Shetland Islands Broadcasting Company – the most democratic station in the country?

As the presenter reads news items coming in from Shetland to Japan and Ecuador, I realise there's no heirarchy.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It’s 8am on the island of Bressay and the news on 18 April is of the earthquake in Ecuador; then a report on today’s fish landings across the Shetland area (1,800 boxes), during which several of the boats are named (the Opportune, the Venture); then on to the evacuation of 250,000 people in Japan amid fears of further tremors after events in Kyushu. Immediately it strikes you: the complete absence of a global/local hierarchy. None of that “in further news” tone.

Is the Shetland Islands Broadcasting Company (SIBC) the most democratic independent station in the country? Its music is programmed this way, too. International bands are played in amongst local groups: it begins to sound normal that Major Lazer share the same 30-minute tranche as Toxic Flames, a group of five 17-year-olds from Lerwick who have been writing and recording themselves since primary school. Followed by Coldplay, and then a few spot commercials (“The piano tuner, Malcolm Smith, is on Shetland”).

When I contact the station cheering this ecumenical melding of planetary and provincial headlines, and asking for information on the various broadcasters (any voices we hear vary), the reply is typically brisk: “Presenters irrelevant.” My reference to “headlines” was frowned on, too. “It’s not headlines. These are full stories. Anything more is waffle.” Right on.

So: no waffle, for 168 hours a week, for the past 28 years, to an audience of up to 70 per cent of the islands, sea lanes and off-shore oilfields. But also (like an increasing number of local stations online) across the world: the ears of people (from 45 other countries, in the case of SIBC) completely ravenous for talk of the Lerwick Ladies Lifeboat Guild’s annual coffee morning. I confess I tuned in originally to hear this sort of thing, lying there one night in February, begging for the relatively comforting news of power cuts in Channerwick (always ­“resolved fairly quickly”) and the Shetland Distillery Company’s new Up Helly Aa Shetland Reel gin. But the station resisted my sentimental tourism. It never quite allows the listener to wallow. It says: there is no hiding from a whole universe of uncoordinated goings-on, so listen.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater

Free trial CSS