In My Opinion: Jeff Zycinski: Tune in; you might just like what you hear

LAST week, the prominent Scots historian, Professor Tom Devine, called for a shake-up of BBC Radio Scotland, including the appointment of a new head, to replace Jeff Zycinski.

Here, Zycinski, argues on behalf of BBC Radio Scotland…

MAYBE it’s the short daylight hours which dull the senses and dim the normal aspirational glow. Or perhaps too much Xmas pudding conspired to leave a slightly bitter-sweet taste in the mouth. Whatever the reason, there clearly wasn’t much New Year bonhomie last week from Tom Devine, towards BBC Radio Scotland.

It’s no great surprise that Tom isn’t a fan of BBC Radio Scotland; he has criticised our output in the past. So, let’s imagine a station that Tom might enjoy.

Perhaps a radio station with an unrivalled commitment to covering Scottish news, a station that offers investigative documentaries, regular original drama, brand new comedy and a major series on Scottish history.

It would also offer live music across genres such as rock, folk, jazz and classical – offering both new and existing acts the chance to share their performances with our audiences – plus the most popular sports programme on Scottish radio, compelling human interest stories and the most authoritative religious and environmental output.

Here’s the good news: it already exists.

And although Tom may not tune in much, that’s a tactic not shared by hundreds of thousands of others in Scotland with almost a million listeners choosing to turn their dial to Radio Scotland every week despite the growth in the number of stations since those Halcyon Days of 20 years ago so seemingly loved by Tom.

That makes it the station with more listeners than any other based in Scotland.

It’s a real success story, especially considering how the station has maintained its position while the number of rival stations has multiplied in the past two decades. Add to that the growing popularity of internet radio and podcasts and you’d have to say that we must be doing something right.

Compare that with the decline of other media – notably, newspapers – and the fragmentation of TV. Radio, generally, is riding high and BBC Radio Scotland is part of that good news story.

But I suppose we should at least give Tom the courtesy of examining the role of Radio Scotland – even if his analysis seemed high on phoning a friend rather than asking the audience.

That role has been argued over ever since the station launched more than 30 years ago.

Some say it should be a BBC Radio 4 for Scotland (forgetting that BBC Radio 4 already exists or making the false assumption that it is ‘not for Scotland’). Others think it should be more populist, offering more familiar music and sport.

It was that very question we took to our listeners in a major piece of audience research two years ago – the conclusions of which we took into the Service Licence Process conducted by the BBC Trust, the body charged with representing the interests of licence payers.

That process became all the more important as we started to digest the implications of the ‘licence fee settlement’ and the need to prioritise how we spend the resulting reduced budget available to us.

That extensive audience research led us to outline as clear a proposition as possible in a very crowded market place.

Rather than shift from one genre to another – sometimes with clunky gear changes – we wanted to make it clear that BBC Radio Scotland is a speech station in daytime and a specialist music station in the evenings.

The station will continue to target an adult audience – people who are invested in the life, culture and politics of Scotland. Families, parents, grandparents. People who are concerned about the future as well as being proud and curious about our past. An increasingly diverse population.

News programming, of course, remains the cornerstone of our schedule and the new Saturday edition of Good Morning Scotland is part of the new approach to speech. There’s also the new Saturday Shereen programme and Headlines programme on Sundays. And this year, we’ll add even more speech to the daytime schedule with the launch of a new afternoon arts programme presented by Janice Forsyth.

But that’s not all. Alongside our valued partners in the independent sector, we’ve invested in new comedy (Bob Servant, Hardeep at the Stand, The Gates, The Guessing Game) and, since we brought drama back into the schedule in 2006 we have commissioned and broadcast more than 60 brand new plays, many from new Scottish writers who are getting their first break on BBC radio.

That has garnered us two ‘Sony’ nominations in recent years, so it’s not true to say we’re not recognised by our peers.

Both comedy and drama aim to reflect the lives, concerns and issues familiar to our listeners. Recent plays have tackled themes such as domestic violence, redundancy, graduate unemployment, bereavement and sexual abuse. These are hard-hitting contemporary pieces.

We also reflect those concerns in our built features and conversation series. This week, for example, we are looking at the impact of mid-life (and not just because I’m about to turn 50 myself).

We pride ourselves on taking different approaches to genres like history, a subject close to Tom’s heart. Billy Kay’s series on The Cause was a timely look back at the growth of Scottish nationalism. Susan Morrison presented Women with a Past, looking at the often forgotten stories of women in our history.

Add to that our evening music programmes covering rock, jazz, classical, folk and Celtic music – and the very popular Get it On which offers an entertaining interactive bridge between our speech and music schedules.

We’re also proud of our commitment to sport – our football programmes are the most popular of the week and are highly regarded by fans. Sport Nation covers other sports in a prime Saturday morning slot while we also reflect rugby and golf. Often we provide these programmes on a split frequency, so that non-sport enthusiasts still have the choice to listen to music if they wish.

Investigative documentaries, medicine, religion, environment, food, gardening… the schedule is a rich one and all thanks to the dedication of the programmes teams around Scotland, and those working for the small but growing numbers of independent production companies such as The Comedy Unit, Demus, Dabster, Stark Productions and Tempest.

Add in a plethora of top notch presenters: Gary Robertson, Hayley Millar, Richard Gordon, John Beattie, Kaye Adams, Fred MacAulay, Edi Stark, Ricky Ross, Shereen Nanjiani, Bruce MacGregor, Mhairi Stuart, Janice Forsyth, Clare English, Cathy MacDonald, Stuart Cosgrove, Mark Stephen and Jamie MacDougall – to name but a few.

If you were launching BBC Radio Scotland tomorrow, there might be things you might do differently.

But if you said you intended to offer such a rich mix and get around a million listeners a week, people might regard that as over ambitious.

So Tom, why not tune in? You might just like what you hear.

Jeff Zycinski is head of BBC Radio Scotland[/private]