The Week In Radio - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

The Week In Radio

FOR THE connoisseur of radio, the Shipping Forecast has become far more than a quaint piece of maritime lunacy. It has a place now in the poetry of the nation; a haiku in reasoned BBC speech for all that we had, all that we lost, and all that we would rather not have back, thank you very much, because - in between the romantic bits - it was cold and soggy, and involved sand in undignified places.

But for those seeking a higher state of zen enlightenment, the daily Fish Market Report on Radio Scotland is essential listening. Punctually at 11.58am every day, the report is broadcast to a waiting nation: "Fraserburgh: five boats landed 387 boxes, cod 50-170, round haddock 60-130. Lochinver: two boats landed 280 boxes; lemon sole 70-180, monkfish 40-150, round haddock 60-170, gutted haddock 38-88..." As the seasons shift round, the poem changes a little; the figures get smaller and the names get stranger - ling, bream, megrim, gutted whiting. In between the calm and occasionally slightly puzzled tones of the announcer is a story of quotas and declining livelihoods as melancholic as the Shipping Forecast ever told.

Radio Scotland contains as much sunken gold as Radio 4 or the World Service, but with a whisper of their funding and a quarter of their audience. Since James Boyle's departure for London and Radio 4, the schedule has atrophied - no new Controller of Radio was appointed in his place - and the heady days in 1994 when it picked up a Sony award for National Radio Station of the Year now seem long gone.

Its remit is still to be all things to all listeners, and in theory it is supposed to fulfil the functions of Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 all at once. What this means in practice is a surfeit of consumer programmes ("and now on Radio Scotland, the Midday Whinge. Today: the menace lurking in your toilet roll holder, hideous diseases you can catch from soft furnishings, and how to complain to Parliament when menaced by a killer budgie") and some awkward leaps between cultures ("And now here's Sgurrmeaonacha Dubhgealtachaid Uisgheabheagobbleddygook, our daily Earnest But Dutiful Ethnic slot understood by one per cent of the Scottish population, and listened to by the one per cent of that one per cent who left the radio on by mistake').

Radio Scotland's coverage of the Edinburgh festival also betrays a certain schizophrenia: they know it's necessary, they know it's good, they know it fills empty August airtime, but their hearts and HQ remain forever in Glasgow, and all the overheated comedians in the world won't convince them otherwise.

Thus the festival is kept firmly in its place; the excellent daily Storyline slot has been devoted to writers appearing at the Book Festival, and there's the occasional artistic incursion into the magazine programmes, but that's about it. But - as Radio 4 listeners can testify - a petrified schedule can occasionally yield treasures.

The best example is the daily arts programme, which used to be known as The Usual Suspects and has recently been retitled Brian Morton, either in tribute to the presenter's charisma or - more likely, given Radio Scotland's current drift - to his longevity. Morton is one of those people with a brain the size of Texas and the interests to match it. From the early recordings of obscure jazz pianists to the jottings of late 19th century librettists, he knows it all. It is one of the few programmes remaining on Radio Scotland which not only gives Radio 4 a run for its money, but makes its alternative (Front Row) look facile by comparison.

The major difficulty with all radio in Scotland, however, is that you have to listen to it in one place. Drive three feet outside the Central Belt, and the FM reception collapses completely. Drive anywhere near a hill (and Scotland, after all, has several quite large hills) and you might as well give up. Unless you resign yourself to an hour of twiddling, you'd be better off with a nice bit of Robbie Williams. Only long wave provides consistent reception, but it is used for dumping things like Yesterday in Parliament.

My mother has a theory - it takes a while, so I'll keep it short - that Test Match Special on Long Wave was single-handedly responsible for delivering devolution to Scotland.

Personally, I'll stick to the belief that two or three extra transmitters on a mountain near here would probably halve the national incidence of road rage. Added to which of course, they'd give the Fish Market Report the cult following it really deserves.

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