In My Opinion: John Collins: All change among Scotland’s radio stations

THERE is an oft-repeated maxim in radio circles that listeners don’t like change. So the received wisdom goes, because of the one-to-one relationship that listeners have with their presenters, altering the line-up on a radio station risks pushing listeners towards the retune button.

Well, if that is the case, there’s been a lot of retuning of late in Scotland.

This week has seen unprecedented change across, at least, the central belt of the country. And the dust hasn’t settled yet.

The most trailed change – and the one that caught the eye of the mainstream media – was the relaunch of Global Radio’s ‘Galaxy Scotland’ as ‘Capital’.

Global had worked on the change for months; subtly changing the music and setting the scene for the name change and new presenters outside breakfast and drive.

For this listener, it almost works. Des and Jennie Cook, in the morning, are bright and funny. Gary Spence on the drive home is engaging. The much-discussed national content is incredibly slick and right ‘on the money’ for the station’s target audience.

But that’s the problem. To my ears, the UK programming is big, national and glossy. Then the breaks feature local brands which just don’t sit well with the celeb-heavy chat from Leicester Square in London. It’s an uncomfortable compromise which listeners are telling me irritates them.

The arrival of Capital was always going to bring about change at rivals, Bauer, and its ‘Big City’ stations. For Clyde 1, Forth 1 and their sister stations across Scotland it duly arrived a couple of days ahead of the Global launch with a change of the stations’ strapline, to ‘More Hit Music’. This was a classic case of ‘getting your retaliation in first’ with a subtle shift in emphasis, from competing with Real Radio to reminding their listeners that they really are a hit music station. Contrast that with Capital’s ‘UK’s Number One Hit Music Station’.

In my listening this week I haven’t noticed a change in music, the playlist is still much broader than the new competitor with a larger selection of oldies and less emphasis on playing the news tracks as often as humanly possible. So I simply don’t understand the change other than the feeling that the programmers felt they had to do something.

By not emphasising their heritage in Scotland’s main markets, these stations immediately give ground to the new player by positioning themselves as another ‘Hit Music Station’. I suspect there’s more to come as the local, programme controllers are an able bunch and I hope they are encouraged to join the fight for audiences with local initiatives and a minimum of centralisation.

Meanwhile, recent changes at Real Radio (owned by GMG Radio) culminated in the arrival of Euan Cameron’s arrival on that station’s breakfast show. It’s unfair to pass comment after just a couple of shows, but it’s a brave and possibly inspired move to take Euan from the Football Phone-in and turn him into a ‘pop and patter’ DJ. He’s certainly coming to terms with the show but still sounds a little uncomfortable in some of his junctions. The jury’s out.

And on GMG’s Smooth Radio (the UK version, available online and DAB in central Scotland), Simon Bates launched a new breakfast show. He’s as acquired a taste – as he always was – but this programme ticked many of this 47 year-old’s boxes. The Golden Hour at 9am was a welcome reminder of when he was required listening for me at Radio 1. Sadly, Smooth tone down their DJs, thinking that people that grew up with Chic and the Sex Pistols might be offended by fast-moving radio. Bates is the king of the ‘speed link’ and that’s entirely absent from the new show. Perhaps he simply has to unlearn all of his Classic FM techniques. There’s also a ’70s soul-heavy playlist which holds the format back, in Scotland at least.

The least best-kept secret was the reworking of Clyde 1’s schedule. From the moment the former midday host, Colin Kelly, left the station it was seen as making a space in the schedule for the ex-Real Radio host, Robin Galloway – who recently left Real after a practical joke – involving Labour leader, Ed Milliband – didn’t go down well with his bosses.

His debut was easily the most assured of all the new-starts. He handily overlooked his earlier tenure as a weekend jock at Clyde FM in the early ’90s and provided exactly what Robin fans want: tight, assured radio. There was no attempt to hide his years at Real. Clyde’s bosses will have been happy to hear him describe the station as his new home.

It will take several months for the various new shows to bed in across Scotland’s reshaped radio dial. In the meantime, the smaller local stations have an opportunity to continue to play the local card and demonstrate that they genuinely understand their audiences.

The battleground is clearly between the Bauer stations in the central belt and Capital. Will local listeners buy into the new, glossy network or will they prefer a broader mix of hits from their local stations?

For my money, Galloway’s appearance on Clyde 1 is the key. Out of the traps, his was the best of the changes this week. He’s easily Scottish radio’s biggest personality and, at the age of 48, has the experience and the smarts to perfectly fit the audience.

The furore surrounding his departure from GMG has only raised his stock with the younger end of the audience. He offers the least change and is the one DJ that most of Scotland’s listeners are familiar with. A wise move would be to give him a weekend network show and capitalise on the new hire.

Scottish radio has always had a reputation for being bitchy beyond its importance. The new year changes have made it the most interesting market in the UK. The radio wars are just beginning.

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