By Bob Duncan
BBC Scotland bosses have hit back at claims Radio Scotland is a “national disgrace” after a leading academic criticised the station’s output.
Historian Tom Devine described the broadcaster as “inadequate” and said Scottish licence payers were being let down by a “constant stream” of music and phone-ins at what is the most important period in the country’s history.
Mr Devine made his remarks during a public debate, entitled Independence and Identity, organised by The Sunday Herald.
Commenting on the station’s output, the Edinburgh University historian said:
“I’ve long thought that BBC Radio Scotland is a national disgrace, and it’s our BBC. There could be a resource issue but I don’t think that excuses the constant stream of cheap musical programmes.
“It seems extraordinary that when we are debating the most important issue in the history of the nation, at least since the 18th century, that we should have such an inadequate broadcaster.”
However, a BBC spokesperson defended the station’s output and said: “Tom may not be aware, but Radio Scotland has been moving towards a speech-by-daytime, music-by-evening schedule for some time. Our evening music strands are highly valued by our listeners who don’t share his view that we provide too much music.
“And while Tom may not like phone-ins, listeners tell us that they value the chance to participate and contribute to the issues of the day rather than only having an option of listening to the opinions of a limited number of voices.”
“Our varied schedule has attracted consistently high listening figures and positive audience feedback over the last couple of years. The programmes range from major historical series, arts and culture features and science documentaries to compelling set-piece interviews.
“Drama is featured in the schedule – for instance, we have a four-parter coming up, The Mysterious Case of Dr Hyde.
“Edi Stark’s interviews are highly regarded by our audiences and by her peers in the broadcasting industry and Brian Taylor’s Big Debate regularly covers the issues which matter to our audiences.
“We are also proud of our support for specialist music in our evening schedule which includes shows by Jamie MacDougall on classics, Bruce MacGregor on folk, Ricky Ross on Americana, and Iain Anderson with his mix of folk, blues and rock’n’roll.”
On Monday, Mr Devine replied to his critics in an open letter published in the Herald, where he said his attack was focussed on managers rather than journalists.
He wrote: “The BBC is manifestly a world-class institution. My concern is simply that one part of it, Radio Scotland, has not excelled in recent years at a historic time for the nation when factual programming, expert insight, the clash of ideas and quality discussion in our media are so vital.
“The potential for all this is there in the many skilled journalists employed by the station. The weakness is not theirs but in managerial policy and decision.
“I am pleased, of course, to concede that a partial rebalancing of the schedules has been taking place and that the humdrum diet of pop music (available elsewhere in a host of other channels) and mediocre chat shows is not quite as dominant as it once was.
“Nevertheless, there is a long way to go before all-round excellence in the output is achieved.”
However, figures released last month show that BBC Radio Scotland’s listener numbers have fallen by just over seven per cent in 12 months.
According to RAJAR, the audit body responsible for measuring the reach of Radio stations, Radio Scotland’s average listener total when comparing the second quarter of 2011 with the same period this year, is down from 1.35 million to 959,000.
The station also experienced a drop from the first quarter of 2012 to the second quarter, of almost 5 per cent.
Mr Devine’s stinging attack on Radio Scotland came in the wake of last week’s widely criticised announcement of severe cuts planned for BBC Scotland’s budget, and which will result in at least 35 jobs being lost at the Pacific Quay headquarters in Glasgow.
Paul Holleran, NUJ Scottish organiser said of the announcement: “While we knew cuts were coming I think it would be no exaggeration to state that people in radio and the newsroom in particular were shocked at the large numbers affected.
“At a time when BBC Scotland should be getting more resources to deal with the growing demand for political debate around the independence referendum and what kind of a future we want for Scotland then these cuts are forced through because of the bad deal over the licence fee settlement.
“They are finding it difficult to produce programmes with the current straffing levels – and only then with a lot of good will from our members. At the moment, I am pessimistic about these cuts happening without conflict but we will be meeting management again soon to hear their proposals and that will give us a clearer picture.”
The announcement, which was made last week, was also condemned by Pete Wishart MP who called it a “devastating blow” for output in news and current affairs across Scotland.
The SNP MP called the decision to cut staff at a time when Scotland is in the middle of an unprecedented constitutional debate “astonishing” and said viewers in Scotland “deserve balanced, high quality and impartial journalism from right across the country”. Mr Wishart claimed the losses would limit the capabilities of BBC Scotland, especially beyond the central belt.