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Insults fly overthe airwaves

Scot-FM promised a Scottish view of Britain; it produced Scotty McClue. Tony Currie argues Scots are the losers.

SCOT-FM, about to launch its fifth new breakfast presenter in seven months on the air, is a bad joke.

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Its share of the available audience in Glasgow is less than that of Ayrshire station West Sound in a city it doesn't even target, and out of the 157 British radio stations whose audiences were measured between September and December 1994, it came 151st with a 2.1% share -- the only stations below it were niche London stations, ill-named Manchester station ''Fortune'', and Radio 3.

Scot-FM has lost all the leading Scots it has paid dearly for -- Haig Gordon, Kaye Adams, Margo MacDonald, Donnie Munro, Steve Hamilton -- and appears to have placed all its faith in a character who seems to be have been contrived from the music hall. Cheap, two-dimensional programming. An insult to Scotland and no sense of being Scottish at all.

It's 15 months since my company, Radio Six -- like five other applicant groups -- received a call from the Radio Authority with the news that our application for the central Scotland regional radio licence had failed.

The authority had decided instead to award it to a consortium made up of Grampian and Border Television.

I had no doubts then that their choice was ill-judged. Indeed as Andy Park -- former programming genius at Radio Clyde and front man for one of my competitors -- said at the time, ''It was a sad day for Scotland.''

Prior to that fateful December 1993, the Radio Authority had a wide choice of propositions to consider. Ours offered a 24-hour news and speech station. The others' formats were Celtic/rock music, easy listening music and information, contemporary rock, country music, and Christian-biased programming.

The authority's duty under the 1990 Broadcasting Act was to award the contract to the group which -- in its opinion -- would extend listeners' choice in our areas and which could demonstrate financial stability and professional qualifications appropriate to launching and maintaining the service throughout its eight-year licence period.

Yet when the award was made to Scot-FM, its postal address was the home of its front man, Art Sutter (where did HE go?); not a single executive was named in its proposals, and not even one of the 13 broadcasters it named in its application schedule ever made it to day one.

It promised between 51% and 65% of speech content during peak times, yet its Breakfast Show relies on music as its staple diet. And although chairman Sir David Steel promised: ''A unique Scottish view of Britain, the world and central Scotland's place in it at the core of our programming,'' many of the news bulletins are now mere re-broadcasts of those originating at local station London News Radio, complete with the inevitable Home Counties accents and news bias. A bulletin last week for example referred to a climbing accident ''in the Scottish Highlands'' but could not be any more precise.

But then the Radio Authority is unlikely ever to hold Scot-FM to any of its promises. Like all quango regulatory bodies its primary role is to protect and preserve itself. It cannot ever be seen to admit a major mistake since that would bring into question all of its secretly-made decisions.

Membership of the authority is bestowed as a gift from the Government and at the time of the award only one member was Scottish and none had any professional broadcasting experience. They are, of course, advised by a professional staff, but unlike its predecessor body, the IBA, the Radio Authority has no offices, staff or presence outside central London. The sum total of our interrogation by authority officers was a half hour -- on the telephone with one of them.

Thus the potential of a powerful new voice in Scotland has been wasted by a London-based body which could only have selected Scot-FM because it had some vague idea that Grampian and Border Television were ''safe'' players. The fact that experience and success in television cannot guarantee similar success in radio appears to have been overlooked by the Radio Authority. Or was it impressed by the glossy paper and its ''People's Friend'' prose? There certainly wasn't anything of substance in it, was there, chaps?

As Scot-FM took shape in its headquarters in Leith, chosen perhaps for their ease of access from Aberdeen, Grampian appointed Tom Hunter to run the operation for them. Hunter had been successful as managing director of Oxford-based FOX FM. But although its 229,000 weekly reach looks good on paper, it's the only local commercial station in its market and Hunter could hardly have failed.

This bluff, hearty man who claims Scottish roots -- his father was in the Army and his parents now live in Ayrshire -- has in fact never, in his adult life, lived or worked in Scotland.

The first programme controller he appointed left ''owing to ill health'', and Hunter then brought Justin Bryant to Scotland. He had been a producer at the speech station in London -- prior to its closedown after failing to secure licence renewal.

None of this should have prevented Scot-FM from achieving its avowed aim of being what Sir David Steel described as ''a very Scottish station''. But neither Hunter nor Bryant seems to have been capable of finding the feel and flow of Scotland and identifying what the central belt is all about.

They have resorted -- or been forced into -- persistent crisis management. First equipment failures, then audience failures left no time for such luxuries as reflection or assessment. Kaye Adams's Sunday morning show attracted not a single caller one week, and the late night phone-ins fared little better on many occasions.

Now Scot-FM cites 58,000 callers to ''Scotty McClue'' in a week. Jimmy Gordon, managing director of Radio Clyde, questions whether there are that many listeners even tuning in at that time of night, let alone calling the station. But BT's call measuring system only records number dialled, not calls answered, so failed calls and hoax calls get rounded into the total.

Meanwhile, as more of the original team of stars pack their bags and leave the Number One Shed at Leith Docks, Hunter persists in his attempts to assure all and sundry that things have never been better.

''It's official -- Fastest-growing station in Scotland'' proclaims an anonymous voice at regular intervals. Not a difficult state to achieve when you've started with no listeners and risen to 234,000 in eight months. Scottish Radio Holdings reaches 1,435,000 in Edinburgh and Glasgow alone every week, by the way.

Given the opportunity to offer his wisdom to the assembled UK commercial radio elite at the recent Dublin conference, Hunter chose to lampoon his rival Jimmy Gordon instead. The most successful man in UK commercial radio, by the way.

Inevitably, Hunter and his team will go when the shareholders have had enough. Waiting in the wings is Reuters, which now owns London's speech radio and provides Sky and GMTV with its news and whose expansive ambitions are hardly secret. Don't be surprised if, after a decent interval, control of the station passes south and a few discreet words in the right places allow it to tear up its original ''Promise of Performance''.

Yet again Scotland loses out.

* Tony Currie is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. He was previously controller of programmes at the Cable Authority. He was managing director of Radio Six Ltd when it failed to win the Central Scotland Radio Licence.

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