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.
Take a look at this photograph I snapped off a few weeks ago in a branch of Waterstones. Tell me if you notice anything odd about the positioning of my book – apart, that is, from the fact that I, like so many needy authors, turned it to face outwards. Notice anything else? Well, unusually, the books on this shelf are not arranged alphabetically by author’s name. Yep, us ‘Z’ people tend to find our books on the bottom shelf of shops and libraries, with the consequent risk of back injury for potential buyers. I mean, all good books have a strong spine, but some books require readers to have one too.
To be honest, I’m not a stranger to this kind of alphabetical discrimination. I first encountered it in the early years of school. On ‘medical day’ when all the pupils were lined up to see the nurse for the ‘head lice and hygiene’ check, Carol Armstrong and John Anderson were at the top of the queue. After the nurse had a quick peek at their scalp and pants, both were free to hit the playground for fun and games. Meanwhile Anne Marie Young and I inched slowly forward from the back of the line and, by the time the bad-tempered nurse called us she was already snapping elasticated waistbands in anger, playtime was over and we had missed the first fifteen minutes of an arithmetic lesson. This might have seemed like a bonus at the time, but perhaps explains why I still struggle with long division. Happily smart phones have proved teachers’ prophecies were wrong and we do, indeed, have calculators with us all the time.
Then there was the Glasgow telephone directory. We were the last name in the book and found ourselves the target of pranksters and ill-informed bigots. Not understanding that our name had a Polish origin, I was mystified by the semi-regular calls from morons suggesting that we should “go back to Pakistan where you belong.” Oh yes.
Between school and college, I had a brief period of “signing on” for unemployment benefit. It’s not something I tend to boast about and I didn’t back then. So imagine my embarrassment when lining up at the local dole office to discover the counters had been delineated, not just alphabetically, but by the use of surname. As I waited patiently in the ‘MACDONALD to ZYCINSKI’ queue, as indicated by the huge makeshift poster above the front desk, I doubted that anyone seeing the name MacDonald would automatically connect it with a particular individual (except maybe Ronald) but the Zycinski clue tended to narrow the field.
Names beginning with Z are fairly uncommon in Scotland, so much so that in the days of paper address books, people regularly used that page for noting shopping lists or for doodling. This must surely explain why no one called me much or invited me to parties. Even now, when checking into a hotel, receptionists assume that the first ‘Z’ they spot on their computer terminal is likely to be me. That’s why, last Thursday, I found myself checked in to Mister Zarwan’s room at the Holiday Inn in Glasgow. Luckily he had secured a much cheaper rate than I had and, when the mistake was spotted, the hotel kindly allowed me to keep that lower tariff. What happened to poor Mister Zarwan, I never found out.
But back to books and my advice to any would-be authors out there. Do consider an alphabetically advantageous nom de plume. Put it this way, Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie are still being talked about, but J.K. Rowling? Ah, maybe that’s where my theory falls down. So, I’ll stick to my spot on the bottom shelf. I’ll just tell everyone that people have bent over backwards to get my book. Or forwards. Whatever.
Just in time for summer, comes this cracking little review from Radio User magazine. When it comes to singling out lines of praise, it’s hard to beat the following: “This is a very well written book, which gives an excellent insight into the life of a BBC producer and station controller. It deserves to be successful and should be read by everyone working in or contemplating a career in the media.”
Well, that covers quite a lot of people, so be sure to pack your copy alongside your sun cream and shades. And I really don’t mind if you get blobs of ice cream on the pages. It’s a fun read, after all.
I’m worried that my BBC de-toxification process hasn’t worked because every time I see a newspaper headline screaming abuse at my former employer, I have an instinctive urge to leap to the defence of my old chums and colleagues. In recent weeks there have been stories about massive hikes in executive pay, plans to strip pensioners of free tv licences and reports that the new BBC Scotland channel isn’t attracting enough viewers. The executive pay story is the hardest to defend, so I wont even try. The BBC’s rationale for boosting the already large salaries of its top bosses runs something like this: “we’ve cut the number of managers so those who remain are asked to take on additional duties so are being rewarded accordingly. But don’t worry, we aren’t giving them double the money…just a wee twelve percent bung here and there…so, you see, ha ha, we are actually saving money…ha ha. Calm down, everyone.”
The trouble with this strategy is that those remaining managers don’t actually have more time in their day to do twice the work. Not unless those savings are being invested in the kind of time-changers last seen in Harry Potter books that allow people to be in two places at once. This means that staff who complain that their bosses are rarely visible might have to accept they might now dissolve in to a puff of smoke. I know some staff who would welcome that.
Then there’s the free licence fee for the over-75s. This was a social benefit that was being funded directly by the Government, but now the buck (or lack of bucks) has been passed to the BBC who claim that they’ll have to cut programmes and services to pay for it. A clever move by the Government and the BBC’s attempt to explain the situation is not really helped by the aforementioned hike in executive pay.
And so to the new BBC Scotland TV channel. I watch it on and off, as I do with most TV channels, but the fact that I’m tempted to stop as I thumb the remote control through the Freeview listings tells me that there is, most days, something worth watching. More than that though, I’m impressed with the range of new faces and performers I see on screen and the way that Scotland is being portrayed as more than just hills, glens, bagpipes and crime lords. I’m seeing genuine stars of tomorrow make their debut in formats such as Comedy Underground where this week’s host, Gareth Waugh, turns out to have the facial expressions that make for comedy gold on the small screen. The end-credits of programmes are interesting too, because they offer evidence that a range of small Scottish companies are gaining a foothold in the competitive world of TV production and, so long as the BBC Scotland channel continues to thrive, they will gain in confidence and expertise and will power a new creative industry in Scotland.
Of course there’s stuff I’m not so keen on. I don’t watch The Nine – not because its isn’t a well- produced and respectable news programme -but because by the time nine o’clock comes around I’ve usually seen enough news and there aren’t enough exclusive stories to tempt me to stay with the programme for an hour.
And, yes, sure, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool radio guy, so I would also like to see BBC Scotland invest in a new music station for Scotland and improve the quality of the local news opts on Radio Scotland.
But the great thing about no longer working for the BBC is that I can say these things out loud, in public, online and maybe even in the newspapers. But you know how they twist these things. Look out for the headline “Ex Radio Boss Slams Pay Hike for ‘Invisible’ Beeb Bosses’.
At least it’s not a puff piece. Apart from that Harry Potter reference, of course.
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.