My thanks to Jim Gellatly – an old mucker from my Moray Firth Radio days – for his support of my book and this interview on BFBS Forces Radio.
“Where everybody was slashing everybody.”
That top line sounds like something from the theme tune of a 1980’s Glasgow sit-com. Perhaps one set in a neighbourhood bar called ‘Chibs” The kind of pub where everybody not only knows your name but also where you live and how much you still owe to the loan sharks. In fact, though, it’s a line from the opening of a very funny memoir written by the TV and online comedy star Limmy who describes his childhood in Carnwadrick, a council estate on the south side of Glasgow.
“in terms of how it felt living there, it didn’t feel as rough as some other places I’d heard of like Govan or Easterhouse, these places where it sounded like everybody was slashing everybody.”
As an Easterhouse boy myself, I’m well used to people bench-marking their own social status against my own home turf. Sure, there are parts of Dundee and Edinburgh which have rough reputations, but tell those east-coast tough guys that you are from Easterhouse and you can see them clearing the top step for you on the poverty podium. Offer the same information to people from Bearsden or Carnoustie and you can see them going for gold in the hundred metre sprint.
I’ve always been able to laugh at those who mock Easterhouse, mainly because I knew they were wrong. I remember the columnist and radio presenter Frank Skerritt writing an article published in a summer festival brochure. In it he included a joke about “how do you know a letter has come from Easterhouse? Look at the stamp on the envelope and you’ll see the Queen is holding her nose.” Ah, the old ones are the best.
Often the topic of my upbringing has been raised when I’ve been interviewed for a newspaper feature. I always go to great pains to confound expectations by describing my childhood as “idyllic” and, for the large part that’s true. I have memories of sunny days, wide open spaces, street games and laughter. It’s even been suggested I could write a book about those days, but others have beaten me to it. A few years ago, Rikki Brown wrote about his experiences growing up in the area and he, with great humour, was able to describe witnessing actual gang fights that did, indeed include some knife slashing and other assorted violence (some involving the use of a golf club). Rikki’s book, ‘Frankie Vaughan ate my hamster” also describes the highly publicised attempt by the showbiz star Vaughan to broker peace between rival gangs. There was also a weapons amnesty which lasted for just as long as the press photographers were there to capture scores of young boys (some of whom might even have been gang members) depositing sticks and bricks into a large metal bin.
Such incidents are far removed from my own memory of Saturday morning bike rides to Drumpellier Loch and ice cream sundaes at Shandwick Square shopping mall. Or the tree swing across the Monklands canal. Or fossil hunting in the peat-fields near Commonhead. Or snowball fights in the square at Corsehill Street. I could go on and my current connection with the Platform arts group in Easterhouse would give me a brand-new list of good things to say about the place.
And yet…I realise I have chosen to blanket some bad memories. Like the time Danny Pryce and I wandered down to watch the new electric trains at Easterhouse station, not realising we had trapped ourselves in no man’s land between two warring gangs: The Skinheads and the Toi . As the battle raged either side of us, we beseeched an elderly pedestrian to give us sanctuary and he escorted us back into safer ground. Or the time Danny and I were walking to school and a bloke pulled a gun on us. It turned out to be an air pistol, but the thwack thwack of pellets hitting a nearby tree made it no less fearsome.
So, yeah, one gang fight and some gunfire. Balanced against all the good memories, it’s not really enough to fill a book.
Or is it?
There was a time when most quality newspapers published a weekly review of radio programmes. These days, not only are such columns a rarity, but many of the newspaper titles which carried them are long gone too. A pity, because those of us who made or make radio programmes yearn for someone to notice their existence and offer some kind of critique, preferably the positive kind. Admittedly, when I think back to the glory days of radio reviewers, most of them focussed on BBC shows. One notable exception was Ken Garner whose weekly column ranged across the dial to include commercial radio and even temporary student stations.
In the olden days, of course, a station’s potential audience was neatly contained within the reach of its transmitter. When yon new-fangled internet came to be a thing you could hear programmes from all over the world. I remember how that led to an surge of optimism among Scottish radio presenters and producers who entertained fantasies of their listenership being swollen by people tuning in from Belfast to Bangkok. The occasional email from overseas always created a frisson of excitement and probably still does.
Now, with the advent of the Radio Player and BBC Sounds, programmes are being torn from their station moorings and offered to listeners based on their interest in particular topics or genres. It means that comedy shows from, say BBC Radio Wales, sit side-by-side with those originally broadcast on Radio 4 or Radio Scotland. Which makes you wonder why those remaining radio reviewers don’t spend more time sampling output that doesn’t come from Broadcasting House in London. Hey, why not let your readers know what else is easily available on their smart speaker, phone or internet radio?
In an effort to do my bit, therefore, I’ll soon be launching the Red Light Zone podcast and offering a regular review of radio shows together with exclusive interviews with the people who make and present the shows and others connected with the industry. I’ve started recording material and Drew Carson at Radio Haver (a man who knows the world of podcasting better than me) is offering some good advice.
So, watch this space for the launch date announcement and get in touch if you want to tell me what’s happening in your radio world or shout about some great programmes that shouldn’t be missed. Or even, bad programmes that should be missed.
Happy either way.
Only twice in my lifetime have I written to an MP asking for help. The first time was more than thirty years ago. I was living in Glasgow and a family member had asked me to join a campaign concerning the availability of a specific medication on the NHS. I wrote a letter to my MP, sent it to the House of Commons and waited for a reply. It never came. Cynics told me I had wasted the price of a stamp.
The second occasion was just last week when I emailed my constituency MP, Drew Hendry and asked him to help get some answers about Ofcom’s decision to allow commercial radio owners to drastically reduce local content on local radio stations. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a response within a few days and my MP told me he shared my concerns has promised to write to the relevant Government Minister.
Yes, I know I’m becoming something of a stuck record with this issue, but only yesterday my social media timelines were full of heartfelt farewell messages from local radio presenters at Global’s Heart stations in England. These messages were greeted by shocked and angry replies from listeners, many of whom seemed unaware that these changes were in the pipeline.
And, you know, that’s one of the many odd things about this whole sorry situation. Seismic changes to the nature of local radio across the U.K. have received very little attention in the press and, as a result, the demise of local voices, the closure of studios and the creation, by stealth, of national commercial radio stations, seems to have surprised audiences up and down the country.
And not just audiences. On Thursday night, I was back at BBC Scotland’s H.Q. in Glasgow for the retirement party of a former colleague. It was a chance to catch up with old friends and hear about the success of BBC Scotland’s new TV channel and plans for the future of Radio Scotland. BBC people tend to live in their own bubble of internal politics and insecurity. I can say that, because I was a bubble denizen myself for 25 years. News of changes in the commercial radio world had only been noticed by one or two colleagues and so I found myself explaining the issue and , again and again, watching the baffled reactions and hearing the same question:
“But why has Ofcom allowed this to happen?”
Why indeed. It’s the question that has been posed by the Scottish Parliament and by members of the House of Lords. So far the answers have been unconvincing and have raised further questions about the transparency of the whole decision-making process by the very regulator charged with protecting the interest of the listeners.
Now, thanks to the efforts of Nick Osborne and his Local Radio Group campaign, questions are being asked by Westminster MPs. I emailed mine and got a swift reply. Try it for yourself. It won’t even cost you the price of a stamp.
It’s like people are suddenly remembering that they actually like and value local commercial radio. Even respect it. That’s one good thing that’s come out of all this furore about Ofcom and their decision to relax the rules around local content. This evening in the Scottish Parliament, MSPs voiced their own concern about what’s happening and what might happen in the future. Sure, there was a healthy dollop of nostalgia too as the politicians recalled the early days of Radio Clyde, Radio Tay or the famous names who had started their careers in stations such as Northsound. There was also praise for the current crop of radio journalists who champion local campaigns and charities and, yes, we heard the counter argument that listeners will simply vote with their fingers if they don’t like all these London voices replacing local presenters on air.
But what, asked Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop, will they turn to? And that’s the nub of it really because you can only cite a true ‘market forces’ argument if competition is allowed to flourish. That cant happen unless Ofcom allow others affordable access to the airwaves.
I think Rona MacKay hit most of the salient points in her speech…with a little dig at faceless bureaucrats thrown in for good measure.
Forget Game of Thrones, did you see Scottish Parliament TV this morning? I loved the bit where an MSP brandished his smart phone and revealed that, within the past hour, he had launched his own internet radio station. Yep, that really happened. The fact that he called it MSP FM kinda ruined his point about the difference between FM, DAB and internet radio, but it was pretty cool. Or what about that moment when Adam Findlay from D. C. Thomson was asked to tell the committee the latest circulation figures for The Beano comic? See that? No? OK, how about when the bloke from Ofcom was asked to suggest a secure and sustainable funding model for community radio and he responded: “Have you got one in mind?”
Actually the three suits from Ofcom had a bit of a bad start to their day. First of all they had to apologise to the Parliament’s Culture Committee for forgetting to tell them about their consultation process last June. Although, a little later, they back-tracked a bit and said, maybe they had told the committee, they couldn’t be sure. Besides it didn’t matter because the consultation process had prompted only 46 responses. 35 of those were against the proposals to reduce localness in commercial radio, but Ofcom have gone ahead anyway. Why? Because they had been given “a strong indication” that Parliament was going to change those regulations. This would be the same Westminster Parliament that’s currently teetering on the edge of collapse. Yep, worth following that lead. Besides Ofcom had done their own research – no they hadn’t been unduly swayed by the big commercial radio owners – they had asked no less than thirteen people in Inverness and Falkirk for their views. We didn’t find out what those people had said, but we must assume they all wanted shot of local radio or Ofcom wouldn’t have done what they did.
Star of the morning, though, was the previously mentioned Adam Findlay. If you think I’ve been hard on the regulator, you should listen to Adam. He’s been complaining about Ofcom for years. And he makes the most convincing case. He wants more FM licenses advertised and cheaper access to DAB so that more local stations can be created. As he points out, why would a big radio owner spend money on local content if there’s no one else competing in that market and the regulator allows them to beam in programmes from elsewhere?
Meanwhile, my previous utterances on this topic, made the weekly Media Review on BBC Radio Scotland. Odd to hear someone called ‘Jeff’ being talked about by John Beattie and his panellists. Do they mean me? Yikes.
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.