My Media Day: Tom Morton, editor, writer and BBC Radio Scotland presenter

TOM Morton currently presents BBC Radio Scotland’s afternoon show, mostly from the BBC studios in Lerwick, Shetland, some 40 miles south from his home in Northmavine.

He is also the editor of the local monthly magazine, Shetland Life (published by The Shetland Times), and writes a weekly column on whisky for the Scots news, features and comment website, Caledonian Mercury. He has published several books and is currently finishing a thriller set in the Highlands.

He submitted this on Wednesday, January 30.

What exactly is it that you do?

Just trying to get by. At the moment, I’m hosting the weekday afternoon show on BBC Radio Scotland, 2.35pm-4.00pm Monday to Thursday, and 2pm-4pm Fridays.

It’s a record-based music show with regular journalist guests – Alan Morrison from The Herald, Fiona Shepherd from The Scotsman, Paul English from the Daily Record – and occasional musicians, some of whom will perform live.

We’ve had everyone, from The Proclaimers to Frightened Rabbit, Mumford and Sons to KT Tunstall, from Moby to Martha Reeves.

We sometimes have celebrities choosing their top three tracks but mostly it’s me playing records, nattering and relaying listeners’ comments about life, the universe and everything Scottish.

Social media is crucial to the way the show works – Facebook, mostly, Twitter a bit – along with phone calls, texting and email. I try to find daily topics that will provoke personal stories and memories – no controversy, really.

A lot of it is music-based, too – your first-ever gig, the worst band you ever saw, that kind of thing.

Everyone asks if I choose the music. I don’t, but I do have right of veto. The music is played off hard disc and the show is produced in Aberdeen, though I’m in Shetland. When we started, 11 years ago, it was basically a folk music programme.

It began to include Americana and Country, and then there was a move to mainstream pop with a Scottish, rootsy flavour. These days we use the BBC Radio Scotland daytime playlist, compiled in Glasgow and based largely on the BBC Radio 2 playlist but with a very robust Scottish dimension.

The producers come up with a running order, I check it for stuff I’d really be embarrassed to be associated with, and off we go.

I get a lot of tracks and albums sent direct to me, and I will push for various things to be included; recently, that’s been stuff like Randolph’s Leap and Kid Canaveral, The Pictish Trail and Esther Sparks. We respond to listeners’ requests and always listen to new material, especially from Scottish artists.

What did your working day today or yesterday comprise? 

It was an important day, the day before yesterday. I had been told in August that my afternoon show would end in March, after 11 years – something that had been on the cards for over a year as BBC Radio Scotland moved towards a speech-only daytime schedule. I was offered a late-night music slot, 10pm -1am, Friday to Sunday, which I was very happy to accept.

Well, the day before yesterday, the independent production company that will make the show was chosen – it’s Demus Productions, headed up by Nick Low, someone I’ve known for 30 years, going back to the days when we were both scrabbling around the the Rock’n’Roll scene in Glasgow.

I am excited by the new programme – it’s a classic radio slot, there will be no playlist, the producers and I will choose the music and it will reflect my personal tastes. Total freedom, almost!

It starts on April 5. We’ve yet to reveal the name of it. Between now and then, I’ll be having several meetings with Nick, to work out the logistics.

I’ll continue to broadcast from Shetland and new digital technologies, including the presence of ultra-high speed fibre optic broadband in Shetland (courtesy of those nice Faroe islanders, just up the seaways), could play their part.

I’m looking forward, of course, to having my days back to myself. There’s a big drop in income, but I can’t complain, though. It’s a privilege to be on the air. I count my blessings.

This week has also seen the February issue of Shetland Life magazine put to bed. It’s 52 full-colour pages and sells about 2,000 copies a month, locally. There’s also a full PageSuite edition available online at, if you’re interested.

This month, we’re remembering the wreck of the tanker, Braer, 20 years ago, with a fantastic photo spread from the legendary Press photographer, Tom Kidd.

And there’s a little bit of Up Helly Aa action too, which took place yesterday and is Europe’s biggest fire festival. The conditions were pretty stormy and I have to admit I watched it online using Promote Shetland’s live webcast. Fantastic quality, thanks to that Faroese fibre-optic cable.

This week I’ve also been judging round two of the World Whiskies Awards – 22 samples to nose and taste blind, ranging from American Tennessee sippin’ whiskey to Campbeltown and Lowland malts. Dreadful job, but someone’s got to do it.

That supplied me with copy for my weekly whisky column in the Caledonian Mercury.

Oh, and this week, we sold the croft. No more sheep or pigs or attempts at running a bookshop in the byre!

How different or similar was it to your average working day?

The Demus decision meant Monday was a bit different to the usual. It’s not every day something as crucial to one’s future is decided.

How different or similar was it to your average working day when you started in post?

I’ve been both a staffer and a freelancer. It’s been a hugely varied career that began after university (Glasgow: English and Philosophy) when I trained as a journalist with the Glasgow construction weekly magazine, Project Scotland.

Music performance, recording and religious youth work then followed for the next four years, and then it was back to Project Scotland and a move into rock journalism, with Melody Maker, plus TV presentation and production at the BBC.

I then met Susan, now my wife, and we moved to Shetland, where I worked as a reporter for The Shetland Times and freelanced.

I then became The Scotsman’s Highlands and Islands Reporter, based in Inverness. A move back to Shetland after four years saw me writing columns and feature for various nationals, books about whisky and golf, plus unsuccessful novels, and a couple of documentaries for BBC Radio Scotland.

I was then asked to do a holiday stand-in slot on Nancy Nicholson’s morning show, and, with many ups, downs, crises and detours, that led to where I am today.

I have (doesn’t every ex-hack?) a small consultancy called Fairly Committed, specialising in fair trade PR and communications. I’ve been lucky enough to get one or two really interesting contracts, but I do find the ‘client appeasement’ aspects of PR pretty debilitating – ie stop fiddling with the copy!

Over the past three years, I’ve been working with a Glasgow-based ethical events company, Fairpley Ltd, and performing an one-man musical show about whisky, called The Malt and Barley Revue.

That’s changing into The Whisky Companion and will be running at various venues. There’s a lot of work to be done on that.

I am also just finishing the second draft of a thriller set in the Highlands (again, what Scottish ex-journalist isn’t?) and pondering what to do about publication. My last book, Serpentine, was published by Mainstream but the financial attractions of self-publishing digitally via Kindle, Kobo and the like may be worth exploring.

Apart from that, it’s just Susan and myself at home now with the weans away at university or work. There are grandchildren to visit in Glasgow and Northern Ireland, so a bit of regular travelling south is on the cards.

I need to perfect my breadmaking skills in order to avoid being shouted at by my son, James, of The Great British Bake Off notoriety (look out for his book on bread, to be published in the summer). And I need to get ready for some serious kitchen gardening come the Spring.

How do you see the job evolving?

I see myself gradually becoming a competent gardener and angler. Did I mention that Shetland has the greatest, cheapest and almost completely ignored freshwater trout fishery in Europe? Stay away!

What gives you most job satisfaction?

Connection. There’s a fantastic moment on air when you find yourself part of a community, involved in a conversation. It’s like being at the best dinner party in the world, out for drinks with people who all ‘get it’. And playing the best music for the moment.