Mike Chaney, 1970s Today programme editor who steered the show towards its modern format – obituary (2024)

Mike Chaney, who has died aged93, edited Radio 4’s flagship Today programme in the 1970s when he split the presenters between London and Manchester, a revolutionary move designed to make it more appealing to listeners outside the capital.

An ebullient, bluff bear of a man with a grizzled beard, Chaney decided to get the early morning news and current affairs sequence “out and about” in an effort to lighten it up. He brought in the irrepressible northern journalist Brian Redhead to present from the Manchester studio, a counterbalance to perceived entrenched metropolitan bias. Six of the production staff also moved north.

Chaney’s mantra that “news is where journalists are” may have contained an element of truth but his experiment, hailed by the BBC as “the new intercity style of presentation”, was not a success. From suburban Chorleywood, the avuncular John Timpson, Redhead’s opposite number in London, derided it as “a ridiculous idea”, and departed for an ill-fated excursion into television.

The killer blow, however, was dealt by the Radio 4 controller Ian McIntyre who, to Chaney’s enraged bafflement, dismantled Today by cancelling the Saturday edition in 1977 and handing over half its airtime on weekdays to a ragbag miscellany of music, sport and trails called Up to the Hour.

It was, Chaney exclaimed, “absolute crap, the floor sweepings”, a public judgment that was shared by his loyal staff. “It was a kind of physical pain to have to stop for Up to the Hour each day,” wrote Libby Purves, “with its dreadful mix of old Victor Borge records and junk like that.”

The newsreader Peter Donaldson, styling himself Donald Peterson, was almost sacked for ridiculing the show on air, a mutiny which Chaney worried might have resulted in the controller McIntyre having him “hung by the bollocks outside Broadcasting House”.

The detested cuckoo in the Today nest was finally axed by a new controller in 1978, by which time Timpson had come back from television and Redhead had relocated to London, to form a febrile on-air partnership rooted firmly in W1A. In the same year, Chaney was overthrown in an internal BBC turf war, having being forced to apply for his own job and, having been rejected, put in charge of launching Radio Norfolk, the corporation’s first countywide local station and the one with the smallest staff.

His reaction was philosophical. “As you know, I’ve been thrown on the sh*theap,” he announced to the local press in Norwich, “but this is as nice a sh*theap as any to be thrown on.”

Chaney had first joined the corporation’s World Service in the 1960s before moving to the Today programme, then still presented by the unpredictable Jack de Manio on the old Home Service. By the early 1970s he had switched to Fleet Street to work at the tabloid Sun, but was reportedly persuaded back by the BBC’s director-general Ian Trethowan to be the launch editor of Radio 1’s pioneering Newsbeat in 1973. Chaney’s remit was to add a populist flavour to the pop station’s news coverage, creating bulletins incorporating tightly edited interview clips.

“Newsbeat is a remarkable production,” declared the Daily Telegraph critic, “eccentric in news selection, relentlessly casual in style.” Five million pop music listeners were waiting to be convinced by the intrusion. As Paul Heiney, one of Chaney’s reporters, noted: “We had to give the top line of every story the smoothness of a Coca-Cola advert and the punch of a Fleet Street headline.”

Michael Kingsley Chaney (his middle name was a tribute to the Christian Socialist Charles Kingsley) was born on March 3 1931 in north London, the elder son of Stan Chaney, a building society manager, and the former Lily Baker. After Oxted grammar school in Surrey he did his National Service with the RAF and then studied journalism at Regent Street Polytechnic (now part of the University of Westminster).

His journalistic career took the traditional route from regional papers to the northern editions of the nationals and eventually News Chronicle in Fleet Street. In 1957 he took up a two-year teaching assignment in Africa with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and this led to his job with the World Service, but through the following decade he interspersed newspaper work with BBC commitments, and he had moved to the Home Service by 1967, when it was replaced by Radio 4.

He had been contributing to the Daily Herald since about 1962, and in 1973, by which time Rupert Murdoch had transformed it into The Sun, he was hired by the BBC director-general to inject a populist flavour to the news coverage on Radio1, creating Newsbeat. During his time on Newsbeat, Chaney was rumoured to have supplemented his BBC salary by working night shifts on the back-bench (executive desk) of The Sun.

His commitment to widening coverage on the Today programme extended to despatching reporters to the provinces at short notice with the instruction to “beat up a region”. “Get there at 4am,” ran one such edict regarding a typical mission, to a shire horse show in Peterborough, “and find some little old groom with a face like a walnut, polishing a big horse that snorts a lot.”

At Today his hirings included Libby Purves and Paul Heiney (two reporters who subsequently married), and he always led from the front, issuing praise and salty but jovial abuse in equal measure, not all of it aimed at his staff.

“Blasts of hilarity would be heard from his office,” Libby Purves recalled, “in between his orotund dictation of frighteningly robust letters to aggrieved politicians and listeners.”

Having launched Radio Norfolk in 1980, Chaney summarily quit after telephoning the managing director of BBC Radio, Aubrey Singer, in London to complain that the station’s entire stock of razor blades, used to cut and edit tape, were old, rusty or blunt or all three. When Singer remonstrated and told him to “f--- off”, Chaney accepted the invitation and resigned.

From Norfolk Chaney moved to Dorset where he became press officer for the county council. In retirement he was active in a campaign to save Puddletown library for the community when the council withdrew funding.

Chaney belonged to the public service union Unison and the National Union of Journalists. The Telegraph’s radio critic, Gillian Reynolds, recalled watching him at a union meeting at the BBC, arguing so convincingly against a strike that he swung the vote, before promptly reversing his position and voting in favour.

Chaney returned to London in 1997 for a party to celebrate 40 years of the Today programme. “We had twice the audience when I was editor,” he scoffed, waving disdainfully at the throng. “We didn’t need all this narcissism.”

In spite of their differences, Timpson considered Chaney a man of considerable enthusiasm in many fields, with the BBC announcement of his appointment as Today editor drawing attention to one of them. “He and his wife, between them and from previous marriages, have produced 12 children,” joked Timpson, “a revelation that prompted one paper to observe that ‘surely a late-night appointment would have been more in the public interest’.”

A large man in every sense, funny and stimulating, Chaney attracted attention which he repaid with thoughtful consideration of all those around him.

Mike Chaney was married three times. He married, first, Diana (née Emptage), and secondly, in 1964, Frances (née Barnard); as Frances already had five children, this meant that he had two families to support. Both marriages ended in divorce.

He is survived by his third wife Annie (née Edwards), whom he married in 1993, by a son and daughter from his first marriage, and by four daughters from his second marriage. Another daughter from his first marriage predeceased him.

Mike Chaney, born March 3 1931, died March 15 2024

Mike Chaney, 1970s Today programme editor who steered the show towards its modern format – obituary (2024)
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