In My Opinion: John Collins: On the verge of a radio renaissance?

IN the radio industry, we have one professional body – the Radio Academy. The Scottish branch is pretty busy, drawing members from around the industry.

It runs events that give radio insiders and people that want to work in radio the chance to interact. There are various online gossip boards but these tend to be the victim of people hiding behind a pseudonym with a depressing agenda: radio is nowhere near as good as it used to be, only stations that make a profit deserve to continue, and DJ ‘A’ is better than DJ ‘B’.

I was listening to a Radio Academy podcast last weekend and, once again, the panelists were expressing their concern about the contraction of the industry. It was more coherently argued, but the theme was the same. Networked programming from London, combined with the location of radio services in regional hubs, is redrawing the radio map and throwing hundreds of popular broadcasters on the scrapheap. It’s the end of the world. Radio has never had it so bad.

While I doubt the press releases suggesting that it’s all about making better programmes better, I think we might be on the verge of a radio renaissance.

When I got into radio, there was one commercial station in each of Scotland’s major towns and BBC Radio Scotland was a thriving curate’s egg of a station with some of the most diverse programming imaginable. The commercial stations had got through their early years and were profitable and successful.

But there was no community radio as we know it today. No podcasts or tiny opt-outs in rural areas. Neither Fife nor the Forth Valley had their own, dedicated stations.

Getting into radio was a Holy Grail for kids like me, who devoted hours, weeks and years in hospital radio and student TV developing basic skills and an on-air persona. Then there was the chance to find ways to meet the huge local celebrities from Forth and Clyde. The fact that on-air gigs were at a premium kept the bar to on-air work at an almighty height.

Then came the directive to split the local stations in two. Having the same output on AM and FM was no longer considered good enough and stations ‘split the airwaves’ with different programmes for old folk and younger listeners on AM and FM.

Not even the biggest players had enough talent on the books to sustain two full-time services so they cast their net wider and either brought in talent from other stations or put presenters on air who wouldn’t otherwise been considered ‘ready’. Some thrived, others just got by.

This process continued with the launch of the last batch of commercial stations wholly within the service areas of the big stations. Then came the regionals like Scot FM and Beat 106. The established operators did all they could to retain their talent, leaving the new stations with a hotch-potch of talent that was often on air because of dissatisfaction with their last gig rather than their excellence in the new one.

2010 finally saw the Scottish radio merry-go-round grind to a halt.

The combining of services has raised the standard back to where it was, meaning that only great acts will get great gigs in future. The commercial operators have also realised that playing nine hits in a row isn’t good enough any more and are investing in proper support for their presenters.

Future broadcasters are undertaking training and learning some of the language of radio before they take their first tentative steps in the voluntary sector. BBC radio is beginning to realise that putting TV presenters on the radio doesn’t always make great radio.

While every post lost in broadcasting is a tragedy for an individual, I think the reshaping of the talent market has already brought about better-sounding stations and also begun to improve the long-term career prospects for people working in radio.

Audiences are up and stations are investing heavily in strong brands. Meanwhile, a number of local and community stations are doing an excellent job of reflecting their communities and giving new talent a place to start.

It’s been a tough couple of years, but in talent terms at least, this is the best time to be a good talent in radio in decades, simply because it’s difficult to get a show if you’re not good enough.

If the big radio conglomerates, local companies and the BBC play their part in grooming the next generation of talent, radio won’t just enjoy its best-ever audience sizes, it’ll grow in status as a place where new ideas and ways of communicating come to the fore.

Radio people – stop complaining and look to the future.

John Collins lectures in radio broadcasting at Reid Kerr College in Paisley, following a 25-year career on both sides of the microphone in both BBC and commercial radio in Scotland. He still pops up on the radio at Central FM on a Sunday morning.

Pic: Michele Dillon.