppers its breakfast show with ads for its parent newspapers, The Times and Sunday Times.

I tuned in with 5 minutes to go until launch and heard the grandiose opening montage with voices from the new station’s schedule reading lines from 200 hundred years of news reports as if there was never a moment when Times Radio didn’t exist. The ego wank opened with the line, “Times Radio: 235 years in the making.”

The breakfast show is presented by Stig Abell — who was charged by his bosses with making the Times Radio project happen — and BBC News veteran and consummate professional Aasmah Mir. In a surprising moment of humility from Stephen ‘Stig’ Paul Abell, he allowed Mir to speak the first words on the station, but he was soon offering up his trademark landslides of syllables, tumbling all over every story with a frustrating Scrappy Do-like enthusiasm.

Stig Abell pictured dealing with some hard news

The big draw of the first breakfast show was an interview with the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who has ducked broadcast challenges ever since he entered Number 10. The conversation was promoted as the Prime Minister’s first interview since he contracted Coronavirus.

Given that the government is still shy of Radio 4’s Today Programme, and utterly boycotting Good Morning Britain, for fear of Piers Morgan, it all seemed a little cowardly.

But then the Prime Minister had to pay homage to Rupert Murdoch, didn’t he?

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The positives from the first few hours of Times Radio were a willingness to spend more time on stories than the Today Programme tends to have the patience for these days, good and uninterrupted moments with specialist correspondents, and some creative commissioning — to celebrate the station’s birthday, Times Radio has stationed a reporter at a maternity unit for the day. But there was a sense of propagandistic perkiness to even that report, with the boss of the unit offering a chirpy thanks to Times Radio for coming, at the top of its chat with her.

Abell has also imported the weird tic of asking unnecessary rhetorical questions that he used throughout his stint on BBC Front Row: “Do we love the FA Cup though?”

His time at LBC obviously had a major effect on him. Abell has lachrymose tendencies — despite his time enabling Katie Hopkins as Managing Editor of The Sun — which are also present in segments featuring plangent piano and tabloid ‘human interest’ framing. The intent is generous but the execution is cynical.

That ‘big’ interview with the Prime Minister

When the much-trailed Boris Johnson interview arrived, it felt soft. It was an opportunity for the Prime Minister to announce his plans to schools to an approving (and small audience). But the news lines from this interview will have to be picked up by other broadcasters, while the Prime Minister who won’t speak to them remains free of scrutiny by them.

Johnson started the interview with a bit of slapstick business where it seemed like he didn’t know how a microphone works. How human and how unlikely for a man who has been a professional journalist then politician for decades. He was in his soft-voiced mode, ‘semi-sensible Boris’ versus the version he’d give The Sun, which is more like a priapic bulldog on amphetamines.

The Prime Minister was allowed to compare himself to Roosevelt (Franklin D. rather than Teddy) without challenge. His plans were called ‘ambitious’. He ducked questions on the removal of Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, and made vague suggestions that he might find Sedwell another job. He won’t.

As usual, the Prime Minister attacked the media in his blimpish way, and Abell allowed him to do so, barrelling on to a question about fixing schools. There was little talk of why schools are in such a bad state or the fact that we have just had a decade of Conservative rule with another decade likely. He also got a chance to attack the teaching unions… again.

The Prime Minister described the government’s strategy as ‘whack-a-mole’. That could apply to media handling, and policy announcements as much as it does to the Covid-19 response. Asked about his time in hospital with Coronavirus, he offered some pablum about loving the NHS. It was familiar propagandistic stuff and any moment where the interviewers pushed him felt performative.

He was asked about this:

…and ducked the questions easily.

On Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister simply said, “Dom’s outstanding.” I’m sure King Louis XIII said similar about Cardinal Richelieu.

I suspect the Prime Minister will be back on Times Radio soon.
I’m sure it felt like home.

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