I was recently asked by a former colleague what changes I would like to make if some new insanity swept through the senior management of the BBC and I was put back in charge of Radio Scotland. The colleague in question was Gerry Burke – one of the most intelligent disc jockeys I ever encountered. Gerry was presenting shows on Radio Clyde around the time I was in the newsroom hammering out stories about crime lords and chip-pan fires. He now lives near Dunkeld and, a few weeks ago, he was among the select crowd who showed up for my intimate ‘meet the author’ event at Waterstones in Perth. I suspect he might have posed the hypothetical question more out of pity than curiosity, given that the others in the group that night were either shy or had quickly exhausted their supply of book-related queries.
So, what would I do differently if I got the chance to go back? That night I responded to Gerry with some prattle about the style of news programmes on Radio Scotland and how I had often been frustrated because News wasn’t the responsibility of the Head of Radio. Since then, however, I’ve been giving the question a bit more thought…and actually Thought for the Day on Good Morning Scotland comes to mind.
Those short ‘faith-based’ monologues are too easy to satirise. Everyone from Alan Bennet, Billy Connolly and Rikki Fulton have had a go at sending up the format and the lazy comedy idea is that you can talk about anything under the sun and then add…”and you know, that’s a bit like Jesus” before drawing some over-simplified comparison between, say, discount supermarkets and the distribution of loaves and fishes. In reality, most of those thought pieces are well written and it takes a seasoned producer to work with new and experienced church people and help them hone their script and, by the by, stay within the BBC guidelines on impartiality, taste, decency and God knows what other rules apply. The ‘thoughts’ are usually delivered live, so there are logistical and technical issues to be considered too. Studios have to found and transport booked.
Frankly, though, and this might be a particularly sacrilegious thing to say on a Sunday, I often wondered if they were really worth the time and money involved. More than that though, I thought it was simply daft and old-fashioned to have a two minute religious message dropped into the middle of a rolling news programme – especially if it meant actual news pieces or political interviews had to be curtailed or shifted in the schedule to accommodate the words of the reverend so and so.
Once, under pressure from the Good Morning Scotland editor, I did try to make some changes and set out to persuade the ‘thought’ contributors to pop into their studios a little earlier in the morning so that the peak listening hours for news could be allocated to, well, news and stuff. There was a meeting…a gaggle of church ministers led by Richard Holloway ganged up on me and I quickly backed down. Coming in earlier would be inconvenient, they said, and recording a topical Thought for the Day the night before was just unthinkable. To be honest, the battle wasn’t worth fighting, not when I was already being attacked by the traditional music lobby for schedule changes to ‘Take the Floor’ and by the poetry lobby for the station’s dearth of sonnets, villanelles and limericks . Ironically, I did once manage to dispense with Thought for the Day for one whole week and substitute it with a daily poem. No one complained.
From time to time, the secular and humanist groups complained that the Thought for the Day slot on Radio 4 (and presumably Radio Scotland) should be opened up to non-religious contributors. On the face of it, this might seem reasonable. After all, social media is awash with memes and life-affirming videos from self-help gurus and others of that ilk. So why not give them a couple of minutes each day on the radio to give our inner selves a little verbal boost? But does it really have to be in the middle of a news programme? Perhaps they might be better suited to the sports output and the half-time break in a Scotland football game when we quite often need a bit of a pep talk.
So, to finally answer Gerry’s question… I’d keep Thought for the Day where it is and widen it to every religion you can find. We’d do it alphabetically and I’m sure by the time we got to the scientologists , listeners might come to realise what a daft bit of radio it really is.
But that’s just a thought.