In 1981, Lady Diana Spencer was marrying Prince Charles, a new police detective series, called Cagney and Lacey, was being launched in the UK and Sheena Borthwick was working at Lothian Regional Council as secretary to the deputy director of policy and planning.
Little did Borthwick know that just twenty-one years later she would be heading up one of Scotland’s biggest commercial radio stations, Westsound, and organising its 21st birthday bash.
Last Thursday, as I walked into Westsound’s Ayr studios, I expected to be clambering over comatose DJs and dodging half-sipped glasses of champers and semi-munched vol-au-vents. I was wrong.
“We’ve done our best to tidy up after the celebrations yesterday,” smiled the receptionist. I compliment her on her tidiness – the place is spotless and any clue that the station was “party central” just a few hours earlier are erased, until I walk into the first-floor office of managing director Sheena Borthwick.
The congratulatory bottles of champagne, wine and whisky (all unopened I might add) litter a table top, a sure-fire sign that in its 21-year lifetime Westsound has become a favourite with listeners across Ayrshire and with agencies across Scotland.
Twenty-four hours before my arrival, 96.7 West FM, Westsound and their listeners had been transported back in time to 1981, the year of Westsound’s launch. Former presenters such as Jackie Brambles, Jim Delahunt, Dean Park, Bryce Curdy, “Tiger” Tim Stevens and Gary Marshall all returned to the Ayrshire airwaves, as did news bulletins from 1981 and the station’s old jingles. They even managed to track down Julieanne Stevens, the Ayrshire schoolgirl who opened the station 21 years ago. Julieanne returned to unveil a commemorative plaque, alongside former presenter Bryce Curdy, the first voice to be heard on air, re-creating the scene from that October evening in 1981.
“It was really nostalgic and people were feeling pretty emotional all day,” says Borthwick. “You don’t really realise just how long 21 years is and how the people of Ayrshire have now come to rely on the station being there for them during that time.”
Westsound first hit the airwaves when it was launched by Ayr Radio Limited. In 1996 the station was acquired by the company that became Scottish Radio Holdings, and Paul Cooney, now MD at Radio Clyde, was installed as managing director to launch 96.7 West FM to sit alongside its AM sister Westsound. Borthwick arrived on the scene three years ago as SRH restructured much of its senior radio station management.
“At the time I joined there were a few of SRH’s station MDs retiring. That allowed the middle group of managers to move up a tier. That was great because often one of the reasons companies lose people is that there is nowhere for them to go. That was not the case here and we are all still young and have a lot of years left in us. We have all really grown up together so we are all good friends, which is good when it comes to problem solving.”
Borthwick began her career at Radio Forth in the mid-eighties and was then moved to Radio Borders to look after the sales side in the six months prior to the station’s launch. She then went to Radio Clyde in a senior sales role for seven years, but departed as the stations were brought under the SRH umbrella. She then went agency side with Glasgow’s Ad Partners, where she spent two years before returning to the radio industry as sales director and managing director at Central FM in Falkirk. Three years later Westsound’s MD Paul Cooney was moved to Radio Clyde to replace Alex Dickson and SRH chief executive Richard Findlay invited Borthwick to take the helm at Westsound. She duly obliged and says she has been kept pretty busy since.
“`The first thing I did was move the Dumfries studio out of the basement at the Crichton Centre. I remember walking in there and thinking ‘we have got to move, we are supposed to be in the entertainment business’. So I moved them into the Loreburn Shopping Centre in Dumfries town centre. That has worked really well as the station is right at the heart of that community. It is where people pass every day and they now actually go in for a nosy and leave requests and get involved with the station, which is fantastic for us.”
Recently the Ayr studios have also benefited from £300,000 worth of investment in new studio equipment and a new commercial production facility, something that Borthwick says is indispensable for commercial radio stations today.
Westsound has an enviable position within the SRH stable. It is the group’s third largest station, behind Clyde and Forth, and commands a 41 per cent market share in Ayrshire. After its sister station, Radio Borders, Westsound is the UK’s second most dominant station in its marketplace.
Not surprisingly for someone who has risen to the post of MD, Borthwick knows how to speak her mind and many of her views on the Scottish commercial radio sector hold credence.
“I feel that the Central Belt of Scotland has far too many commercial radio stations and there is no requirement for another licence in Glasgow,” she says. “The Central Belt is getting overloaded and I cannot believe the Radio Authority is duplicating what is already available. However well intentioned they may ultimately play a part in attempting to destroy the very things they were set up to protect.
“The groups going for the licence say that they are going to offer something different, but at the end of the day they cannot, because they will not get the level of advertising support to sustain it long-term. Radio Clyde and Forth are already there. Even Real Radio is doing much the same as Clyde and Forth. I am a great believer in competition and choice, but only to an acceptable degree.”
The battle for the all too precious advertising pound has certainly intensified over the last 18 months, but Borthwick believes that taking a long-term view and accepting what is possible, what is not and working within that can meet any challenge.
“Television has the audience at night and radio has the audience during the day. That is how I see it and you have to work within those parameters. Scottish Television sells in this area, but they sell very cheaply, which is a shame because that shows in the quality of their ads. Local advertisers cannot really afford to do TV well.
“We would be inclined to advise a client to hold on to their budget until they can spend a little more and do something that really works for them and makes a real difference to their business. The reality of that is that you may lose some business, but when they take our advice and it works well they will stick with us. It is all about taking a long-term view.
“We are constantly being evaluated and our listener figures go up and down slightly all the time, but at the end of the day they always remain around the same level. As long as we are always number one in our marketplace and number two for market share in the UK then we cannot do much better than that.”
She also says that recruiting the right sales people is vital to the success of any commercial radio station.
“Radio is a hard nut to crack,” she says. “Newspapers and television are a relatively easy sell because they are so well established. We are still trying to convince a lot of advertisers about what radio can achieve. I would never actually take on a salesperson who has a newspaper or TV background. I would always take on a double glazing salesman or a used car salesman first because they know how to sell to people.”
As our meeting draws to a close, Borthwick whisks me away on a whistle-stop tour of Westsound’s spacious studios. Most of the new equipment is in place, though she says her news team are a little out of sorts as they await the finishing touches to their new state-of-the-art news studio in an alien studio across the corridor. We don’t like change, we journalists.
But what of changes for Borthwick; any expected in the near future?
She is loath to go on the record about how changes in Scottish media ownership could ultimately affect the future of SRH and Westsound but, even so, she says she is excited about the years ahead.
She says: “We are looking forward to the future. The next couple of years will see a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff being done here. For instance, we have to update our transmitters, which is a big expense, which nobody will really see, but it has to be done.
“We have also got a lot of talented people coming through the ranks here. When you are part of a big group such as SRH then you find that people are always aspiring to even greater things, which I believe is a good thing.”
And of a more personal nature?
“I have no idea really what the future holds for me personally because I feel I still have a lot of work to do here at Westsound. I am certainly not bored here by any stretch of the imagination; I don’t get the chance. I am the only female managing director in the Scottish radio industry other than Cathy Kirk at CFM which is part of SRH, which I think is ironic as I am the one within our group refitting stations and so on. I may not be able to tune in a video like most men, but there’s not much I don’t know about breezeblocks. After three years I still reckon I’ve got the best job in the world.”
I think she might just be right, so with a feeling of envy sitting heavy in my heart I prepare to leave Westsound. I walk across the reception area towards the double doors. As I do so, out of the corner of my eye I am sure I spot a discarded vol-au-vent, but I could have been wrong ... again.