There’s a lot of it about. Call it radio, r@dio, web audio, streaming or podcasting – I prefer wireless, that word stolen by digital usurpers. While more and more people and organisations are aware of and using the power of 'collective, private sound’ – including the Scottish Review – the idea of a top-down radio 'industry’ is being deconstructed. As in music, the means of access, production and dissemination are now easy and cheap, or free. So that if you can open an iTunes or Spotify, account, buy an acceptable microphone, download some free software and establish a presence on the streaming MixCloud, you’re a music broadcaster.
Speech is even simpler and involves no licensing issues, so you can open a SoundCloud or PodBean account and anyone can get your thoughts, dulcet tones and potentially actionable statements to keep forever on smartphone, tablet PC or Mac. ('Streaming’, for those non-digitised creatures rapidly losing the will to live, or at least stop reading, is playing something that exists only on the web, not on your personal screenmachine).
The problem is editing and curation. Most podcasts are tedious, tendentious, screeching rants. Most music 'webshows’ are either unpaced, boring representations of one-dimensional fandom or rather sad post-professional attempts by redundant DJs to 'remain current’. Present company excepted, of course. Check out https://www.mixcloud.com/tom-morton2/ if you must. Or not.
There is a vast amount of opinion, entertainment, literature even, poetry and music out there, if you can find a way to sift through and discover the gold among the silt. But we need curation. We need editors, packagers, even – and I say this reluctantly – producers. And while we enjoy the way sound can make us feel part of a national or international community, we crave, we need, the local.
Some of the rash of online microcasting is highly localised, something old-school analogue FM and AM radio has always excelled at, and provides a useful and instructive counter to the monstrous corporations that comprise the big players in 'Scottish’ commercial radio, the Bauers and Globals. As formerly 'local’ stations across the country have ended up owned by these behemoths, the use of networked shows with localised advertising and limited news has grown more and more common, saving the cost of presenters, producers and helping achieve the unstated aim of these companies – to establish 'national’ – that is, UK-wide – networks by default, something government licensing does not allow. Only one all-Britain commercial radio station currently exists, Classic FM. If you want to sell to an audience of listeners (or casual hearers) between Aberdeen and Southampton who prefer X-factored pap, Global and Bauer will offer you packages of ads, groomed and tweaked if necessary for particular local markets. Clever. Soulless, cynical and avaricious, but clever.
There are of course 'traditional’ FM commercial stations run either by volunteers or on a small and speculative scale. Kevin Cameron of would-be commercial newcomer GO (Glasgow’s Own) was talking a good game last year, had apparently assembled a cast list of favourites from the past – Suzie McGuire, Tiger Tim Stevens, Scottie McClue – and hoped to begin transmission via the web and DAB, which stands, according to many cynics, for 'Dead And Buried'. It isn’t, yet, but DAB is a stupid, stunted technology popular only with various governments and the BBC, which has spent an eye-watering amount of licence fee cash promoting it. And while DAB may last a little longer, once proper 5G mobile broadband is everywhere, it will, like Betamax and broadsheets, be completely redundant.
Cameron declaimed with ringing DJ sincerity and, I think (hope) prophetic accuracy to Brian Beacom of the Herald in this article: 'All the presenters will be local, the ethos of the station will be local. And we’re confident this is the model of the future'. I hope so. Parochial definitely sells to parochial. But nothing appears to be happening on either DAB or the GO website at the moment. As for news, well. Once upon a time radio, local radio, was hotwired to sport, politics and especially the police and criminal courts. Nowadays, like most of our daily papers, unless it’s on Twitter, supplied by news agencies or worse, by agencies paid to fire out promotional press releases disguised as news, it sometimes seems that it isn’t reportable at all.
And what to say about the BBC in all of this? BBC Radio Scotland under James Boyle abandoned what could now be seen as a crucial strength – the community news opt-outs and entertainment programmes in places like Inverness, Dumfries and Galloway, and Selkirk. It became obsessively beholden to the oft-questioned listening figures supplied by RAJAR. Orkney and Shetland fought successfully to retain half-hour daily news opt outs on FM, plus an hour a day of community programming. Radio Scotland retains a commitment to active news gathering and is primarily – mandatorily by its service agreement – a speech station. It has, RAJAR says, the biggest single listenership of any Scottish station at around a million pairs of ears – but legally, it’s the only one with a Scotland-wide remit. Put just two of the big city commercial outposts together and they effortlessly outgun it in terms of total tinnitus.
The future? Radio Scotland has considered splitting frequencies and even setting up a separate digital-only service; due to the BBC’s military-grade transmission infrastructure, ultra-local, targeted analogue broadcasting will always be an option. On the commercial front, surely it’s only a matter of time before someone at Global or Bauer recognises the changing politics and culture of Scotland and creates a populist, commercial all-Caledonia analogue radio station with local opts for breakfast, travel, weather and news. They wouldn’t need a national licence. There’s money in it.
Community stations will continue to thrive if they meet local needs, and the online empowerment of anyone with a record collection or a set of opinions and an ego will continue. There are listeners. It’s just a question of finding them, or enabling them to find you, then making them stay.
And pay. Unless of course, you have the non-profit ethos of BBC Radio Scotland. Plus, of course, its annual service budget of £21 million.