South Scotland

Three decades of radio in Dumfries

Willie Johnston
Image caption Willie Johnston joined the BBC from the local newspaper the Dumfries and Galloway Standard

Before Radio Solway went on air, I was a reporter on the Dumfries and Galloway Standard and was approached to see if I would be interested in preparing and broadcasting sports bulletins on Friday and Monday on the Solway Report half-hour morning news programme.

The Standard gave me permission and, because Radio Solway's opening actually fell on a Friday, I featured on the very first programme transmitted from the Dumfries studio.

My contribution was pre-recorded the night before and I remember listening to it in bed with my head under the covers, somewhat mortified by hearing my voice on the radio for the first time. You get used to it.

Less than a year later, I joined the BBC first as producer, then as senior producer from 1989 to 1993.

The main daily programme was Solway Report, an all-speech news magazine intended to reflect Good Morning Scotland from which it opted out between 07:30 and 08:00.

At lunchtime we did a shorter 10-minute news bulletin, followed by a feature programme of 50 minutes which changed each day. These included the rural affairs programme Country Matters, an arts magazine called Spotlight Tuesday and the end-of-the-week music request show Friday Call-Out.

Image caption Great invention and "stretching meagre resources" were required for early programmes

One of the most popular lunchtime programmes we ever did came about largely by accident after someone donated a large quantity of old 78 LPs.

They weren't really of a good enough sound quality to play in a normal record show, but I got William Williamson and the late Davie Shankland to build a nostalgia programme around them and called it And That Reminds Me. It was a great success with listeners.

We had a lot of autonomy from the powers-that-be in Glasgow and were allowed pretty much to get on with what we wanted, within reason. Often this involved great invention and stretching meagre resources to breaking point and beyond.

Examples included Children in Need nights when we embarked on some pretty ambitious outside broadcasts using what little equipment we could assemble, and masses of goodwill from all involved.

We persuaded entertainers like Alasdair Macdonald and Bill McCue to come and appear for nothing as well as local singers and bands.

Technically, these programmes were held together for hours on end with little more than sticky tape and string, but they were great fun to do.

On the news front, we also did local election specials.

I particularly remember one district council result programme anchored by Gary Robertson, now one of the mainstays on Good Morning Scotland. We went on air at either nine or ten in the evening just as votes were starting to be counted.

We had reporters at each of the district count centres in Annan, Dumfries, Kirkcudbright and Stranraer and Gary also had a studio panel representing the political parties.

Image caption Radio Solway relied heavily on community support in its early days

The plan had been to intersperse the election news with a smattering of records to give everyone's tonsils a rest and to help fill in the gaps between results.

However, such was Gary's ability to "gab" that he somehow kept it going as a speech-only programme until about twenty to one the following morning when we were still waiting for one outstanding result from either Stewartry or Wigtown which had been recounted several times.

At that point Gary did eventually run out of words and had to resort to playing a disc.

Things changed in 1993 when Radio Scotland's then head of radio James Boyle decided to reduce the amount of local programming around the country and redirect some of the resources involved in making it towards the national service.

Image caption The Lockerbie disaster was the biggest story dealt with in the 30 years of Dumfries broadcasts

That sparked a huge and very vociferous local campaign to "Save Radio Solway" which was ultimately unsuccessful and probably proved counter-productive in the long run.

When local programmes were withdrawn in February 1993, a lot of people thought it meant the BBC was withdrawing from Dumfries altogether, which was not the case.

What was lost from the output was the voluntary "community" element. The staff remained at Lover's Walk, but in changed roles.

Twenty years on we are STILL here providing three things: local radio news for Dumfries and Galloway (daily opt-outs at 0654, 0750, 1254 and 1654); online local news on the South of Scotland Website; and news from the region for network programmes.

Back in 1993, I became the regional radio reporter providing news from Dumfries and Galloway for programmes such as Good Morning Scotland and Newsdrive. Later, my role was extended to include TV and I started appearing on Reporting Scotland.

Later still, the job changed technically as well so that now I self-shoot most stories with my own camera and edit them myself on a laptop. Changed days!

Without doubt the biggest story we ever dealt with during the 30 years was the Lockerbie Disaster. It was still in the days of Radio Solway and, as well as telling the news of what happened and the aftermath, we provided a vital information link between the authorities and the community.

It may have happened in 1988, but Lockerbie has never gone away as a story and remains in the headlines today as the 25th anniversary approaches.

'Vital role'

In 1995, I was privileged to go to America for the dedication of the Lockerbie memorial in Arlington cemetery and got to know some of the bereaved relatives on their "patch".

The hospitality and kindness shown me will never be forgotten. Then, in 2000 and 2001, I spent a considerable time at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands covering the trial and subsequent appeal of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Apart from Lockerbie issues, the start of this millennium was an incredibly busy news time in Dumfries and Galloway with the Solway Harvester fishing disaster in January 2000 and the foot and mouth outbreak in February 2001. These stories both ran for several months and were far-reaching in their impact.

Thirty years on I think the triple role fulfilled by the news staff in Dumfries is a very vital one, appreciated by viewers, listeners and online readers.

Despite budget restraints, the BBC in Scotland has remained committed to its local output and having regional reporters round the country to ensure it remains a truly national network.