SHOULD BBC Scotland’s critics rejoice or shed a tear that the head of Radio Scotland is quitting the job?

Well, as ever with Aunty, it’s a bit complicated.

News that Jeff Zycinski will stand down as head of Radio Scotland after twelve years created a bit of a buzz yesterday – partly because his departure coincided with news that music programmes will shift to a new channel leaving Radio Scotland to become news and sports only.

Loading article content

Are the two events connected and is the idea of two separate Radio Scotland stations a good one?

Yes, it probably is – but not just because more is better. Au contraire.

Once music is hived off into a separate channel it will likely expose the under-funding, lack of imagination and general weariness of much news, topical, current affairs and sports programming. And that might give Radio Scotland’s speech output the kick up the bahookie it has long needed.

So the creation of two new radio channels could be a mixed blessing – just like the mixed blessing bestowed earlier this year when Aunty announced the creation of a new Scottish digital TV station. A new channel and thus more jobs and output dedicated to Scottish culture, sport, news and current affairs is unquestionably a good thing. But the digital TV channel comes with constraints.

No Scottish Six – indeed, no news before 9pm – which means the main bulletin on Scotland’s new TV channel must compete with top entertainment programmes of all rival channels. Can BBC Scotland change that London-imposed start time? No they can’t. Hmm.

Maybe that will work – or maybe a sceptical BBC director general has saddled the Scottish channel with such a hard-to-deliver news slot that the whole channel will underperform, struggle to become a viewing habit and end up facing the axe 5-10 years down the line. That’s the sceptic’s point of view and I sincerely hope it’s wrong. But the devil in every bit of news about BBC Scotland expansion is always in the detail.

So too with the current proposal for two Radio Scotland channels.

According to a senior BBC Scotland source, the idea of floating music off into a separate channel came from Jeff Zycinski himself. Indeed it was his decision to have speech during the day and music only in the evenings. It’s thought Janice Forsyth’s show will remain on the “all speech” Radio Scotland but the evening slots featuring music shows like Travelling Folk, Vic Galloway and Bryan Burnett will be replaced with sports programmes once they migrate to Radio Scotland Music. Might that change also mean the reinstatement of a proper 10 o’clock current affairs programme? The BBC Scotland source wouldn’t commit himself. So maybe not.

Now the prospect of two Radio Scotlands fills you with dread or anticipation according to your attitude towards the current “offer”.

If you think Radio Scotland news, current affairs and sports news is consistently top notch, more of it will seem appealing.

If, on the other hand, you think news programmes are too often formulaic and uninspiring while sports news is fluffed up Old Firm football gossip (unless the golf-loving Shetlander Phil Goodlad or the tennis-loving Kheredine Idessane are on shift) the prospect of a whole day and night without music may fill you with dread. As one music producer observed: “Once the new channel is set up, folk will quickly migrate. There’s a keen loyal following for each of the music genres and Radio Scotland’s music offer is the strongest part of the station. Once it goes, some speech programmes could be left looking very exposed.”

That won’t be happening any time soon. BBC Scotland is already undertaking a lengthy consultation process about its plans for the digital TV station – the new radio music station will go through the same process, so it won’t be on air till 2019 at the earliest. It also won’t be available on FM – just DAB. So Scotland’s new music station will probably start life on a platform that’s not supported by most car radios. A big or a small snag – who can say?

Still, it seems the decision to push ahead with two Radio Scotland channels isn’t the reason Jeff Z (as he’s known in the Beeb) decided to quit. A bigger factor has been the shake-up that’s separated commissioning and producing radio programmes at BBC Scotland.

Until now, the head of radio has decided what should go on air and overseen how those programmes are produced and broadcast – wielding nearly 100 per cent control. But since the BBC at UK level decided independent producers should be able to bid for broadcasting slots across all departments, Aunty has had to separate its commissioning process (deciding who wins airtime) from its production process (deciding how to make the programmes BBC Scotland is awarded through the commissioning process).

All commissioning is now in the hands of Ewan Angus whilst all production is controlled by Pauline Law. So the head of radio doesn’t really have much of a job left, beyond scheduling programmes other people have commissioned.

That’s what seems to have prompted Jeff Z to leave – but there are a worries for the public with the new process too.

The first is that one individual has so much commissioning power – which must mean a further lack of diversity in editorial choice.

If there isn’t a loosening of control it’s hard to see how the new TV or radio channels can really encourage creativity and diversity.

It seems far more likely they will retread the well-known likes and dislikes of existing top managers.

With BBC Scotland viewer satisfaction rates the lowest in the UK, there must be question marks over the success of commissioning to date. Yet the man in charge of commissioning for the last 20 years now has the very top commissioning job in BBC Scotland.

If some felt Jeff Zycinski was part of an old guard that badly needed refreshing, why is another member of the old guard left in charge of all commissioning?

A long-serving member of staff told me: “The daily schedules are pretty poor, tired, using the same old ideas, formats, and people, over and over again. Where are the bold ideas? The programmes that capture modern Scotland and the rest of the world?”

One thing is certain – no-one who still thinks they have a broadcasting career can voice a critical word about the process or the individuals who control it without jeopardising their futures. Not good.

The other worry about commissioning surrounds the “multimedia” concept.

When I worked in BBC Scotland, radio was at one end of the building, TV at the other and online was getting started in a few caravans behind the main building at Queen Margaret Drive (yes I am that old).

Doubtless this separation created some waste and duplication.

But is it really better value to have one reporter churning out samey-sounding and looking material for different platforms? News junkies (and statistics show Scots consume more news via papers and broadcast media than any other part of the UK) are in danger of being super-served the same news agenda, packages, interviewees and priorities.

And if there are issues with the perspective or studied lack of analysis in those oft-repeated offerings, those licence fee payers will get super-irritated with the same rushed and inevitably bland product. In Sweden, TV and radio stations remain absolutely separate and Radio Sweden has 16 foreign correspondents, a mass of local opt-outs and excellent reception, even in remote and mountainous areas.

I wonder if Radio Scotland has plans to emulate that?

These technical-sounding changes to the Radio Scotland schedule need wider debate – something the new controller of BBC Scotland, Donalda MacKinnon promised when she landed the top job six months ago.

Here’s hoping that happens so the very best of Radio Scotland becomes the norm – not the exception.