In My Opinion: John Collins: Time for speech radio to be allowed to express a political opinion

FOX News did something I really admired, the other day.

President Obama had just finished a really powerful speech at a service to remember those affected by the Boston Marathon bombs. He was close to flawless, speaking from notes and without a prompter.

Normally, Fox would cut to a panel of political opponents and work though his comments line by line, putting forward their point of view.

This time they couldn’t, as most Americans were still in a state of shock.

So, instead, they let Obama finish and before the applause had faded went straight to discussing his failure to get stronger gun laws through the US legislature. Not the laws themselves, as most Fox contributors would want to keep their weapons. But Obama’s failure.

Now, I’m naturally a little left-of-centre and this annoyed me – but I kept watching. The only personality on US talk TV who gets close to the left is MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. But the big beasts of the right are extraordinary broadcasters.

Some of the most famous – and profitable – broadcasters on the right started out in and continue to hold down daily radio shows. Rush Limbaugh is so influential that he’s been touted as a Republican candidate in the last couple of elections. Sean Hannity’s show, which airs on the east coast at 3pm, has extraordinary access to politicians and regularly beats up on the left. During the last US election, it ran jingles saying that the goal was to make Obama an one-term president.

I listen. Two or three times a week. So do millions of others.

Isn’t it time we allowed broadcasters to have real opinions and removed the straightjacket of impartiality?

There’s a received wisdom that commercial talk radio has failed outside London because of economics. I don’t buy that. Scottie McClue (best known, perhaps, for his stint on the now long-gone Scot FM) was a phenomenon as his character espoused trenchant, old-fashioned views. If commercial radio was allowed phone-in hosts who had deeply-held political opinions and were allowed to express them on air, the marketplace would be far more vibrant.

After all, it works for newspapers – look at the Daily Mail. Good readerships and very successful websites for a version of the news that fits a particular agenda.

I believe that it’s time for [broadcasting regulators] Ofcom to allow speech-based radio stations to have a political standpoint and for the Representation of the People Act to be amended to explicitly allow speech stations to continue during election campaigns.

The BBC, on the other hand, is a different beast. Like PBS & NPR in the States, it’s a public broadcaster and must preserve balance. In the increasingly noisy world that would follow deregulation, it would be a haven of common sense in an audio battle for ears.

Such a move would bring in new formats, find new voices and make the UK radio an even more interesting listen.

John Collins lectures in radio broadcasting at Reid Kerr College in Paisley, following a 25-year career on both sides of the microphone at both the BBC and in commercial radio in Scotland. He still pops up occasionally on the radio, at Clyde 2 on a Sunday morning. Pic: Michele Dillon.