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Radio station not quite at home on the range

Scot FM promised classy speech and rock and was backed to the tune of #1m, but Margaret Vaughan believes it lost much in transmission.

IT was billed as radio for Scotland's thinking classes.

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It became instead a kid-on for the chuntering classes, for whom being on air was worth being insulted. It was cheap and, despite its billing, it was thoughtless. Scot FM was a dud from day one. Originally backed by Grampian and Border Television to the tune of #1m, it promised an output mixing classy speech and classic rock, aimed at the trendy McYuppies of central Scotland. It ended up relying on a music hall version of a shock jock, who revelled in sexual stereotyping and exploiting sad people on air, and a mixter-maxter of music to draw listeners. The original concept must have seemed persuasive to the Radio Authority, who awarded it a licence for eight years against stiff opposition. The Authority bombed out five other applicant groups to award the licence for a central Scotland regional radio station to Scot FM in December 1993. The Authority's duty under the Broadcasting Act was to award the contract to the group which, in its opinion, would extend listeners' choice and could demonstrate financial stability and professional qualifications appropriate to launching and maintaining the service during its eight-year licence period. By the time Scot FM went on air, not one of the 13 broadcasters named in its application schedule had made it to day one. It promised between 51% and 65% quality speech output at peak times. 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''. The reality was, to put it no higher, less than up to expectations. The station went back to the radio authority four times to ask for permission to vary its format to allow more popular music and less speech. There were problems from the very beginning. The man appointed managing director, Tom Hunter, was a brash but uncertain commander. His family was from Kilmarnock and he sold himself as a Scot who had come home. Sadly, it seemed, he was mistaken about what he had come home to. All the original names brought in at the launch either leapt ship or were forced to walk the plank: Donnie Munro, Margo MacDonald, Kaye Adams, Steve Hamilton, Bruce Finlay. The critical response to the programme was scorching. It was scorned as an insult to Scotland, derided as cheap two-dimensional programming. Its output was described as amateurish and it became known as Radio Gaga by those who had, at first, invested much energy and faith in the concept. Most of the potshots came from within its own ranks. The morale of a young staff who threw every ounce of energy and commitment into the launch barely reached above the level of the floor of the Leith-based station. Hunter, backed by Grampian and Borders management, insisted the vitriol levelled at the station's output was all a vicious plot devised by those who would take savage pleasure in seeing the venture sink. A look at the evidence of how the station was being run, and its output, made that scenario seem doubtful. There were three main targets for criticism in the early stages: the way the budgets were allocated; the perception that crisis-management prevailed; and the station's seeming inability to find a distinct identity. The initial #1m budget was not exactly piffling, but for a station which promised speech output of more than 50%, resources were meagre. There were, originally, just six journalists, all young, relatively inexperienced, working flat out, often 12 hours a day, in the newsroom. The much vaunted west coast office had one reporter and a trainee. When the taxi bill was too high, reporters were told to take buses to jobs. The phone bill was too high; staff were told to cut back on calls. Then there was the Thundertruck fiasco. Something like #40,000 was spent equipping a swish van with a padded interior, customised in Ohio and shipped back to Leith. Sadly, it was not equipped with what a radio station needs most: outside broadcast capability. It had only a mobile phone. Its flashing lights lay dormant. The much vaunted state of the art computerised studio brought a series of technical glitches at the outset. It was supposed to be so sophisticated that an engineer was unnecessary. When it did break down a consultant had to be phoned at home in Carlisle to come and fix it. There were no records or CDs in the station library. All music was on computer hard disc. There were 1000 tracks making up the entire musical output. So when Lulu and Gary Glitter were due to be interviewed, a member of staff had to be dispatched to a record shop to borrow their records. The original flagship show featured Chris Mann, who was wooed from London by a salary of around #80,000 plus perks such as a car and driver and weekly flights to his home in the south. The superficial style of the flagship programme drew a massive critical blizzard. Industry insiders are agreed that at management level, an understanding or sensitivity of what speech-based radio is about was missing. It may sound easy, they say. That means it is anything but. Even before the station went on air, it was clear that things were going very wrong. The programme controller became ill with stress. He was brusquely replaced by a young producer from a defunct London station. Like Tom Hunter, it was his first experience of working in Scotland. Eventually, Hunter, who made up for in brashness what he lacked in managerial skills, was himself shown the door. In November 1995, Grampian which had bought out Border's stake six months earlier - decided Hunter had to go. Grampian's director of television Bob Christie was brought in as temporary MD, until a new appointment could be made. It never was. Grampian has cut its losses, which last year were #981,000. Whether the new owners, IRG, can boost disappointing audience figures remains to be seen. Last summer, the station had a weekly audience of 349,000 - far below that envisaged at the launch. Industry insiders say the new team is acute and knows radio well. Its problem will be that the radio authority now intends to make those who run stations adhere more strictly to conditions laid down when licences are granted. This means the new owners cannot change the format much from the promises made when Scot FM was launched. The new owners have specialised in buying up failing stations and trying to turn them round. The feeling in radio circles in Scotland is that they have a stiff task on their hands this time. Grampian profits - Page 23

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