Head of BBC Radio Scotland, Jeff Zycinski, with a sneak preview of programme plans and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his life at the helm.
I met up with Joan McFadden today. Joan is a freelance feature writer who presented a series on parenting for us last year. I'm hoping she'll present a new series for us in a few months.
We got to talking about books and I confessed that I rarely read fiction these days and tend to buy biographies and other factual books.
The exception being Love for Lydia by H.E. Bates which I bought on e-bay just after Christmas. I got a first edition 1952 copy for under a tenner and I have no idea whether or not that's a bargain. I was more interested in the story, which I first read many years ago.
As I said to Joan, re-reading favourite books is a bit like eating chocolate. It's comfort reading, if you like, because you know what you're going to get before you start.
Except that with Love for Lydia I got a surprise. It ended in a completely different way from what I remembered.
Anyone else got books they would add to the Library of Comfort Reading? I think there might be a programme idea in this.
I must have spoken to Julie Adair about half a dozen times today. She's the Head of New Media, Learning & Communities for BBC Scotland and we've been working together on Radio Scotland's first venture into podcasting. Julie also appeared on the Radio Cafe today to discuss the subject. You can Listen Again to her interview. It was the last item in the programme.
Julie insists it's not as complicated as many people think. It's like the existing BBC Radio Player, except you can download programmes onto a portable device and listen to them where you like.
Radio Scotland will be part of the next batch of programmes to be announced as part of the BBC's podcasting trial. I'm not allowed to say any more than that at the moment. It's all hush-hush with strict penalties for anyone who blabs.
Don't worry, when the time is right, you'll be the first to know.
480 Miles to Go
For those of you following my Five Hundred Mile Diet I have good news to report.
I've now lost seven pounds since the 10th of January. Yup, half a stone. I'm now 16 stone, 4 pounds. I still haven't touched a drop of alcohol and I managed to clock up ten miles of walking last week, including a brisk stroll in deep-freeze conditions last night.
Which reminded me of something I heard on another radio station yesterday. The presenter was remarking on the cold weather and said:
"It's minus three out there and it could well fall below zero by the end of the night."
Sends a chill right through you, doesn't it?
If You Knew Susie Like I Know Suzie...
Our Write Here, Right Now project seems to be taking off with hundreds of listeners signing up for the daily newsletter to help them write a novel in a month. This morning the producer, David Stenhouse, was on Good Morning Scotland talking to Derek Bateman about the project. It was pointed out that Jack Kerouac once wrote a novel in 20 days. David reminded Derek that Jack did that under the influence of drink and drugs and we wouldn't be offering that service as part of the project.
Afterwards David called me to say that'd he'd also be appearing on the Radio Cafe and that Susie Maguire would be on air with him. I'm amazed that a disc-jockey from commercial radio would agree to take part.
"er..no..," says David, tactfully, "I'm talking about Suzie Maguire, the writer."
I knew that...I knew that.
Actually I did work with the other Suzie one time. She was one of the celebrity guests on an edition of Let's do the Show Right Here that we recorded at the City Chambers in Glasgow(see photograph). She was a real hit with the audience.
Then a couple of years ago I saw Suzie compere the fireworks display at Glasgow Green. Tens of thousands of people helped her count down to the big moment.
Nothing. She tried again. Nothing. She tried again. Still nothing. Half an hour later we were still waiting for the first spark and the crowd was turning ugly. When the display finally got going there was no sign of Suzie. I can only assume she had a fast car waiting and after the first few false starts had told the driver to start the engine.
Up, Up and Away...Eventually
I love these crisp, clear January mornings. Had everything gone to plan we'd have been out of the house at the crack of dawn and enjoying the fresh air. Of course, by the time you play 'hunt the glove' and 'choose something to play with in the car' entire seasons can come and go. Somehow the "crack of eleven" doesn't have the same ring to it, but at least we were on the move before lunchtime.
We headed east to Drumpellier Country Park near Coatbridge. This is a family favourite because it has a great playpark with lots of fun stuff that's actually been designed with special needs children in mind. Much disappointment when we discovered the playpark gate was padlocked with a sign informing visitors it would re-open on the 14th January. Some mistake, surely, unless they mean next year?
So I led the family on a brisk walk around the loch. "It's only a half a mile, " I assured them, "we should really walk 'round twice to make it worthwhile."
Funny how your own family, your nearest and dearest, can so quickly come to resemble a lynch mob. Needless to say, I soldiered on alone for a second circuit of the loch while Mrs Z and the Zedettes took refuge in the visitor centre, slurping hot chocolates and munching crisps. Where do children pick up these bad eating habits?
Still, the solitude gave me time to plan the first chapter of the novel I'm meant to be writing as part of Radio Scotland's Write Here, Right Now campaign. I hope you've all signed up for the newsletter. The project is being managed by David Stenhouse in Edinburgh and he's recruited some top-class authors to offer advice and encouragement. David also produced Muriel Gray's series The Book I've Yet to Write, which we're running again next month as part of the campaign
I've decided to dust off my plans for The Fast Life. I've already mapped out the first four chapters. Ten more circuits of the loch and I'll have cracked it.
The Writing on the Wall
Last weekend our neighbour caught some teenage girls spraying graffiti on our garden wall. When challenged the girls reasoned that they weren’t doing much harm because the paint would “wash off dead easy”. My neighbour asked them to consider undertaking this work themselves and the girls gave this a nanosecond of thought before declining. Apparently they had more urgent business to attend to, such as texting their boyfriends and planning an undercover (and underage) operation to obtain alcopops.
So there I was, bright and early this morning, rubbing the brickwork with sheet after sheet of coarse sandpaper. I felt a bit like Tom Sawyer whitewashing his Aunt’s fence, because passing strangers would pause and ask me about the graffiti and then share their own horror stories of local vandalism and petty crime. It’s a great way to gather the local gossip.
This weekend chore must have been in my mind yesterday afternoon when I was asked to meet three new members of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland. The BCS is there to represent the views of BBC listeners, viewers and online users. I was expecting a friendly chat, maybe the offer of a glass of wine at the end of a busy week. Take a load of your feet, Jeff, and have a chocolate. That kind of thing.
Instead they gave me a pretty good grilling about Radio Scotland and, in particular, wanted to know my thoughts on phone-in programmes. That’s an issue we’ve been discussing a lot recently, so I was happy to talk it through. As I’ve said before, I think the phone-in is at its best when the audience can actually benefit from the experience of other listeners.
“Imagine the politicians are talking about vandalism” I said, “and our listeners call in with their own experiences of graffiti and the how long it took the police to respond. That’s hard information we can put to the Minister, we can ask for answers on behalf of the audience. That’s the value of a phone-in.”
I’m not sure they agreed, with everything I said, but the new BCS members seem to be enthusiastic about radio and I enjoyed hearing their views.
Meanwhile, the sandpaper hasn’t quite done the trick. Anyone got any better ideas?
The Art of the Football Commentator
Football commentary on the radio is an unrecognised art form. I hereby call on the Scottish Arts Council to issue a policy statement to confirm its status in Scottish culture. I must have a word with Richard Holloway about this. Maybe I can get a grant.
Just think about it; you’re sat there with a lip-microphone watching 22 blokes chasing a ball and you have to use your voice, your vocabulary and your knowledge of the game to convey the drama of the occasion. It’s poetry. It’s storytelling. It’s performance art.
This came to mind most recently when I was listening to a recording of last year’s SPL championship deciders. As ever, Radio Scotland had exclusive commentary from games across the country but the crucial ties were Celtic away to Motherwell and Rangers away to Hibs. The Championship was decided in the dying minutes of the Celtic game when the Glasgow side conceded two goals. Commentator David Begg painted a picture of high drama, of tears and celebration. You could see it all; the ball in the back of the net, the crestfallen army of green and white, the referee looking at his watch.
Sometimes I meet people who tell me they only ever listen to music on the radio and don’t like speech programmes.
“What about football?” I ask.
“Oh yes, I always listen to that...”
I’ve puzzled over this. That phrase “speech radio” has its own connotations. It implies news programming, documentaries, politics, culture and authors plugging books. In the same way “talk radio” has come to mean phone-in shows and provocative opinions. There’s a degree of snobbery and inverted snobbery around both. At its worst there’s an implication that all speech radio should be aimed at a cosy clique of well-bred intellectuals. The same perverse logic would suggest that a speech programme with broad appeal is a clear example of “dumbing down.” Yet popular programmes can be things of beauty!
On my frequent trips down memory lane I often come across an image from my childhood. It’s of a group of pals sitting in an Easterhouse garden, gulping down shared bottles of fizzy Orange Crush (hygienic if you wiped the neck with the back of your hand) and devouring packet after packet of smoky bacon crisps. There’s a soundtrack to this memory and it comes from a little black and silver box nestled among a clump of flattened dandelions. It’s a radio. It’s transmitting coverage of a Cup Final…probably Rangers v Celtic, but I’d need Richard Gordon to confirm the dates. Yet we small boys are not really in that garden. We’ve been transported to Parkhead or Ibrox..most probably Hampden. We’re in the crowd, we’re on the field, we’re face-to-face with the ref telling him where he’s gone wrong, we’re shouting in the ear of the manager and offering our expert advice on substitutions. In other words, we've been encouraged to use that most wondrous of things - our imagination. Surely that's what art is meant to do.
I tell you, football commentary on the radio. It’s not just speech. It’s music to my ears.
All That Jazz
I spent the first hour of the day answering letters from listeners, including one about the future of jazz programmes on Radio Scotland. It seems there are fears among jazz fans that we're about to turn our back on the scene. So this week I met up with Roger Spence, the Director of Assembly Direct, an organisation which promotes jazz events in Scotland and supports festivals in Edinburgh, Dundee, Nairn and elsewhere. The truth is, we plan to launch a number of new jazz programmes in the coming year, starting in April with a weekly series called The Jazz House. Later we'll have Dr Raymond's Encyclopaedia of Jazz and I've commissioned another series of Jazzlines, which received a tremendous response from listeners late last year.
Some listeners write to tell me we shouldn't do this but should, instead, devote more time to Scottish traditional music. I disagree. I tend to think we should support live music, in all forms, as much as we can. The jazz scene in Scotland has been thriving and there are only a few commercial radio stations prepared to give it any coverage.
I hope our new line-up of jazz programmes will create a bit of a stir and Roger has offered to work with our production teams in creating new partnerships and exciting events.
So, a good meeting and after we got the main business out of the way, Roger and I compared notes about the electronic toys we'd bought our children for Christmas. Isn't it awful how kids spend so much time playing video games? I'm going to impose rationing or a time-limit on my children. Otherwise I'll never get the chance to beat my own high score. Hand me that controller, my thumbs are twitching!
The Worst Burns Supper Ever
So Tam O'Shanter has been voted the Nation's Favourite Poem by Radio Scotland listeners. That would have come as no surprise to anyone who, like me, listened to Morning Extra this morning. Gary Robertson asked the audience if they could recite any Burns' poetry and the calls flooded in. Later, I went to a meeting of the various heads of departments at BBC Scotland and suggested there really was a Scottish cultural season that starts in November on St. Andrews day , incorporates Hogmanay and ends on Burns' Night. During that time there's the Celtic Connections festival and the big Trad Music competitions. We should do more to highlight all of this on all our services.
At home tonight, my wife had prepared a candle-lit supper of haggis, neeps, peas and pasta. (I'm not allowed tatties on my diet.) Delicious, it was too. But it reminded me of the worst Burns Supper I ever attended. It was during the year I lived in Cardiff when I was studying journalism. I was the only Scot among a group of English and American friends and they insisted I host a bed-sit soiree in honour of Rabbie.
Never having attended a Burns Supper in my puff, I did some detailed research by reading the blurb on a box of oatcakes. I garbled something about "sonsie faces and sleekit beasties" and made everyone sing Auld Lang Syne while I warmed up some tinned haggis on the single electric ring. We all had a symbolic taste, gulped down some supermarket whisky and then headed out for a Chinese meal.
My best Burns supper was last year at our SoundTown school in Grangemouth. The speakers were hilarious, the music fantastic and one teenager's recital of Tam O'Shanter was superb.
I'll have to track down those friends from my student days. I feel I owe them one.
They've All Gone Potty in Aberdeen
This is Dawn, part of the production team for Tom Morton’s programme, modelling a very small teapot. It’s one of the new prizes that Tom will be giving away during his afternoon competitions. It’s a tea-for-one pot obviously and this prompted me to discuss the changing nature of Scottish society…the growth of one person households and how people who live alone might be more likely to listen to speech radio because they don’t have to please the rest of the family. Dawn’s eyes started to glaze over so I resorted to a list of puns about teapots. At this point Dawn actually got up and left the room. I don’t blame her.
Bryan Burnett’s in Aberdeen this week so I had a quick chat with him, then a general staff meeting where I outlined our plans for a new overnight schedule (starting in February). A fine lunch with Robbie Shepherd at a local hotel and then a good chat with Anne Paterson. Anne looks after a lot of the online content for the Radio Scotland website (including the comments that come in for this diary). The overnight schedule will see a big increase in the amount of programmes we make available on the BBC Radio Player. Anne suggested we ask listeners to nominate recent programmes they would like to hear again. Anne also thinks the overnight service will attract a lot of listeners in North America, as well as Scotland’s insomniacs.
Leaving the building, I run into Frieda Morrison who is full of enthusiasm about her budding gardeners’ competition, but it has just dawned on her that she will eventually have to pick a winner and we both cringe at the thought of disappointed children. That’s the trouble with competitions! They can send you potty.(sorry)
Temptations on the Train
Yes, that was me scudding across Queen Street station last night, catching the 1840 to Aberdeen with seconds to spare. It was so crowded I had to fork out hard cash for a business class upgrade so I could do some work on the laptop. (Don't panic, we're not allowed to claim this back on expenses!). Yet the hard-sell techniques of the trolley staff (they're called Catering Hosts) do nothing to help my efforts to eat more healthily. I ordered a cup of tea:
"Would you like a muffin with that, sir?" said Dave, the trolley man.
"Perhaps a wee bit of shortbread?"
"No. Just the tea thanks."
"How about a lovely Danish pastry?"
"No. Reallly. Nothing. Thanks!"
I felt like I was in a scene from a Mel Brooks film. I'm proud to say I resisted all temptation and can now boast I've lost another three pounds on my Five Hundred Mile Diet. That's two weeks now without alcohol or daft snacks, but my mileage total is not so good. I only managed about five miles this week. That included a very long walk on Saturday morning and a late night canter around Aberdeen city centre last night.
Strange what you see on a dark Monday night on Union Street. Three young guys, maybe in their early twenties, were getting changed into full-sized animal costumes. One was a huge yellow chicken, the other a penguin and the third was a dog. Curiosity got the better of me and I asked them what they were up to.
"Not much, "said the big penguin, "this is all there is to do on a Monday night."
I think they might have been hiding something. But if you really want to know about Aberdeen, take a look at Tom Morton's regular blog-postings on the subject.
And The Winner Is...
Shona Mooney, originally from the Borders, won the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Muscian of the year competition last night. It was a great event at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, helping to round off our Big Day of Music.
Of course, as ever, nothing went to time and it was approaching midnight by the time I left the hall and headed home. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Some fabulous young performers and the most incredible set from last year's winner Stuart Cassells who sent the audience into uproar with a rousing finale involving pipes, drums, electric guitar and a trio of Highland dancers kitted out in Stuart's trademark colours of red and black.
Earlier in the day I had been at the recital room in the City Halls to watch the Reel Blend and Robbie Shepherd was still going strong at the end of the night when he interviewed Shona at the concert hall. (I grabbed this photo on my mobile phone)
Joke of the night came from SNP leader, Alex Salmond, who told the audience:
"I'd much rather be here than in the Big Brother house."
... but maybe laugh of the night came from one of the young performers who got a sympathetic guffaw when he thanked the audience saying:
"It's been good fun and very intimidating."
Our Big Day of Music
It's going to be a frenetic day for us all today as we enjoy a Big Day of Music at two venues in Glasgow. The bulk of the activity will be happening at the new City Halls venue in Candleriggs. Robbie Shepherd is first up with The Reel Blend. I'll be there in the afternoon to watch Jamie MacDougall present Grace Notes which includes a live performance from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Later I have to be at the Royal Concert Hall for the annual BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year event in the Strathclyde Suite.
For the first time we'll be naming the winner live on air, linking back to the City Halls where Iain Anderson will be presenting a late-night show.
I hope, also, to meet up again with piper Stuart Cassells who was last year's Young Traditional Musician of the Year. I remember him before the event, trying out his new black kilt with red sporran and asking us what we thought of it. We gave it the nod of approval and it has since become his trademark.
Radio at 'The Hut'
For fourteen long summers of my childhood and early teens I enjoyed a life without television. I also coped without electric lighting or running water. Those were the days of seven-week Scottish school holidays when, as a family, we'd pack up from our first floor tenement flat in Easterhouse and relocate eighty miles north to a four-room wooden hut just off the country road between Monifieth and Carnoustie. It was one of 40 or so similar huts and my Dad had bought it in the mid-fifties when he'd been working as a welder around Dundee and needed somewhere to sleep. It had cost him about a hundred pounds.
We called it The Hut. It became our holiday home -like the Broons' but 'n' ben. That's an apt description given I had six older brothers and and one sister. We'd sleep two or three to a bed in the early days, but, as my oldest brothers found jobs and girlfriends in Glasgow, The Hut became less claustrophobic.
I remember our time there as one of freedom and exploration. A path led through bushes, across Monifieth golf course, over a railway line and into Barry Buddon Army Camp. You were allowed though the camp unless a red flag warned you that target practise was scheduled. Otherwise you could make your way to a vast, deserted sandy beach. To us, it was a marvellous playground at the mouth of the Tay. On rainy days there would be car or bus trips to Carnoustie, Arbroath, Broughty Ferry or Dundee and I still retain a fondness for all those places despite the mocking prejudice of many of my fellow Glaswegians.
The Hut was also where I first discovered the power of radio. At nights, enjoying banquets of fish suppers, we would listen to a small battery-operated wireless. The weather forecast became very important because it would dictate our plans for the next day. There was also music. The BBC offered Scottish dance bands. Radio Luxembourg was the place for pop.
The radio also became the source of one of my Mother's most repeated anecdotes. Her name was Mary and one afternoon she shooed us all out of The Hut so she could take a bath. This involved buckets of water filled from a stand-pipe being boiled on our Calor gas stove and poured into a tin bath in front of the coal fire. She drew the curtains but it was too early in the day to light the gas lamp. In this gloomy atmosphere she lowered herself into the bath.
"Mary," said a sinister male voice, "Mary. There's a man in the cupboard."
Terrified, she grabbed a towel and fled from The Hut. Only to discover the voice had come from the radio, which had been burbling away in the background and had been relaying a mystery play. Somehow, she was never as keen on the radio after that.
As for The Hut, it was demolished ten years ago when the site owner decided there was more money in storing caravans for the winter. Yet, at least once a year, I bundle my own children into the car and show them the sights of Carnoustie and Monifieth. Here's the shop where I blew my pocket money on buckets and spades.There's the cafe where we slurped ice drinks. Look, look, you can still buy that novelty rock shaped like false teeth.
They express polite enthusiasm, but I know it doesn't compare to Disneyland.
No, it's much more magical.
Sure would. I'm obviously too young (I'm 43 this weekend) to have heard the original Goon Show transmissions, but always loved hearing the repeats when they aired on various radio stations during the seventies. I had a book of the scripts once, but lost it somewhere during various house moves from Inverness to Selkirk and back again.
Stuart produces some of the new comedy that comes from Demus, such as Sabotage and The Franz Kafka Big Band. I can hear echoes of The Goons in both of those.
Now, a serious problem emerges. Where can I lay my hands on an old turntable to actually hear this magical piece of vinyl?
A day trapped in the office dealing with paperwork and looking for any kind of displacement activity to take me away from my desk. Luckilly I have a secret door out of my office which means I can escape to the corridors from time-to-time without Sally, my P.A. noticing I've gone. During one such foray I meet Rob Pearson, a producer on the MacAulay & Co show who is now planning Fred's programmes in Melbourne during the Commonwealth Games. Lots of Australian showbiz personalities are lined up to appear on the show and Rob says they haven't needed much persuading.
"We've even got the actor who plays Harold in Neighbours!" he enthuses.
I had my hopes pinned on Nicole Kidman, but there's still time.
I was through in Edinburgh this morning, talking to programme makers about the year ahead and reviewing our output over Christmas and New Year. In the afternoon I'd arranged to meet Colin Paterson for a drink. He's the station manager of the new commerical talk station for Edinburgh that's being launched in a few weeks. He sipped a diet coke and I drank mineral water. Perhaps he's on a health kick too.
There were a few laughs as we compared notes on the various eccentric characters we'd each come across over the years. Many of whom we'd both encountered at one time or another.
I can imagine the excitement of launching a new radio station from scratch, but I really envied him when he told me about his office furniture. Apparently he has a big leather "I'm the boss" type chair. So, chair-envy. I admit it.
Colin tells me he hopes to become more involved in the work of the Radio Academy in Scotland. Hopefully we can collaborate on a few projects together. I'm already working with Luke McCullough at Radio Forth on an event for students at Telford College next month.
Vip on Air
Back in Glasgow tonight for the board meeting of Vip on Air. It's been a while since we met and there's a lot to discuss. The station currently broadcasts on the internet, but this year will become one of Scotland's new FM community stations, broadcating to the west end of Glasgow. This is not ideal - obviously the potential audience of blind and visually impaired listeners don't all live in that one part of Glasgow - but Vip on Air see it as part of the evolution of their service.
They also provide a monthly programme for BBC Radio Scotland as part of our Saturday night community zone. There's also talk of podcasting and providing an audio service on digital television.
Meanwhile the station has a good story to tell in terms of recruiting visually impaired volunteers and helping them find jobs in the media industry. That includes our own Phil Sime, currently presenting The Listener on Friday mornings.
His guide dog sat quietly at my feet all through the meeting and only became excited when someone opened a box of biscuits. Mind you, so did I.
A bit of a cloak and dagger operation this morning as a group of us sneaked into studio G9 in Glasgow to surprise Bryan Burnett. He's just been named international country broadcaster of the year and was left almost speechless when representatives of the Nashville-based County Music Association presented him with his award. He was still in a daze when I shook his hand and handed him a bottle of bubbly.
It's a well-deserved award and I know that Bryan's presentation of Brand New Country attracts listeners from across the U.K. Now it looks like he'll have more listeners from around the world.
The Book I've Yet To Write
My last meeting of this afternoon was with Ken Lindsay, who produces most of the trails you hear on Radio Scotland. We meet monthly to go through the highlights for the coming weeks and talk about how we want to trail them. It's a bit like producing radio commercials. The idea is to keep listeners informed about new programmes, without having so many trails that they becomes an irritation.
Among next month's highlights is a project designed to help anyone who has ever wanted to write a book, but didn't know where to start. It's called Write Here, Right Now...although I admit the word-play in that title doesn't work very well on radio.
Personally, I have three unfinished books on the go. I began writing Don't Forget To Smile when I was eighteen. The Orwellian plot centries on a future society where no one can admit to being sad.
I completed 50,000 words of The Hollywood Haircut, as part of National Novel Writing Month three years ago. It was a mid-life crisis story about a man whose life is transformed because of a romance in Los Angeles
My latest epic is entitled The Fast Life and is about a teenager who falls in an out of a coma, waking for two or three weeks every few years. So every time he awakes, the world has moved on, although he feels he's just had an overnight sleep.
I always mean to complete one or other of these potential masterpieces in the summer or Christmas holidays, but, well, you know...
494 Miles to Go!
One week into my Five Hundred Mile Diet and I've lost three pounds. A conservative estimate is that I've walked five miles this week (3 nights out in the rain) and cycled one mile. No jogging yet.
Still drinking plenty of water, no alcohol, plenty of fruit and my only treat was a lovely chocolatey thing which was served with the coffee in a restaurant in Inverness.
Of course this is an easy time to be on a health kick, because just about everyone I talk to at the BBC is doing something similar. We'll see what kind of peer-group support there is when we get into February.
I'll post every Tuesday my progress (or lack of) in case anyone wants to join in or offer advice.
So What Is Scottishness Anyway?
Our audience research team have been asking listeners and viewers about the representation of Scottish culture on BBC services. You may have seen the online survey on the Talk Scotland website late last year. At a meeting today we had a look at some of the initial findings of the research and watched a short video which included vox pops of people around the country.
Curiously, this very morning, Gary Robertson was asking listeners about the concept of Britishness on our Morning Extra programme. It prompted some listeners to claim there was no such thing. Others disagreed.
It struck me that everyone has their own idea of Scottishness - many describe it in terms of their own local culture and traditions, some talk about a particular sense of humour, others refer to a set of values. There seems to be no shared definition and this seems to be behind some of the feedback we get for Radio Scotland programmes.
Many listeners take us to task for perpetuating an old-fashioned concept of Scottish culture, others say we don't do enough to celebrate our rich cultural heritage.
So, if you have any views on this topic, please use the comment link below.
What the Papers Say
When I was appointed Head of Radio, my predecessor, Maggie Cunningham, gave me a lot of good advice. Among it was a tongue-in-cheek warning that I should not read the Sunday newspapers. What she meant, I think, was that I ought to avoid worrying about the half-truths and anonymous tittle-tattle that you tend to see in the diary pages. I've taken her advice, although my wife still gets a shock if she opens a newspaper and sees my name (or worse, photograph!) as part of an article.
But Sunday is my day for catching-up. It's amazing how much of our weekday output I miss because I'm locked in meetings, so the Listen Again facility on our website is so useful. Mind you, its getting more and more difficult to book a time-slot on our home computer, now that our two children use it so much to research dangerous insects and other topics for their primary school projects.
And I do read the Sunday newspapers. Today for example, MSP Margo MacDonald writes in the Sunday Post and makes some interesting points about the pre-publicity surrounding one of our religious programmes. Sally Magnusson's interview with Cardinal Keith O'Brien for What I Believe prompted a front-page article in The Scotsman during the week. It also prompted a phone-in discussion on Morning Extra. Margo argues that our efforts to publicise programmes ahead of transmission can lead to quotes being taken out of context and prompt other parties to react negatively before they have all the facts. Margo's article certainly gave me pause for thought and something I'll raise with programme-makers this coming week.
Meanwhile, a happier piece in the Ecosse section of the Sunday Times in which London-based comedian Jo Caulfield tells how she's become a fan of Off The Ball. She describes listening to the programme as her "guilty pleasure" because she revels "in the richness of the words and the ever-changing dialects."
Another advantage of the Listen Again facility!
Meanwhile, time to give up my place in front of the computer. My son tells me that the biggest wasp in the world can actually kill and eat tarantula spiders. Now there's something I didn't read in the papers.
I enjoyed a magical night of music in Glasgow last night, attending the formal re-opening of the City Halls in Candleriggs. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performed a range of music, chosen to demonstrate the fabulous acoustics of the refurbished auditorium, which is the SSO's new home. The musicians, conducted by Ilan Volkov, got a tremendous reaction from the audience and it was good to be there on such an historic evening.
Before the concert there were some drinks and speeches and it looked like the whole of Glasgow society was there. It was a real crush in the foyer and everytime I turned around I saw a familiar face.
Among them was Jeremy Peat, the BBC's National Governor for Scotland who told me he had temporarliy mis-placed his wife somwehere in the crowd. He also asked me how about this diary. So, word must be spreading!
The venue is really impressive. You could imagine you were in Vienna. I can remember the City Halls when it was dusty, draughty and the place where trade unions had afternoon conferences. It has a fantastic history, however, and we were told that Charles Dickens had once given one of his famous public readings from the stage.
I also sneaked a peek at the refurbished Fruit Market venue, which now connects to the City Halls and has a fun and earthy atmosphere.
I was 12 years old before I ever saw a live orchestra. The then Scottish National Orchestra had a policy of touring schools and one fine morning all other lessons were cancelled as about 200 pupils filed into our school hall for the performance. I can't remember what music was played, but I do remember being startled by how loud it all was. I was blown away, almost literally.
After that I would borrow scratchy L.P.s from the music department. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven...playing them through the stereo headphones on my bedroom record player, but nothing ever came close to the live experience.
So I joined the school trips to the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow where the Scottish Proms were held. If you didn't have a ticket you could slip some money to the security guard at the main entrance and he'd produce some from an secret pocket.
I was becoming a classical junkie. I even had a poster of Sir Alexander Gibson on my bedroom wall. (It was later joined by photographs of J.D. Salinger and Sigmund Freud as I went through my pseudo-intellectual stage).
But I've never forgotten that first encounter with an orchestra and I'm always delighted when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra become involved it one of Radio Scotland's school or community projects. They never fail to impress and, I'm sure, leave a lasting impact on a whole new generation.
Some good news for us this week as we learn that Radio Scotland has two nominations in this year's Celtic Film and TV Festival. It's that time of year as we trawl through he last year's output and decide whether to enter the Sony Radio Academy Awards. Those are probably the most prestigious and I've been at the awards ceremony in London four times in the last five years. It's all black tie and posh frocks and a chance to rub shoulders with the stars and tell them exactly what you think of their programmes.
The great thing about these industry awards is how we all rationalise the result. If we win then we treat it as a vindication of our creative decisions and give a speech about 'taking risks' as if making radio programmes was some kind of dangerous occupation. Of course, if someone else wins we applaud politely then mutter into our drinks about how we've been stitched up by the judges.
Pathetic, really. But good fun.
Today I'm in Inverness, teaming up with our Senior Producer, Pennie Latin for a meeting with Alison Bell and Julie Corbett at Highland 2007. It's a year-long festival celebrating Highland culture at the community, national and international level. The festival's H.Q. is based at Abertaff House, the oldest building in Inverness which still has an internal stone spiral staircase and a lingering smell like burning peat but, they tell me, 'no ghost'.
We're hoping Radio Scotland will cover the festival in a big way, with a special Radio Highland programme and regular features on the Radio Cafe. I'm also hoping we can involve schools thoughout the Highlands, the Northern Isles and Moray in this project, training groups of children to use digital equipment so they can report on the various events happening throughout 2007. Ideally they would be taught how to record interviews, make their own podcasts and populate a website with photographs and audio.
This would be managed by Pennie's production team in Inverness, but it's not clear how many schools would want to take part or how we would fund the training and equipment needed. Here's hoping...
I'm keen on the idea because it would leave a lasting legacy of media awareness and skills.
My Day at Elgin High
Yesterday, I was in Elgin on a job-swap with the head teacher at Elgin High School, this year’s BBC Scotland SoundTown school. I have to admit I had a restless night in the hotel, mainly because the wind was howling against my bedroom window, so I arrived at the school at half-past eight somewhat bleary-eyed. The Headmaster, Andy Simpson, had arranged a full day of meetings and duties for me, but we'd also arranged to make two appearances on Radio Scotland. Here's how it went.
0830: I join Andy Simpson and his senior management team for a short meeting to run through the timetable for the day.
0845: A bell rings and I join Andy in the corridor as the pupils start to flood through the doors. Andy explains that he likes to stay visible during school hours as much as he can. 'Hat off, hoods down' he tells a few children.
0855. As registration classes begin, I join Andy as he darts in and out of various rooms, asking pupils if they have distributed the newsletter he sent home with them earlier in the week. He praises those classes who have done the job well and tries to cajole the others. Class sizes here seem quite small compared to my memories of school.
0900. Back in Andy's office where he sifts through his correspondence with his admin assistant. He is introducing a new behaviour policy which seems to involve a certain amount of paperwork. There are questions about how this paperwork will be dealt with.
0930. Into the SoundTown studio, not far from Andy's Office. We're linked up with the MacAulay & Co show where Fred and co-host Alison Craig are into a discussion on the demise of Golden Wonder crisps. Fred thanks Andy for 'taking Jeff off our hands for a day' and asks me if I prefer potato heads or nik-naks. I mutter something about smokey bacon crisps. Amazing how the time flies when you're on the radio.
09.45. We meet a group of fourth year pupils to talk about revision plans. I launch into a story about my own school days and about how I always put off revision until the last moment. I'm not sure Andy finds this very helpful.
10.15. We visit a class of third year pupils who are studying administration and have been asked to draft a memo with suggestions on how to improve the school's reception desk. Having arrived at that very desk this morning I am full of suggestions and walk around the class offering them to the pupils. With one group of girls I get drawn into a discussion about River City, mobile phones and MP3 players. Just like when I was at school. Always getting distracted.
10.40 The bell rings for morning break and we're on duty in the dining hall. It's busy, noisy but there's no trouble. The main crisis revolves around a fallen litter bin.
10.55. We meet a group of fifth year pupils who are studying for Highers. These seem to be the brightest in the school and Andy explains that he has to spend time with these students so they know they are valued, otherwise his time can be dominated by pupils who demand more of his attention. These pupils are certainly among the most self-confident I have met and one is prepared to challenge Andy on a study-technique book he has recommended. They also tell me that have outgrown the BBC's Bitesize website and are now using a revision website developed by Heriot-Watt University.
11.50 Another senior management meeting. As in other schools, Andy is trying to balance his finances while implementing new agreements on class sizes and the number of hours teachers should spend in the classroom. It's not easy, but what comes across is that the staff feel strongly that pupils should be offered as many choices as possible. It's heartening to hear how often the discussion comes back to the needs of the children.
12.45. Lunch and one of the perks of the job is that you can skip the queue and get your lunch before the pupils. 'As long as you ask nicely', Andy reminds me.
I go for split-pea soup and a sandwich which we take back to the staff-room so that we can spend some time with the teachers. Andy is still using a system of pigeon-holes to distribute information to his staff. I tell him to stick with that and to beware of the tyranny of e-mails. In the staff room there is some talk about the plans to build a new super-school to replace Elgin High and Elgin Academy. I've yet to meet anyone who thinks this is a good idea.
1.15. We head for a meeting of the student representative council which is chaired by one of the senior pupils. Andy takes the minutes. Again there is discussion of the super-school. The pupils agree to make their own views known to Moray Council. They decide to put together a short video to illustrate their points.
1.45. I sit in on a one-to-one meeting Andy has with one of his history teachers.
Again there is discussion about the new behaviour policy and the likely paperwork involved. It seems detentions and exclusions are the main sanctions teachers use when dealing with bad behaviour. I can't think of anything worse than being a teacher in charge of a detention class.
2.35. We visit Kestrel House, this is a special needs unit attached to the main school. There' is a wonderful atmosphere as we watch the children finish their woodwork projects then Andy gives a short talk about the school rules. He tells me he does this to make sure the Kestrel children feel included in the running of the school. As far as I can see, each child has a support worker or assistant and I'm told that senior pupils from another school also volunteer their time to help out at Kestrel House. As we leave I ask the children if they enjoy school and there's a round of cheers and a show of happy hands.
3.00 A reporter and photographer from the Northern Scot newspaper arrive to interview us about the swap. The Northern Scot has been very supportive of the SoundTown project. I launch into a spiel about Doctor Who, saying I feel like a time-traveller because when you meet schoolchildren you get a glimpse of Scotland's future. The reporter nods encouragingly and writes it down. Then Andy and I are asked to walk down the corridor so they can take a photograph.
3.40. Back in the SoundTown studio for a live interview on the Tom Morton show. Tom sounds outraged when I tell him that most of the students I met today don't listen to the radio.
4.00. I get to leave, but I know Andy stays on for at least another hour and then goes home to write various reports. I've really enjoyed the day and now have an inkling of what it's like to manage a school. There are also a lot of parallels with my own job, which I'm sure Andy will notice when he swaps roles with me on the 1st February.
Rule The School
So, tomorrow (Wednesday) I go back to school. I'm heading to Elgin High, our SoundTown school, where I'm swapping jobs for the day with head master Andy Simpson. It was one of those ideas I agreed to way back before Christmas when January seemed like a century away.
To make matters worse, Andy and I are appearing live on the MacAulay & Co show to talk about the experience. By that time I hope to have dished out a few dozen punishment exercises.
Just the thought of going back to school brings bad lots of bad memories. Have I packed my lunch? Yikes, I forgot to wash my P.E. kit...and yes, sir, the dog really did eat my homework.
I'm driving to Inverness tomorrow afternoon. The production team there make most of the new conversation formats which run during the week at 11 a.m. The most recent programmes to come from Inverness have been Action Scotland and, launched last week, The Listener, presented by Philip Sime.
Phil, who is visually impaired, was recruited from our community partners at Vip on Air and he draws from his own experiences and emotions when interviewing contributors.
I always look forward to going to Inverness. We lived there for four years, both our children were born there and despite its new reputation as the "fastest growing city in Europe" it still feels small and friendly. Just about everything you need is within walking distance.
Which reminds me...my 500 mile weight-loss regime starts tomorrow!
Blokes on Blocks
Walking around Glasgow city centre today, I found myself in George Square. It's full of statues which most of us don't notice anymore. It must say something about us as a nation, however, that we have chosen to honour and remember so many writers. Here Robert Burns sits in the shadow of Sir Walter Scott.
A few years ago I made a series for Radio Scotland called Blokes on Blocks in which we asked whether some of these figures from history still deserve their place on the plinth. I remember the Dundee poet Don Paterson telling me that Burns was the Jimi Hendrix of his day and the sculptor Sandy Stoddart talking about his bust of Pat Lally and arguing that the public demolition of statues in post-Soviet Russia proved that public art still had a power to excite.
Looking at the statue of Robert Burns, I'm reminded that our quest to find the nation's favourite Scottish poem is almost at an end. The winner will be announced on the 25th January, but you still have time to vote!
The Five Hundred Mile Diet
The radio and television airwaves are choked with chatter about diets, fitness regimes and various offers to lose three stones in one month while still enjoying as much chocolate pudding as you can eat. Or did I imagine that last one?
Over the years I've tried various diets. I gave up going to a slimming club because the woman who led the sessions spoke to us like five year olds.
I had some success with the Atkins diet but became disillusioned after watching a BBC TV Horizon documentary which pulled apart the science underpinning Dr Atkins theory. A friend bought into the South Beach Diet for all of 48 hours and then told me he simply couldn't eat the recommended recipes.
Lately I've been trying to decipher various versions of the low G.I. diet, but have been put off by all the graphs and charts and the lack of photographs of chocolate pudding.
So, I start my own fitness phase on the 10th January and have decided to invent my own system which I'm calling the Five Hundred Mile Diet. It's inspired by that song from The Proclaimers and based on my own exercise preferences of walking, jogging and cycling. I've also read enough nutrition books to know which foods are good for you (fruit 'n' veg) and which aren't (millionaire shortbread).
So here's the system:
Common sense healthy eating. Lots of fruit, veg and water.
No alcohol for first month then one glass of wine in a blue moon
No stupid snacks. Let's be grown-up about this.
An exercise challenge in which I have to accrue five hundred miles by walking, jogging or cycling.
There's no time limit to reaching this total, but after I reach five hundred miles I have to begin the next five hundred and reach that total in a period which is ten percent shorter than the first five hundred. So, if I reach the first five hundred in 10 weeks, I have to do the next five hundred in 9 weeks. Simple.
Also, I love walking. Not serious hill-walking or anything...just walking around streets and cities. It's amazing how many programme ideas come to you that
On The Road Again
Now that the festive season is well and truly over and the new school term is underway, the roads get busier. My own journey to work should now be something of an adventure as I notice that my usual route is to be closed for eight weeks. Maybe I should follow the example of that TV ad that's running just now, where the bloke abandons the bus and walks through backyards and across rooftops to get to the office. At the end of his journey he munches on a huge chocolate bar. That's the bit that appeals to me.
Meanwhile any thoughts on the Radio Scotland traffic and travel news?
My wife, a research scientist, has spent most of our eleven years of marriage patiently explaining to me why football is so important and is always interested to hear about my dealings with the BBC Scotland sports team. She once gave me an idiot's guide to the offside rule, just in case I ever found myself locked in a room with Chick Young and he quizzed me about it. This has yet to happen.
Listeners, on the other hand, often quiz me about the amount of football on Radio Scotland. Or on why the midweek commentary is on medium wave and not FM. Or why we cover some matches and not others. The answers always revolve around choice and rights. On Saturdays we utilise just about every frequency and platform we can to provide as much commentary as possible. Midweek, we maintain the choice of arts and music programming on FM.
It's not a policy that pleases everyone. A lot of fans now go to matches and listen to commentary on mobile phones which only have FM receivers. One angry listener recently contacted Off The Ball suggesting that Radio Scotland get into the 21st century and realise that "everyone has MP3 players these days."
"What's an MP3 player?" asked Stuart Cosgrove
"Must be one of those internationals you can sign under the Bosman rule" came the reply.
But joking aside, this diary is meant to prompt comment and discussion. So I'd be interested to hear what listeners think of our split-frequency policy on football.
And here's another thought...
In America, some radio stations have had success in repeating baseball commentary overnight for shift-workers, taxi-divers and insomniacs. Should BBC Radio Scotland do the same with football?
I open The Herald letters page today to see a photograph of Scottie McClue accompanying his staunch defence of "talk radio". I met Scottie for the first time last year when he agreed to partner Lesley Riddoch for a week co-hosting MacAulay & Co. Lesley herself had suggested this partnership over a year before but it just so happened both she and Scottie had been in to see me on the same day and they were still keen to give it a try.
I'm not sure everyone appreciates that Scottie is a character played wonderfully by his creator Colin Lamont. I always smile when I hear people express outrage at Scottie's opinions. It's a bit like getting angry at a character in a soap opera.
Scottie's creator is actually one of the most affable men in radio yet I wonder if Colin sometimes thinks he's created a monster...a kind of Mr Hyde. I'm also amazed at the amount of internet chatter that Scottie generates on sites such as Digital Spy. I expect we haven't heard the last of him.
Letters in the Attic
So that's our family Christmas tree stripped and loaded into the back of the car, ready to be driven to the recycling point tomorrow morning. Every year at this time I write a short letter which I hide with the tree fairy as we pack the decorations back into the attic. This tradition started as a weight-loss incentive four years ago. Along with general tittle-tattle and family gossip, we'd also record our weight and make a prediction as to how much we'd have lost by the time December came around again.
This year I hang my head in shame. At 16 stone 10, I'm the heaviest I've ever been. Nothing to do with festive excess. I blame my job! I was appointed Head of Radio on the 10th of January last year and all those weird hours and extra train travel inhibit the opportunities for healthy eating. Also, I'm addicted to dark chocolate. And fried breakfasts. And fish suppers.
So, logically, the fitness regime should start on the 10th January this year.
I've bought a new bicycle and I might even take up a new sport. I'll ask the Sports Weekly team to recommend something for me. Personally, I fancy darts.
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