23rd November 2017

Tourism: Shetland on air

Tourists in the islands now have their very own radio station, providing information, interviews and local music. Marsali Taylor speaks to Visit Shetland’s Andy Steven about 60 North FM.

A new venture by Visit Shetland began last year: a dedicated tourist radio station, with information about Shetland, music and weather forecasts. It’s broadcast on 87.7 FM.

I asked Andy Steven, area director of Visit Shetland, about the ideas behind it. What can it provide that Radio Shetland or SIBC can’t?

“I wanted to bring together hidden gems of local information, and also to provide a platform for Shetland’s musical talent. I talked to the BBC and SIBC long before I did it – they’ve been very supportive. Radio Shetland is great, but it’s only on for that half hour on weekdays, and SIBC has one of the best commercial rock station formats in the UK – I have a great respect for what they do, but I wanted to provide something different, aimed at tourists in the local area, all the year round.”

60 North FM is broadcast from six different stations, each with a nominal range of five miles: Sumburgh Head, Bressay, Walls, Brae, Eshaness and Unst. The actual range seems more like 10 miles, but it’s still not total coverage, so that as you drive the station keeps cutting out.

“We’re definitely not a local radio station; we’re an information facility for visitors. Ofcom is monitoring us at the moment, and if they’re satisfied that we’re obeying the terms of the restricted license, then we hope to be allowed more transmitters. Also, the ones we’re using are very low power, only 1 Watt; SIBC use thousands of watts. I would like to get better coverage across Shetland, perhaps adding transmitters in Foula, Fair Isle & Fetlar in the future.”

One annoying aspect of 60 North FM is that each station is transmitting something different, so that just as you’re getting really interested in, say, the interview about the ghost of Busta House Hotel, you go over a hill, change transmitters and cut abruptly to the middle of an interview about something totally different.

Andy sympathised with that point of view, but explained the thinking behind it. “We wanted to make the transmitters really local, so we programme it so that 80 per cent of the interviews for each place are connected with that area. It’s broadcast live from a fully-automated system, and I make up the playlists for each place – a lot of man-hours go into it. It’s not really meant for all day local listening – there’s a high level of repetition. Having said that though, we play more music overnight, so locals could tune in during the evening, just to enjoy Shetland music.”

60 North FM features a range of really interesting interviews. A number of them are done by Mary Blance, whose voice is always a pleasure to listen to: she goes on the new geological trail, interviews the head of the inter-island ferries about how easy it is to “take the boat”, and talks about the dialect to Julie Moncrieff. The Busta House interview is done by Margaret Cunningham of Belfast’s Media Workshop; there’s a walk through Tangwick Haa and an interview with Brian Smith about the St Ninian’s Isle Treasure. I found myself learning something in every one.

“We often get that comment from local people who’ve tuned in,” Andy said, “They say, ‘You don’t know how much you can do!’ I think a lot of folk use it if they have visitors up, or recommend them to listen to it, to find out more about the area. Visitors also comment on how much they enjoy hearing dialect voices – we try to use local speakers as much as we can.

“It’s a platform for Shetland’s culture and heritage. I try and add interviews each year, and refresh those we have. I want to get more stories from Elma Johnson, and I’d like to get Mary Blance to interview Rhoda Bulter’s family about her life and poetry. Margaret Cunningham is in the isles again, and this time she’s doing mini-surveys with real visitors. Obviously we hope their experience here will be positive, but we’re going to broadcast ‘real experience’, good and bad.”

The station also includes regular weather updates from Alan Fraser – “one of Shetland’s best forecasters,” Andy said, “he’s very, very accurate.”

Between the interviews, there’s a wide variety of music.  I recognised Frideray, Hom Bru, Sheila Henderson and Peerie Willie; I didn’t recognise the fiddler playing with him, though, and there’s no commentator saying who each band is.
“We’re working on that,” Andy said. “I want to do a new version of music tracks where the musicians back-announce their own work, perhaps say a bit about themselves, and direct listeners to their own website – Chris Stout and Fiddler’s Bid are already working on that. We’re not allowed commercial activity, but we could do a short interview beforehand. I’m very, very keen to see the whole range of the fantastic musicians that play here on radio, not just bands that have released a CD but also demo tracks from young bands. Visitors often ask, ‘Where can we hear local music?’ and it can be hard to think of somewhere.

“At the moment, Ofcom seem to be pleased with what we’re doing; they called it an ‘extremely innovative use of radio.’ A broadcaster from the US was very complimentary too, she said it was very refreshing to hear a radio station which wasn’t focused on advertising or money grabbing. It’s great to get that kind of praise from radio professionals.”

Andy is proud of the fact that he’s needed no outside consultants or commissions to launch 60 North FM, or its even more high-tech webcam version. “Shetland’s an innovative and creative place, and we have enough creative and competent people here to do it by ourselves. The webcams link is an online version of the radio – the visuals of the places through the webcams, overlaid with interviews and music. Technically it’s very complex, and it’s been phenomenally successful. People look at it before they come, and then again when they get home – it’s the most visited part of www.visitshetland.com, and nowhere else in the world has tried anything like it.”

I logged on to the webcam and it was very bonny, with lovely views of Lunna, the Pool of Virke, Eshaness, to a backtrack of Jillian Isbister . . . but it felt odd, too, watching people (some I recognised) walking unawares round the Market Cross, or hurrying into Sumburgh Airport. I’ll definitely remember I could be on camera anywhere in future.

Back to the radio, though. Andy’s keen to expand his interviews further. “I’ve created the blank canvas, but now I want the community to take it over, to bring Shetland to life through local interviews. People in Shetland are creative, they’re doing interesting things, and I want to tell people about that, get rid of the idea that we’re some sort of traditional backwater. I had a film crew phone during the 2005 Island Games, wanting to check we had electricity here. And to find out about what’s going on, well, the locals are the people to ask. I’d like to record a lot more people, get as many folk as possible involved. For example, if someone knows a great walk, well, let them talk about it, and we’ll edit their talk. It can be very easily done – Alan Fraser records himself each day, uploads the file, and sends it into the system. So, if anyone has an idea they think others would enjoy, please, get in touch with me.”

Andy has really enjoyed creating “Radio Tourie”. “Along with the webcam, it’s been a phenomenal marketing tool for Shetland – I’m surprised myself how successful it’s been. It’s worked better that I’d ever imagined – it’s put our culture and heritage on a global platform. It’s a very nice way to promote a place I’ve fallen in love with.”

Marsali Taylor