30 years of commercial radio

By The Drum | Administrator

November 6, 2003 | 8 min read

If Scottish commercial radio was a person, it’d be starting to think about getting serious, settling down and possibly, at some stage in the not-too-distant future, starting a family. The Scottish commercial radio industry is now on the brink of the big 3-0 and, as it lights the candles on the cake, The Drum took the opportunity to take a look back at three decades of successful commercial radio.

The sector kicked off officially in Scotland on Hogmanay 1973, when Radio Clyde, the country’s first commercial radio station and only third in the UK, went on air.

Capital Radio and LBC were, at that time, the only other commercial stations in Britain – having launched earlier in the year – and were both based in London.

The London market, initially, had been a tough one, but Jimmy Gordon, founding managing director of Clyde, was confident that the Scottish marketplace would fare better. He vowed that the station would post audience figures within a month of going on air to prove the size of the potential audience in the West of Scotland.

The figures were published, the audience was there, and commercial radio in Scotland was born.

Paul Cooney, managing director of Radio Clyde, says: “Jimmy Gordon, the founding MD, said, ‘We will publish our audience figures’, I think it was within a month, ‘and we will prove that there is a big audience for this new local radio station for Radio Clyde.’ He did that, they did the survey, they published it and it showed that just a massive amount of people switched onto Clyde. People took it to their hearts and, basically, people up here turned away from Radio 1, which was the biggest station until then, and switched on Radio Clyde. And we quickly established with local advertisers that radio was a potent medium.”

Jim Graham, chairman of Beat 106, also stresses Gordon’s role in the formation of Scottish commercial radio. He says: “I think that one of the first things we have to do when looking at Scottish commercial radio is acknowledge the contribution that Jimmy Gordon made. What he did at Radio Clyde spread throughout the UK. He really made commercial radio in the UK work.”

In 1975, Clyde was joined by Radio Forth, and the Scottish marketplace began to heat up.

The early 80s saw the launch of a number of stations scattered around the country, including Radio Tay, Northsound, Moray Firth and West FM.

In 1983, Scottish radio turned a corner when Kimberly Clarke became the first national advertiser to heavily invest in the medium. The company ran an initial test campaign on Scottish stations to evaluate the media’s worth as an advertising forum for brand name Kleenex, and was more than pleasantly surprised by the results. Not only did recognition and sales leap, the radio campaign had clearly surpassed an earlier television campaign.

Commercial radio had well and truly arrived.

Ken Garner, senior lecturer in media and journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University, moved to Glasgow in 1985 and shortly afterward began reporting on the Scottish radio industry.

He says: “There were two things that were obvious to me about radio in Scotland: the quality and breadth of programming at that time, and the way that it totally dominated radio listening. And, more or less, that’s still true. It’s not the case, after the 1990 Broadcasting Act, that local commercial radio delivers the things it used to be obliged to do, like drama, community programming and so on.

“But still the local Scottish commercial stations do more editorially for their areas than average English stations. They are good. By and large, listeners are well served by commercial radio in Scotland, in terms of information, news, community and things like that.

“By and large, commercial radio in Scotland has been extremely successful. I mean, you can number the commercial failures on the fingers of one hand. They are comparatively few. It is a success story. To say anything else would be nuts.”

The mid-80s through to the early 90s were a period of consolidation in Scotland, and no company came out looking better than Radio Clyde. The company’s portfolio grew when, in 1989, Northsound was bought over. This was followed in 1991 by the purchase of Forth, which also owned Tay FM and Radio Borders. Future acquisitions included Westsound, Downtown (in Northern Ireland), Moray Firth, CFM and Dublin’s Today.

The creation of the Radio Authority in 1991 marked another major turning point for commercial radio. The Radio Authority was tasked with the goal of expanding choice in radio throughout the UK. This began with a stern demand to radio owners.

“The government at the time said ‘Use it or lose it’ in reference to the fact that you had an AM and an FM frequency, and they wanted a choice, so we had to offer different programming,” explains Cooney.

Jay Crawford, programme director at Real Radio Scotland and a former Forth FM veteran, believes this period was one of the most important in commercial radio’s history. He says: “The demise of the IBA, which brought about the split frequencies and therefore two services available on AM and FM, was important. In the early days, 80 per cent of the audience listened to AM and FM was thought to be only for the HI -FI buffs. That changed about 15 years ago and now only 10-15 per cent listen to AM, but we have digital growing in popularity now and the eventual switch-off of analogue services altogether.”

The advent of the Radio Authority led to a rapid expansion in radio throughout the UK, and Scotland saw its fair share of new start-ups, as the marketplace became increasingly competitive. Scot FM, Q96, Heartland and SIBC were among the names cropping up in the early 90s that are still in operation today. In fact, the Authority has, to date, awarded three national radio licences and more than 150 regional licences.

“One good thing is that the Radio Authority has, by and large, been a success story,” says Garner. “By and large, the bottom line is that listeners to the radio have far more choice now than they did before 1990. You can debate about what those choices are, but there is more to choose from. So they have done what they were supposed to do.”

Following on from the formation of the Radio Authority was the advent of the Radio Advertising Bureau. Founded in 1993 to champion commercial radio as a strong medium for advertisers, the RAB has proved to be one of the biggest developments of the past decade.

Cooney says: “I think one of the greatest things that happened was the advent of the Radio Advertising Bureau, which said to the various stations, ‘you’re all in competition, you’re all different companies though you’re not trading in the same cities, so come together’. Jimmy Gordon was a big player in that, as was Richard Findlay, who is now chief executive of SRH, and Richard Eyre, who was chief exec of Capital at the time. They were the prime movers in saying ‘Let’s put whatever differences aside.’

“The Radio Advertising Bureau was there to say ‘Commercial radio is a great thing, look at the audiences we have now.’ We are getting more and more stations now, we were getting that scale, and it promoted the benefits of radio advertising and the great stories that all the stations have.”

In Scotland, these great stories have been multiplied through the years, with the addition of new stations such as Beat 106, now part of the Capital Radio Group, Kingdom, Clan and the takeover and rebranding of Scot FM as Real Radio. This is all, of course, in addition to the growth in digital radio and the imminent awarding of a new Glasgow analogue licence.

Graham remarks: “The awarding of the new license will be a good day because it’s the last major license to be handed out. It’s a historic event that, as the Radio Authority winds down, the last license is awarded in Scotland as commercial radio moves on to the next stage.”

It’s no wonder, then, that England’s major radio groups are keen to establish a presence north of the border.

But what has made Scotland’s stations the success they are?

Crawford responds: “Patronising national broadcasters have played a big part: BBC Scotland is caught in a time warp somewhere around the 1950s. And there’s also a general acceptance that we can help communities because we're part of the community.”

With its most turbulent years seemingly behind and a newborn, in the form of digital radio, successfully delivered, it will be interesting to see what happens to commercial radio as it enters its more mature stage of life.


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +