WHAT do we mean when we talk about ''independent media''? People from

the wretched battle-zones of the world -- Rwanda, Yugoslavia -- use the

phrase to describe television and radio stations that manage to remain

free of the control of governments, factions, and armies; media that are

not obliged to belch out a stream of hate-imagery and propaganda

designed to incite murder and war. To most of them, the BBC World

Service, with its relatively impartial news reporting, represents the

epitome of the ''indepen

dent'' style to which they aspire; and for all the World Service's

repetitiveness, its pomposity, its audible stretching of resources over

long broadcasting hours, the further one gets from Britain the more it

stands out as a beach-head of calm humanity among the political and

commercial trash that fills the air. It's something to do with its

unflappable pluralism and variety of texture, its refusal to boil

everything down to a standard pulp of European pop-prattle or

monocultural ranting: here a nostalgic Raffles story beautifully

adapted, there an outspoken documentary about the history of feminism,

somewhere else Dave Lee Travis playing pop requests and making jokes

about his lost voice, there again a doctor with a Scottish accent giving

a talk about the current season of Jewish festivals, prefaced with a

careful reminder -- if it is Saturday -- that the piece was recorded

before the onset of the sabbath. The World Service comes across like a

home-made Dundee Cake in a world of cheap mass-produced chocolate mousse

-- less instantly attractive, but much more sustaining, made with loving


It's therefore supremely ironic, here in the home of some of the most

independent broadcasting ever produced, that we routinely use the word

''independent'' in the media as a simple synonym for ''commercial'' not

BBC; and it strikes me, after a few days of exposure to the sound of

Central Scotland's latest ''independent'' station, Scot FM, that it

really is time to nail this lazy equation of commercialism and rugged

editorial independence once and for all. For the overwhelming impression

given by this poor wee chunter-machine of a talk station is of desperate

dependence on dozens of forces utterly -- almost comically -- beyond its

control. For a start, there's the increasingly limited availability of

people willing and able to turn up and chat coherently from the studio;

for let's face it, in the crowded broadcasting world of the 1990s an

invitation to appear on the radio is no longer the rare thrill it once

was. Then there are the vagaries of the telephone system on which a

phone-in-based station abosolutely relies; after Brian Ford, trying to

discuss ''yob culture'' with a man from the Church of Scotland on

Thursday morning, had lost telephone contact with him no

less than three times in 10 minutes I gave up fulminating over Scot

FM's dismal slavery to the reactionary agenda set by our crime-obsessed

tabloid press -- another sad form of dependence -- and instead lay on

the floor, weeping with mirth and despair. There are the phone-in

callers themselves, many of them sad cases (for who else rings obscure

radio stations at 10 in the morning or 12 at night?), who react to the

questions raised by the presenters with a blithering incoherence that

reduces the station's more sophisticated broadcasters, like late-night

voice Margo MacDonald, to ill-concealed hysteria. And there are the

advertisers, thin on the ground at the moment, who will no doubt demand

that the station, currently light on music, finds itself a clear market

niche by opting for wall-to-wall sixties nostalgia, or non-stop Whitney


And none of this, of course, is really Scot FM's fault. It is the

natural condition of your struggling commercial radio station in an age

when junk broadcasting proliferates like junk food, one brand of audible

nasty-burger as cheap and undistinguished as the next. But the truth we

have to keep in mind is that this type of desperate, commercially-driven

enterprise has as little to do with ''independence'' -- of income, of

ethos, of mind -- as a burger bar has to do with haute cuisine.

Independence is something else again, something built out of a culture

of respect for truth, questioning of received opinion, willingness to

welcome dissent and difference, the absence of fear; and neither the

money-machines of the modern media industry, nor the authoritarian

governments of the world's conflict zones, are capable of generating or

protecting anything remotely like it.