When Jimmy, Baron Gordon of Strathblane, died on 31 March this year, heartfelt tributes from across Scotland reflected on a life well lived. A graduate of one of the most gifted and noteworthy generations of recent Glasgow University alumni, the first political editor of STV and the founder of the first commercial radio station north of the border, Radio Clyde, Gordon made a remarkable and life-long contribution to Scotland's public life. On his appointment to the House of Lords as a life peer in 1997, Gordon remarked that his elevation meant that he now had 'a half share of a coat peg' in London SW1. For Bernard Ponsonby, one of Gordon's successors as political editor at STV, Jimmy had a 'classless quality that was transparently genuine' and allowed him to 'evoke affection and gratitude in equal measure'.
The founding of Radio Clyde at the tail-end of 1973 marked a watershed moment in Scottish broadcasting. Under the auspices of the Independent Broadcasting Authority – which regulated the activities of Britain's commercial television networks and radio stations – Radio Clyde was the first body to challenge the age-old dominance of the BBC in Scotland. Transmitting from Hogmanay 1973, its establishment was followed by the founding of fellow independent Radio Forth in 1975 as well as the BBC's newest station, Radio Scotland, on-air from November 1978, which sought to challenge the growth of the independents and provide an alternative to BBC Radio 4. Together, they transformed Scotland's broadcasting landscape and allowed for innovation and a substantial increase in programming across the 1970s.
Whilst the then head of BBC Radio Scotland, John Pickles, was adamant that it would not be trading blow-by-blow with commercial stations, BBC executives were acutely conscious of Radio Clyde's success when designing their new station. In his memoir of life at the Beeb, Alistair Hetherington, the former editor of The Guardian
who found himself Controller of BBC Scotland during this period of expansion, noted that Jimmy Gordon had created 'a Scottish cross between Radios 1 and 2' which also broadcast 'hourly news of much higher quality than most other commercial stations'. Radio Clyde's success in striking a balance between sharp current affairs coverage and lively entertainment was immediate and lasting as listeners flocked to the new station. Its impact was clear to see as Radio Clyde soon commanded 70% of the audience share in the west of Scotland.
Unlike Radio Clyde, however, Radio Scotland was founded on the hope of creating a genuinely national station with outposts in Aberdeen, Inverness, Kirkwall and Lerwick, broadcasting nearly 100 hours of original programming, produced in Scotland, every week. Whilst Good Morning Scotland
was first broadcast at 6.45am on Hogmanay 1973 as part of Scotland's partial 'opt-out' from Radio 4, it took until November 1978 for Radio Scotland to become a fully-fledged station in its own right. By 1978, its founders were adamant that Radio Scotland could not simply be 'a Scottish version of Radio 4', nor a carbon-copy of Radio Clyde.
After consulting Jimmy Gordon on the perils of establishing a new station from scratch, Hetherington decided that it was to be an innovative, comprehensive and popular station which spoke with what he called 'a more distinct Scottish accent'. As if this was not a bountiful enough harvest for Scotland's audiophiles, Radio Scotland would broadcast the nation's first ever radio bingo game, with the winner receiving a grand prize of £25 worth of Premium Bonds.
The first substantial challenge for both stations came during the first three months of 1979 as Scotland debated whether or not to establish a Scottish Assembly, its first separate legislature from Westminster in nearly three centuries. Scotland in the 1970s was a nation on the move, grappling with deindustrialisation through the sudden collapse of its traditional primary industries, a decade of nationwide industrial strife and the discovery of North Sea Oil. Across the decade, the State became an increasingly important provider to those shut out as a result of this mass economic and social change.
The fiercely contested referendum, held at the tail-end of the 'Winter of Discontent' on 1 March 1979, presented the nation with a dilemma that remains familiar today as the UK drifts towards another referendum on Scottish independence. It pitted an unloved, and by then antiquated, Union against both a modern outward-looking Scotland with its own legislature and the prospect of a future independent Scotland. With the very sum and substance of the nation at stake, broadcasters and print journalists from both the established and newer outlets bore a substantial responsibility to uphold the quality of Scotland's national conversation.
In the days leading up to 1 March, the question of achieving some sense of balance through the editorial decisions of broadcasters was as important to Scotland's political process as it is today. Two of the most prominent 'No' campaigners, Brian Wilson and Tam Dalyell, who formed the 'Labour Vote No' campaign, sought to stop broadcasters from transmitting four-party political broadcasts during the run-up to polling day.
In a petition brought to the Court of Session, 'Labour Vote No' sought to secure 'balanced coverage' for the plethora of campaigning groups, most notably those not being supported and funded by the major political parties. One concerned citizen, a recently dismissed 'Yes' supporting sheriff, went so far as to appoint himself as the 'Voluntary Referendum Ombudsman' and, from his home in Uddingston, undertook an extensive letter-writing campaign in an effort to keep Scotland's broadcasters in check.
In amongst all of this, and despite its status as a mainstay of Scottish broadcasting today, Radio Scotland was subject to substantial criticism from both inside and outside its walls. For Kenneth Roy, who left the BBC in 1979 (but would later return to present Agenda
, BBC Scotland's successor to Current Account
, its flagship current affairs programme), Radio Scotland sounded tamer and far less self-assured than Radio Clyde and, unlike its competitor which was rooted in Glasgow, the BBC's output was 'uncertain' in its tone.
In a sense, Radio Scotland's troubles were largely of its own making. In trying to meet its founders' ambitions of creating a genuinely national station, it lacked a clear identity and a robust connection with any part of the country. It also came in for considerable criticism for its more conversational and deliberately 'friendly' style. For one listener, Kathleen Rantell, the radio critic of the Glasgow Herald
, who listened to an entire day's programming, it was 'endless hours of needle time and mush' and Radio Scotland's flagship Good Morning Scotland
was 'as dreich as the weather'.
Its early editorial troubles were only exacerbated by a notorious incident in September 1979, which resulted in the dismissal of the then head of Radio Scotland. After perhaps one too many, John Pickles decided to 'test' his station's readiness for a major crisis and ordered a continuity announcer to broadcast news of the Queen's death.
Despite early (and in Pickles' case, notable) mishaps, uncertainty and confusion, the 1970s were a transformative decade for Scottish broadcasting. With the advent of Radio Clyde and the BBC's attempts to replicate its success, the foundations were laid for Scottish broadcasters to present a far greater variety of programmes from across the length and breadth of the country. As a result, in time, both radio and television would become increasingly representative of the nation itself.
Perhaps, the last word should go to Kenneth Roy, who, with characteristic turn of phrase, once remarked that Radio Clyde had 'scooped Glasgow patter out of the street and got it on the air'. This, and the decade of broadcasting innovation and experimentation that it unleashed, is surely the most lasting legacy that Jimmy Gordon has bequeathed to a nation that he served so well.