Here’s to MSP FM

culture committee witnesses

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.


What will the Culture Club ask Ofcom?

Talk In Holyrood panel

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.


Sorry BBC Radio 3, it’s just an idea.


Jeff in studio

At my last bookshop event in Glasgow I was asked a question about the future of radio and, well, it was a case of lighting the blue touch paper and standing well back. My outrage at what’s happening to local commercial radio caught the attention of the BBC’s John Beattie who invited me on his show this afternoon to elaborate.

Last week, I felt like I was one of the few people talking about this issue, but a lot can happen in a week and Nick Osborne’s Local Radio Group now has the backing of five trade unions, who are all calling for Ofcom to rethink its rules change. There have also been questions asked in the House of Lords.

However, I know that when you complain about a plan, a good interviewer will ask you to come up with an alternative, so I told John Beattie that creating a new national commercial station wasn’t a bad idea, but it didn’t have to be at the expense of local radio.  Perhaps, I said,  BBC Radio 3 could take one for the team…



If Ofcom ran the railways

Just imagine… if they asked Ofcom to run the railways. A little bit of weekend whimsy.

In this exclusive interview, The Red Light Zone hears how the U.K. broadcasting regulator, Ofcom will now oversee Britain’s local rail services in the same way they have transformed local radio.

RLZ: Thankyou for agreeing to this interview. That surprised us, to be honest.
OFC: Well, a book about red signalling lights and such is our kind of thing now.
RLZ: Er… well, anyway. Let’s press on. So, you did quite a job with local radio. Will we see a similar approach to local train services?
OFC: Absolutely. First of all we plan to re-define that word ‘local’. Take Wales for example.
RLZ: OK, what parts of Wales will be defined as ‘local’?
OFC: All of it. We see it as one small local area. But for Scotland it will be different. We’re dividing that into two areas which we’ll call ‘profitable’ and ‘the north’. You see, we have listened very closely to the industry, to the people who actually operate the services and we need to safeguard their interests.
RLZ: Which are?
OFC: Making as much money as possible. So that’s why we’ve agreed to let them close lots of local lines, stations and services and replace them with a single, cost-efficient express service from Glasgow to London.
RLZ: That doesn’t sound so good.
OFC: But the operators are promising big improvements. They plan to spend much more money on celebrity drivers. Maybe not A-list celebs, but certainly people you will have seen on the telly.
RLZ Do these celebrities know anything about driving trains?
OFC (laughs) I mean, how hard can it be? Besides, all of this is in response to customer demand. Research shows that people spend more time on trains if the journeys are longer, so it makes sense to ditch the shorter local journeys. People prefer walking and they like to count their steps on those digital pedometers. Everything’s digital now and we have to move with the times. New technology and all that.

RLZ: So you consulted the public about this?

OFC: Of course.

RLZ: And most people agreed with your approach?

OFC: No, most disagreed, actually, so we had to look at other research.
RLZ: And who paid for that research?
OFC: You’ll be glad to know it wasn’t the tax-payer. No, it was the commercial operators themselves. Very kind of them don’t you think? I mean, these companies are facing challenging times.
RLZ. Yet they can afford celebrity drivers…and I recently saw one of them paid a Tory MP for a speaking engagement.
OFC. Nothing wrong with that.
RLZ: They paid him in Champagne.
OFC: Maybe, but was it a good vintage? These are the real questions you should be asking.
RLZ OK. So what else will Ofcom be doing with this new remit over trains?
OFC. Well we do have to protect the viability and profitability of the big operators, so we’ll be cracking down hard on the little fish. I’m talking about local steam services run by amateur enthusiasts. Those people represent an existential threat to the entire industry and we’ll be tightening the rules further to ensure they don’t take a single penny in revenue away from the big boys.
RLZ: I see. Anything else? What about punctuality. Passengers get angry and frustrated if trains don’t run to time.
OFC. They certainly do and we’ve seen some very bad language from those people. We’ll be fining people for that. We’re good at that sort of thing.
RLZ: This has been very enlightening. If I want more information about how this impacts on my journeys, presumably I can get that from my local radio station?
OFC: Ha! Not anymore. We’ve seen to that.

A Dynamite find in the attic


When talking to students about radio, I’m fond of drawing some kind of analogy with another industry or with something they might be familiar with from their own daily lives. So, for a time, I used to turn up in lecture rooms with a miniature shopping basket containing cans of fizzy drinks.  I don’t remember my exact spiel, but I think I was trying to illustrate how competitors to Coca Cola – the market leader – tried to find a point of difference with their biggest rival.  For Pepsi it was about the taste and how their ‘Pepsi Challenge’ proved that their sticky dark stuff was much more delicious than The Real Thing.  The Dr Pepper slogan – ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ was trying to associate their drink with the idea of unconformity.   Irn Bru, I said, was orange, Scottish and cheeky.

I’m sure, in the context of discussing how radio stations position themselves in the market, this all made sense at the time but that’s not important right now.  What’s amazing is that sixteen years later, I found these four cans in the attic- all intact, unopened and (presumably) full of fizz.  And you amber guzzlers out there know what that means. Yes, I have in my possession a full can of original recipe, full sugar, Barr’s Irn Bru.  Rumours have it that this stuff is going for a pretty penny  on e-bay.  This particular can has a sell-by date of March 2005. It’s vintage, I tell you, vintage.

Meanwhile the Pepsi can has a free VIP ticket promotion for a Ms Dynamite concert with the 50,000 runners-up winning a Ms Dynamite ringtone.  The closing date is listed as 1st October 2003.  Whatever became of Ms Dynamite? And are ringtones still a thing?


“Let’s blow up the transmitter”

Niall Studio

An hour-long chat with Niall Anderson last night for his show on the Glasgow Hospital Broadcasting Service.  Niall pointed out that our paths must have crossed many times over the years, but neither of us could remember the other.

Niall’s Sunday night show mixes music and chat although he did have to apologise to listeners for playing so little music last night because our conversation ran away with us. Well, that’s radio geeks for you.

At one point we got to talking about how, as a teenager, I would contribute spoof detective stories to Mike McLean’s ‘thru the night’ show on Radio Clyde – way back in the early eighties.  I don’t think Niall could quite believe the lengths that some fans might go to when a big, bad radio station boss cancels their favourite show.




*with kind permission of

Backwards down a mountain.


My appearance on Byres Road this week made a piece in the Herald Diary.  Reporter Ken Smith was rather taken with my story about ‘The shy Highland lass who walked backwards down a mountain because she was too embarrassed to call for help”. This true tale was one of my first scoops as a young journalists and came about simply because I asked a colleague what she had got up to at the weekend. Mind you, I might not have been so curious had she not arrived in the office on crutches.

I told the same story to Julie Currie who writes for the Southern Reporter and the Berwickshire News. She included it in her profile piece about me and my days working for the BBC in the Borders. She also described my shock singing debut on stage at the Tait Hall in Kelso.

Julia’s story here


and you can see some more picks from Byres Road on the video below.