Sunday, 22 April 2012

RIP Leith FM

I have just heard about the re-branding of Leith FM and can't help but feel a bit sad - another one bites the sellout dust.

As its name suggested, Leith FM was set up as a radio station for Leith and the surrounding areas (I could still pick it up a few miles from Leith...) - and it had an authentic community-run feel, quite reminiscent of those Highland radio stations, like Lochbroom FM and Cuilin FM, that I love so much. It was properly local (and by this I don't necessarily mean "Scottish" - it was rightly reflective of Leith's multiculturalism) - it took itself and local issues seriously, as a local radio station should, but it was also lots of fun to listen to. It made an effort to involve the local community - with "open evenings" to bring in new people, and with Leith FM staff tutoring courses at the local school, and in this sense was also very accessible. 

Well, as of the 22nd March this year, Leith FM is no more, and if you tune in to 98.8 FM, you will pick up "Castle FM". The new name alone shows just how strong the commitment is to keeping the station's local empahasis, and recognising its roots: i.e. nil - where is the castle in Leith??!

There are so many questions I want to ask about this, and it is typical of the abysmal state of print media in Edinburgh that the Evening News has not taken this up.

The reason given for the re-branding is that Leith FM had "developed a 'bad reputation' in the local community" - well, if this is the case, it is the first I've heard of it. And how is basically re-figuring the station as a commercial competitor to Forth FM going to improve anything other than the station employees' pay cheques, let alone the station's reputation?

Apparently, Tom Farmer (of Kwikfit fame) is involved - as is his cash no doubt. Now, Tom Farmer makes a lot of his Leith childhood, which is all well and good, but he is as distant from the realities of life in Leith nowadays as it is possible to be, and is no part of its current community. Why, then, has he chosen to get involved with this community radio station?

It makes me deeply uncomfortable: he owns 90% of Hibs footballl club, he is a major donor to the SNP; in 2004 (when Leith FM was still a twinkle in Mary Moriarty's eye) he tried to set up a commmercial Edinburgh radio station called... Castle FM. 

This document on the Ofcom website makes for depressing reading. The list of those involved in the original Castle FM license bid reads like a roll call of Edinburgh finance, media and local government usual suspects: Angus Grossart, Andrew Neil, Eric Milligan, etc., etc, - and, of course, Tom Farmer. If the diversity of this group is anything to go by, then Leith FM (which was once truly local, and without a commercial agenda) has been handed over to same individuals who already have  the Edinburgh media scene entirely sewn up. Well done.

Tom Farmer has done many good things for Edinburgh, and for Scotland, but he clearly has  an idelogical and commmerical agenda alongside his philanthropic one - and where better to begin to play this out than in a small, cheap radio station (good value for money, less financial risk if it doesn't work out, and yet with the potential to wield a lot of influence - an Edinburgh Telemilano...)?

This story, and this picture, make me feel slightly queasy (cheerleaders?! - why?? where is the vibrancy, the diversity of Leith? - maybe they are there to disguise the fact that over 80% of the non-cheerleading participants in this photograph are male?):

Let's look at the movers and shakers in the Castle FM enterprise:

 - Mike Templeton (Chairman - and presenter): doesn't seem to have much radio experience other than at Leith FM. Was he perhaps dazzled by the prospect of hitting the bigtime with a city-wide station and premier-league funding?

 - Donny Hughes (Business Development Manager): "more than 25 years experience working in local commercial radio" - he has presented on Forth FM, and is currently on STV; why, then, was he brought in to Leith FM in any capacity, if there was not already an agenda to transform the station into a commercial entity?

 - Tom Farmer: what is his official position within the station? - and who else is involved? - not to sound too conspiracy-theory about this, but is he just the public face of the finance? 

The Leith FM website no longer exists - look up Castle FM instead (I can't bear to link to it). There is, however, a "disgruntled of Leith Links" site called Leith FM Sucks which goes into a lot of detail about some of the rifts within the station during 2010-11 (it isn't clear if this was linked to earlier troubles in 2009). This would seem to indicate that the ground was being prepared for this commerical transfer/takeover several years ago. I wonder if it's easier for a community station to get a 5-year licence from Ofcom, than for a newly-formed commercial station? Castle FM now doesn't have to worry about this until 2017 - by which time they no doubt expect that the newly-anointed President Salmond will be easing the way for such good "local" (aka white, SNP-affiliated) enterprises...

It's all just a bit convenient: Castle FM bid founders in 2004; Leith FM set up and begins to do well, 2007-2010; shifts within management and membership of the station, 2010-11; Leith FM granted 5-year extension to Ofcom licence, late 2011; Leith FM becomes Castle FM (with a new financial model? - I don't know and can't seem to find out), early 2012.

Whatever the true nature of the takeover, and of the station's funding and management changes - and the timeline of this in relation to the license extension - it is clear that this is more than just a name change. There is more detail, and some comment from those who had been involved in Leith FM, here: Greener Leith, and here: Radio Today.


  1. For some reason, the cheerleaders bother almost as much as anything else about this story. Deadline news ( Donny Hughes as saying:

    "We’ve booked a open top bus with cheerleaders and speakers on board to race through the city and get our voice out there. These stunts are great fun and will definitely attract attention and hopefully get the Edinburgh community excited about tuning in and hearing our new sound.”

    I really don't understand what cheerleaders have to do with a "community" radio station - it's just(again - I can't help but come back to this phrase) lowest common denominator cynicism. Populist tabloid stuff. If further confirmation were needed that this is a commerical venture above all else, I think this is it. It's all far too Richard Desmond/Silvio Berlusconi/sub-sub-Forth FM for my liking... Edinburgh (and Leith) deserve better.

  2. I used to present on Leith FMs culture show during the festival in 2009. It was a radio station that had a genuine local feel to it, and the flexibility to accommodate plenty of different types of program. There was very real editorial freedom.

    From what I can gather Castle FM is being promoted primarily as a business venture and with an editorial policy that suggests the closer it can approximate its output to other commercial stations the better. This makes for banal, ideas-free broadcasting and a very nasty taste in the mouth of people like myself genuinely interested in fostering a radio experience above and beyond the generic tripe peddled by commercial stations.

    In 2009 the management of Leith FM was at best dysfunctional when I was there, but the dysfunction still left a space for experiment and laughs in the studio. Its taken a bunch of jumped up philistine middle managers to install full spectrum bs and completely ruin the station.