I owe so much to local radio. Were it not for those brave risk-takers at Moray Firth Radio who, thirty years ago, gave me my first paid job as a news reporter, who knows what I’d be doing now? Actually, I’d probably have retired from my alternative career choice as a fighter pilot and I’d now be running my own internet radio station.
But these are worrying times for my pals in commercial radio, what with the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, giving companies like Global and Bauer, much more leeway to dilute local content, run stations from single hub studios and replace local Breakfast shows with London-based formats and big name D.J.s. Those companies argue that retaining so many local radio stations is no longer economically viable and that the big bucks in advertising revenue can only come if they have enough listeners to compete with the U.K. wide BBC shows on Radio 1 and Radio 2.
This market-economy argument – often compared to the plight of small High Street shops having to take on Tesco and Marks & Spencer – would be more convincing if it could be truly tested. The trouble is, if someone takes over your local radio station and dumps most of the local content, you can’t just move the dial over to another local station. Those broadcast licences are a finite resource, as is the availability of space on the FM and digital spectrums. So, once your local station is gone or changed beyond all recognition, no one will be allowed to fill the gap. Whereas when it comes to shopping, small supermarkets like Lidl, Aldi and the bright new Co-Op stores are giving the big guys a run for their money.
So, if the big radio groups tell us the small stations aren’t viable, maybe they should be forced to relinquish their licences and let other people have a go. Here in Inverness, I’ve spoken to business people with radio experience who would relish that opportunity.
Then there’s the BBC. Here in Scotland, BBC Radio Scotland was created at a time when commercial radio was thriving and it made sense to have a national station for Scotland rather than compete by offering lots of part-time local opt-out services across the country. Maybe now is the time to review that policy and breathe some new life into what it being beamed out of centres like Inverness, Aberdeen, Selkirk and Dumfries.
Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s also address the London-dominance of the BBC radio commissioning process which means that the version of Scotland you hear on the likes of Radio 4, is the one that has been approved by a tiny group of purse-string-holding executives in W1A. Devolved commissioning for the new BBC Scotland television channel has brought fresh and relevant ideas to the screen and created opportunities for the production sector here, let’s do the same for the radio industry.