Anita Rani grew up listening to Woman’s Hour and never in a million years thought she would end up hosting the BBC Radio 4 show. “My dad listened to Radio 4, although I always nagged him to put on Radio 1, but I did love Woman’s Hour – listening to interesting and empowered women was very inspiring,” says 42-year-old Rani, who grew up in Bradford.
Her appointment to the show, which celebrates its 75th birthday this year, came as a surprise to Rani. “I had been doing quite a lot of radio and was asked to fill in on the show and then when Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey announced they were leaving they asked me if I wanted the gig. I was thrilled.”
She co-hosts the show with Emma Barnett, seriously bringing down the age demographic – Murray and Garvey were 70 and 56 respectively when they left.
It is clearly a conscious decision on behalf of the BBC to be more reflective of its audience in 2021. “I hate the word diversity,” says Rani when I ask if she thinks her latest appointment is the BBC trying to diversify its presenters. “I much prefer the word inclusion. But I do believe it is a sign that society is becoming more accepting of difference. We are in the times of Black Lives Matter and there is no going back.
“Yes, there’s a responsibility for what has gone before but it is also important to move forward. When I was growing up there was no one on the television or radio who looked like me and it is right that that’s changing.”
The job offer came just before Christmas and coincided with Rani and her husband, Bhupi Rehal, contracting Covid-19. “For 48 hours we weren’t great but it was over Christmas and it was a good excuse not to go anywhere.”
Rani lost her sense of taste and smell, and although she says she still isn’t 100 per cent recovered, she says she feels lucky.
There is certainly no sign that having had the virus has slowed her down as she juggles Woman’s Hour, Countryfile and hosting a new Channel 4 quiz show. “I just love quizzes. To host my own quiz show is a dream come true,” she says of her new TV role.
When lockdown was first brought in last March, a lot of her work was cancelled. “I had just been about to fly off to India to film a new programme. My bags were packed and then the pandemic happened and it was all off. I was also due to film another project for the BBC that also had to be put on hold. Thank goodness for Countryfile as we were able to keep filming that throughout.”
Lockdown has also given her time to reflect, she says. It enabled her to work on her memoirs, The Right Sort of Girl, due to be published this summer, which focuses on growing up as a brown girl in Bradford.
“It is a difficult process. I am so used to telling other people’s stories for a living that I have never reflected on my own story until now.”
She was profoundly affected by the revelation in BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? about the extent of her family’s involvement in the Partition of India. It might be that part of her family history that got her thinking about her own life.
“I was a brown girl growing up in Bradford in the 1980s and 90s who just didn’t fit in and I don’t think it is a story that’s been told. It involves a lot of soul searching. I’ve always accepted myself; it’s society that made me feel I didn’t,” says Rani, who attended Bradford Girls’ Grammar School.
She worked on local radio in Bradford as a teenager and was usually found there every day after school working for nothing because she loved it. Her first experience of television was on Bradford Festival TV during the annual cultural festival and she was hooked, enrolling on a four-year broadcasting degree at Leeds University.
As part of her degree she got a placement on music programmes The O-Zone and Top of the Pops. Music is another of her many passions. After graduating from Leeds, Rani knew that she had to leave her beloved Yorkshire behind and move to London where all the movers and shakers in the broadcasting industry were based.
“I remember being at uni in Leeds and having a discussion with other people who were saying they didn’t think they could go to London. There was never any doubt in my mind – I was going.”
And once there she quite quickly made an impression, something which doesn’t seem to be a problem for such a determined woman. She first landed a job on the Asian Network but was passionate about proving her versatility.
Her interests are wide and this is reflected in the variety of programmes she has worked on – from BBC 2’s Four Wheels series looking at the impact of the motor industry in China, Russia and India, to the documentary Make Me White, investigating skin lightening in the Asian community.
Getting the Countryfile job, though, was a dream come true. “We used to walk the moors with my dad when we were growing up and I just loved the countryside – Countryfile has become something of a British institution.”
Working on such shows seems to be a habit now for Rani. It is this chameleon-like ability to adapt to any situation which has allowed her to avoid being pigeonholed and seen her career skyrocket in recent years. “Lockdown was hard for me, as it was for everyone. But then as we approached the end of last year I thought okay, now what – and then I got the call about Woman’s Hour.”
It’s a programme that doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects, something Rani can relate to having talked openly about her miscarriage in 2018. “I couldn’t believe how little miscarriage was talked about,” she says. “Until I had one I had never really come across it but then once I miscarried so many of my friends said they’d had one too – well with one in four women having a miscarriage it was likely they would but for someone reason people just didn’t talk about it.”
When she was asked by a magazine to write about her experience, she agreed. “I felt it was a safe place to talk about it; I really believe that it is important to talk about things that aren’t normally talked about. And the reaction has been huge.”
It’s this openness, along with her versatility, that has made Rani so popular with TV bosses. She is as happy wading through mud in her wellies on Countryfile as she is hosting a high-brow quiz show, sports programme or interviewing some of the world’s most influential women (she has Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey in her sights for Woman’s Hour).
And this variety is no accident. This is a woman who is determined not to fall into any stereotype – either gender or ethnicity.