In My Opinion: John Collins: A bright six months ahead for radio?

THE next six months are going to be very interesting, if you are a keen observer of Scottish radio scene.

Global Radio’s recent acquisition of the GMG group of stations (subject to a regulatory review) is the obvious ‘big one’. If the new owners do what most industry figures expect, there will be seismic changes at Real Radio and Smooth.

Real will likely become ‘Heart Scotland’, sharing a lot of its programming with the London-based network of the same name. Despite sharing a lot in common, musically, Heart feels younger and less cluttered. I’m interested to see whether the new management will retain a wholly Scottish daytime line-up or just the morning and afternoon drive slots.

Look out for a sleeker, more music-led formula than the current station. Real had enormous success with its presenter-led format and – to my ears – cluttered format. But Heart will sound more modern and female-friendly. Indeed, the announcement on Monday to axe the Real Radio Football Phone-in sounds to me like the beginnings of ‘Heartification’.

Smooth does some of the best programming on the dial – despite a reliance on disco-era soul music that only middle-aged ex-DJs my age could love. But the attempt to build a brand around the Radio 1 DJs not plying their trade at Radio 2 will probably be laid to rest in favour of straightforward networking of the ‘Gold’ brand.

Sadly, this might spell yet another job loss in the presentation department. ‘Radio anoraks’ will once again slate the commercial sector for cutting back on people and relying on networking.

But I believe that this is where the bright new future. Too many stations were licensed in the 1990s and consolidation, since, has now produced larger, stronger brands. These are brands listeners love. Brands that will generally survive.

The number of jobs available in radio has shrunk from the high figures of 15 years ago, but we’re now in a place where almost everybody in a professional outfit is paid a reasonable amount of money. In fact, we’re more or less back where we were in 1992 but with more stations and a more thinly-spread workforce. Standards are much higher across the board and listening levels are at an all-time high.

But think of this as ‘Year Zero’. With a Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in two years’ time – plus the upcoming referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future – right now is the time to be looking at new ways for commercial, community and BBC operators to find new models to get content out there.

Some community stations are attempting to redefine themselves as full-service local stations while others are forging links with schools, colleges and universities to access new talent.

The latter route is reminiscent of a BBC programme I was involved in 20-odd years ago that was primarily for developing new voices. The graduates of ‘Bite the Wax’ and ‘Earshot’ are almost all still in the industry.

There are dozens of people spending this summer looking for new jobs. Some will come from education. Others will be seeking new pastures after the changes about to be wrought in commercial radio.

Those lucky enough to be managing radio have a responsibility to invest money – and time – in the best available talent and give it an opportunity to develop. If the new developments go as I expect them to we’ll have a number of operators operating bouquets of services and more freelance people making actual programmes – as opposed to ‘showing and going’.

Strong management at all levels and a determination to grow talent will be crucial, like the fine work BBC Radio Scotland did showcasing Radio GoNorth, which popped up in Inverness as a student project last month.

The rest of us should support the change and promote best practice rather than hark back to the ‘good old days’. Some of them were, but many of them weren’t.

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.