What is it about Desert Island Discs?

What is it about Desert Island Discs?


A recent Radio Times article declared Desert Island Discs the greatest radio show of all time. Such was the verdict of a panel of industry experts including the Today programme’s Justin Webb and 6 Music’s Cerys Matthews. Of their 30 top-ranked shows, it was also one of the longest running (going since 1942), second only to The Shipping Forecast (which began in 1911).

So what explains the show’s popularity and longevity? Its’ producer Cathy Drysdale put it down to the “absolutely genius format [that] makes sure that each programme gets to the heart of people – what moves them and motivates them, what inspires them and enthuses them, who and what they care about. Those are all such incredibly human things that are applicable to absolutely everybody listening.”

The format is of course structured around music: the eight records that each person chooses to take with them to a desert island, which form the soundtrack to their lives, and give a window into their values and joys.

But it’s not just the music. For me, the programme is as much about the space that the presenters give to their castaways to tell their stories, and the kindness they show when talking to them about their struggles and vulnerabilities.

We take inspiration from the show when producing our Spoken Portraits. We don’t generally structure things around music. But, as in Desert Island Discs, the aim of our interviews is to create a space where people can talk freely about their lives, knowing we will respond with interest, humour and sensitivity. And our goal when editing the material together is to give the listener an intimate connection with the subject and what makes them tick.