The Guardian said in May 2010 "...the king of radio arts programmes is undoubtedly Night Waves, a programme so clever that it regularly makes me stand still and listen, usually halfway to the dishwasher with a plate in my hand...It's the desire to untangle arguments, to lift up their corners and see what lurks there. There's a gleeful range of references too...and a relish for intelligent debate."
It was broadcast every Monday to Thursday evening, except during the Proms season. Programmes usually included a mix of interviews, reviews, previews, discussions, commissioned writing and reports. Some episodes included a single interview with a prominent figure in the worlds of arts or ideas. A monthly edition discussed a cultural landmark.