Why Anita Rani and Emma Barnett are good for Woman’s Hour – Anthony Clavane

You know you are getting old when you forget people’s names, groan when you bend down and are continually defeated by modern technology.

Anita Rani has joined the Woman's Hour team. (James Hardisty).
Anita Rani has joined the Woman's Hour team. (James Hardisty).

Also, when you notice that Woman’s Hour presenters, like police officers, are getting younger.

The 75-year-old programme, which boasts 3.5 million listeners a week, is a national institution. It is, according to the academic Stefan Collini, “emblematic of continuity, reassurance… the state of the world.”

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I have always been a big fan of the show. The name’s a bit of a giveaway – it obviously focuses on female experiences and voices – but it would be wrong to assume it only appeals to women. In fact, one survey has revealed that 40 per cent of its listeners are male.

I love its eclectic mix of items. Whether it’s covering the latest fashion trends or the struggle for gender equality, it can be challengingly edgy one moment, comfortingly nostalgic the next.

Last week, presenting for the first time, new host Emma Barnett brought her own distinct style to topics ranging from pop culture to politics.

She might not be everyone’s cup of tea – one guest dropped out after objecting to remarks Barnett allegedly made about her off air – but she seemed equally at home with Spice Girl Melanie C and a former Treasury aide who was humiliatingly marched out of Downing Street by a policeman.

Barnett is 35. Our very own Anita Rani (a proud Yorkshire lass), who this morning makes her debut as Emma’s number two, is 42.

This seems to have upset some Radio 4 listeners. It appears to be the latest example of the BBC’s shameful obsession with “yoof”.

The Daily Telegraph’s veteran columnist Simon Heffer argues that the broadcaster’s “conscious decision to marginalise the middle-aged and elderly in pursuit of a younger audience… has been a disaster.”

It doesn’t take too much to grind the gears of Radio 4 listeners. They almost took to the barricades following a plan to move the shipping forecast by all of 12 minutes.

In the late 1970s, the station’s controller Ian McIntyre was demonised as ‘‘Mac the Knife’ after tinkering with the news output; following his attempt to do likewise with The Archers, a kipper was nailed to the door of his son’s university room.

Now, you may not be convinced that appointing a 35-year-old and a 42-year-old to replace long-time hosts Jane Garvey and Dame Jenni Murray is the most striking example of ageism.

But Garvey was 56 when she signed off last month and Dame Jenni was 70 when she left last October. Indeed, Barnett and Rani are the youngest presenting duo in Woman’s Hour’s history.

Radio 4 chiefs are clearly keen to reduce its core 55 to 75 age demographic and, in recent years, the Beeb has made clear the need to reach younger listeners.

Garvey, a broadcaster I hugely admire, spoke for many in the Home Counties heartlands when she expressed the hope that Barnett’s co-presenter would be “somebody nearer my age to make sure we give the audience as broad a range of life experience and interests as possible. I would prefer it if the other presenter were in her 50s.”

As it happens, Anita is exactly the same age as Jane was when the latter joined Woman’s Hour 14 years ago.

Garvey knows just how conservative the audience can be. On taking over as presenter she admits to being “made about as welcome as a woman who arrives in a remote village and immediately assumes control of the WI”.

In a way, it is reassuring that the backlash is “only” against Rani’s age. In an interview a few years ago she said that being Asian, northern and female had been a “triple whammy” in the broadcast industry.

These days the BBC’s commitment to putting more BAME presenters on the airwaves is, thankfully, accepted.

Equally, her northern origins no longer single her out; Dame Jenni was born in Barnsley, Garvey in Liverpool. “Congratulations,” tweeted Bradford Museums & Galleries earlier this week. “The whole of #Bradford is behind you.”

Anita replied that she hoped she’d make her city “reet proud”.

I’m sure she will. Cometh the hour, cometh the young Yorkshire woman.