RADIO offers unique attractions but the commercial broadcasters fail to grasp the thistle, says Martyn McLaughlin
The debate surrounding the future of BBC Scotland has become a metonym for the nation’s broadcasting output as a whole. It is an important argument, but one which dominates at the expense of other areas of the industry, not least the commercial radio sector.
Perhaps this explains why a much-loved station has been allowed to wither away with barely a whimper. Shortly after 6:20pm on Sunday, XFM Scotland ceased transmitting from its headquarters at Baillieston in Glasgow’s east end. Those turning the dial to 96.3FM will now hear only a faint crackle.
Across the rest of the UK, XFM will next week be replaced by a new service, Radio X, a clottish name for a station that makes no secret of its owners’ desperate pursuit of a young and upwardly mobile demographic.
The firm in question, Global Radio, has decided to embark on a strategy of throwing big money at faded stars. The largest cheque has gone the way of the loathsome Chris Moyles, the inaugural host of the breakfast slot who has been censured by regulators for calling women “dirty whores” and criticised by, among others, gay rights groups and anti-bullying campaigners. In the PR guff put out by the station itself, Radio X will be “the first truly male-focused, fully national music and entertainment brand for 25- to 44-year-olds.” Presumably, every listener will be able to claim a free Yorkie and Top Gear boxset, although fortunately, the homogeneous offering does not apply in Scotland.
Under its regulations, the communications watchdog, Ofcom, prevents a station from airing a networked station in Scotland unless it provides a minimum amount of locally produced content as part of the mix. Rather than seek a solution, Global – which has annual operating profits of £37.1m – decided to abandon its obligations altogether and hand its licence back to Ofcom.
The decision signalled the death knell for a small but cherished radio station which, in spite of repeated rebranding exercises, amassed a loyal band listeners over the course of the past two decades. It began as Q96 in 1992, broadcasting a varied and dependable range of programmable out of Paisley before it was bought over in 1996 and turned into Rock Radio which, like Cuprinol, did precisely what it said on the tin, shunning prescribed commercial playlists for a hefty chunk of the classic rock canon, presented by informed and irreverent DJs.
The XFM title, the station’s second name in the space of four years, came into force last year. Its line up was limited but included one of Scottish broadcasting’s unsung heroes, Jim Gellatly, an affable big Dundonian who, swimming against the tide of transatlantic drivel, won the hard-earned respect of listeners for championing new Scottish music.
He was the first person to give radio airtime to some of Scotland’s best-known acts of recent years, a roll call which includes the likes of Biffy Clyro, Twin Atlantic, Amy Macdonald and The Fratellis. Granted, he was responsible for handing a break to KT Tunstall, but his otherwise unblemished track record is as good a case for clemency as any.
Gellatly, civil to the last, wished Radio X all the best for the future and can continue to be heard on Amazing Radio. Unfortunately, that station can only be accessed by Scottish audiences online. Many will no doubt migrate with him, but the end of his popular drivetime slot all but prevents listeners from stumbling across his show by chance, one of the great gifts of radio.
Along with the staff at XFM Scotland who have lost their jobs, this platform for young Scottish bands and those eager to hear them will be the greatest casualty of Global’s decision to favour boorish celebrities over DJs and programmes that actually connect with audiences.
This diminished service is part of a trend that has barely been reported, an unsurprising development given that those who work in the press or occupy positions of political influence are more likely to tune into Radio Scotland or Radio 4. But it is time they took notice.
Another bastion of commercial radio in this country, Heart Scotland, formerly known as Real Radio, has seen its distinctive Scottish output curbed dramatically in recently years. Whereas a few years ago, the station – also owned by Global – produced 13 hours of locally-produced programming every weekday, it was cut to just seven hours. On Saturdays, the quantity was slashed from 12 hours to four, while on Sundays, it fell from ten hours to four. At all other times, the station’s output comes from that hotbed of distinctive Scottish voices – Manchester.
These quotas may well be permissible under what Ofcom calls “localness guidelines”, (which sounds like a sign you’d expect to see in the window of Hillary Briss’s butchershop in Royston Vasey) but the race to the bottom that passes for fulfilling the minimum requirements represents a heavy blow for Scottish broadcasting and its audiences.
There are a few glimmers of hope. Bauer, another major industry player behind stations such as Clyde 1, last month decided to ditch its networked morning show presented by Paddy McGuinness in favour of Scottish presenters Ewen Cameron and Cat Harvey.
Next month, meanwhile, a new Glasgow-wide digital radio experiment, Go Radio Glasgow, will begin, featuring several well-kent voices. In the eyes of its programme director, Kevin Cameron, it is a direct response to the folly of Global’s networked approach. “These big brands aren’t serving local people,” he reasons.
In the meantime, 96.3FM will continue to transmit white noise. At a time when the Scottish public are demanding a shift away from London-centric media coverage, it should not be allowed to fall silent for much longer. From Sunny Govan to Awaz FM, there are dozens of thriving community stations who are winning over audiences with modest resources. Global’s retrenchment could be their opportunity.