The excellent Scotland’s Talk-In show on Clyde 2 this week was reflecting on two decades of the Scottish Parliament. It also caused me to reflect on my time – ten years before devolution – as a news reporter on Radio Clyde. Chasing Scottish politicians for a comment was often a frustrating business because MP’s tended to think their voices and views would carry much more importance if they spoke to the BBC. This despite the fact that Radio Clyde at that time had an audience share that was greater than all the BBC stations put together. Even Glasgow MPs could prove elusive, although the late Donald Dewar was a frequent visitor to our studios at Clydebank and the former Solicitor General Sir Nicholas Fairbairn was always good for a controversial soundbite via telephone. On one occasion his description of Tory leadership contender Michael Heseltine as “a tailor’s dummy, a mannequin” caused my news editor to insist that I phone him back to ensure that he knew he had been recorded and that his sartorial critique of his party colleague would be broadcast across the U.K. via Independent Radio News. His wife answered the phone, told me he had had a drink and had gone to bed. She sounded more irritated with him than with me.
Politicians are often accused of not answering straight questions, but when it comes to talking about radio, rather than just being on the radio, politicians tend to ask all the wrong questions . Also, perhaps because they are afraid of admitting they don’t know something, they allow themselves to be bamboozled and diverted by broadcasting executives who brandish a complex set of figures about reach, share, cost-per-user hour and some technical jargon for good measure. Besides, politicians are always much more interested in talking about the BBC than about commercial radio.
In Wales right now, the BBC has been attracting political flak because it is daring to revamp the schedule for BBC Radio Wales including the morning news show. A Welsh government minister by the name of Lee Waters doesn’t think this is a good idea. It’s unusual for a minister to interfere so blatantly in the editorial decisions of the BBC, but Mister Waters is a former ITV journalist so presumably feels qualified to speak about radio in the way that my student job as a postman qualifies me to speak about the international postal treaties of the United Nations. In Wales, though, Ofcom rule changes can see local content on commercial stations reduced to one three-hour show per day, beamed to the entire nation of Wales. Everything else can come from London or Manchester. You might think that’s a bigger issue than format changes at BBC Radio Wales, but then politicians who like the sound of their own voices are more likely to appear on the BBC.
Tomorrow (Thursday) , executives from Ofcom will be quizzed by the Culture Committee of the Scottish Parliament. Those who worry about the future of localness in radio will be hoping that good incisive questions will result in revealing answers. Fingers crossed, but I have memories of BBC top brass sitting in that committee room and, after question after question about television, a couple of queries about BBC Network Radio’s spend in Scotland were deftly swept aside with some jargon about the higher cost of transmitters in Scotland and, blah blah, social media, podcasting, blah blah, Ken Bruce is great etc.
Tomorrow, Holyrood MSPs might ask Ofcom why they went ahead with their regulatory changes despite (according to the Local Radio Group) their own consultation process showing most respondents were against the ideas. They might ask what weight was given to the research that was bought and paid for by the big commercial radio owners. They might ask, with some theatrical incredulity, (a few raised eyebrows maybe) if community radio run by amateurs and enthusiasts really represents a threat to commercial radio. I mean, really? They might ask how we got into a situation where local radio in Scotland came to be dominated by two big companies- one run by a multimillionaire and the other by a multi-national company based in Germany. They might ask about the cosy relationship between the regulator and the industry and about the movement of key executives from Ofcom to key positions in commercial radio. They might ask if Ofcom recognises that Scotland is a big country with different geographic challenges and no BBC Local Radio. And, since, it’s the Culture Committee, they might ask if Ofcom recognises that Scotland has different laws, political structures, sporting interests, history, musical tastes, dialects and traditions…you know, the kind of things that might be reflected on local radio.
Or we might just amuse ourselves by playing ‘meeting bingo’ with five points for each of the following phrases that crop up: new technology, national brands delivered locally, challenging times, investment in talent, over-regulation, hold-separate, digital switchover, framework for the future.
Perhaps, in a year’s time, we might look around us and ask about Ofcom’s impact on local radio. That might even be a great topic for Clyde 2’s Talk-In show.
I hope it still exists.