In My Opinion: John Collins: Radio’s starring role through the Winter weather

THE seven days – and counting – during which Scotland has been gripped by Winter weather has been a source of excellent pictures and TV news footage. But the medium that has proven its worth more than any other is the one without pictures – radio.

What started as just a few road reports last Sunday morning rapidly became wall-to-wall coverage of the problems across the country.

BBC Radio Scotland threw its massive resources behind coverage of the weather itself, the travel implications and a number of developing stories around people’s attempts to deal with the crisis. Plus the political fallout.

But, arguably, it was the sometimes maligned local radio stations that proved the real lifeline for communities.

Dundee’s Radio Tay marshalled an astonishing amount of detailed local information and got it on air promptly. They also used social media especially well, getting the details onto listeners’ smartphones via twitter almost as soon as it came in.

Radio Forth’s breakfast pairing of Boogie and Arlene Stuart kept their listeners constantly informed of schools, nurseries and dance classes all forced to close.

And there were similar tales up and down the country.

Meanwhile, the excellent local TV news coverage was confined to either a handful of slots across the day or reports on the 24 hour news channels. The newspapers were left way behind, being left to report what had already happened. In many areas, those papers couldn’t see their way to direct readers to local radio for the latest information.

The ability of local stations to throw out planned programming in order to cover developing stories like this is legendary.

During a huge snow fall in the mid 1970s, the aforementioned Radio Forth replaced its usual programming with ‘Snowline’ which is credited in part with turning round the fortunes of a station that was struggling to make its mark.

Thirty years on, the same seems to have happened. The tiny, already overworked teams at stations up and down the country have made it to work and delivered radio that stands out from the ‘jukebox’ services we were hearing more and more of.

Early indications are that audiences are huge for the programmes both on-air and on line. In Falkirk, Central FM’s friend count has multiplied ten times. What’s more, these friends are getting involved, commenting on local stories and sharing information directly through the website.

It’s too much to hope that a radio revolution is taking place, but anybody who has found themselves grinding to an unexpected halt over the last few days will have turned to their local radio station. They’ll have heard relevant, accurate information from people who know the area and understand the difficulties.

We should celebrate this success and encourage the new listeners to stay in the fold, but more importantly radio station programmers need to learn the lessons of December 2010 and provide services rich in local content and personality.

Naming the station between every song isn’t enough – radio’s challenge is to be locally relevant and entertaining. If it’s allowed to do this, it will prosper.

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