The decline of the football phone-in

Radio has always played an important part in Glasgow's footballing culture. In the days before Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the ‘World Wide Web’ - the radio (and Ceefax) was the easiest way to keep in touch with scores if you weren’t at the match.

This was a time when the the commentary could only offer you the second-half, as well as the last five minutes of the first-half. The result being that the first forty minutes of the game was a blur, except for brief moments of terror when they would go to the stadium and the match commentator would deliberately take their time revealing who scored.

But more than anything it was the phone-in that was special, specifically Radio Clyde’s ‘Superscoreboard’. For generations of Rangers fans in the 80s and 90s around Greater Glasgow, the phone-on was not to be missed. It may be difficult to comprehend now, but it was once a cultural icon.

In those days it was almost solely about football itself. Callers discussed the performance of their left-back, if the goalkeeper needed replacing or if the manager was making the correct signings. Listening to it was a relaxing and enjoyable part of the weekend.

It was also a time when the phone-in pundits ensured that the caller stayed with football and nothing else. Any form of abuse or defamation was immediately stopped. If we forget about the ubiquitous bad jokes from the likes of Derek Johnstone and Davie Provan, you could almost say it was civilised.

Step forward to today and the mirror-image of the description above is now the case. Football is rarely discussed. Callers seem to talk about nothing else except the most ignorant form of football politics, finances, history and sociology.

A typical call is where one person calls in to tell us how another club or group of fans are ‘corrupt’ or ‘bigoted’. Referees are implied to be ‘cheats’, especially if your team loses, and everything is debased to the lowest common denominator.

Even today, the petty attempt by non-Rangers fans to continually (and wrongly) proclaim how their fellow fans have lost their footballing identity, is a constant reminder how a ‘football’ show is being used to fight a culture war.

Just as disappointing is the lack of call moderation. Cutting off a caller who abuses or libels a player, official or club seems to be a thing of the past. At times these shows seem to be like an audio version of the most idiotic and hateful internet messageboard.

So what went wrong?

In the early days of phone-ins there was no competition. I’m not sure if Radio Scotland had a football phone-in during the 80s and early 90’s, but if they did no-one I knew listened to them. Paul Cooney, then in charge of sport at Clyde, used to joke that the national broadcaster was posh and that ‘Superscoreboard’ was what the ordinary working-class fans would always choose. As hard it is to believe now, there was more than an element of truth to this.

No radio show can capture the same audience today that it did two decades ago, simply because the listener has so much more choice available to them. But when the Real Radio phone-in came on board - especially with their five nights a week broadcasts - the quality of phone-ins changed as much as the quantity.

Whereas ‘Superscoreboard’ was rigid in its rules about what a call was to discuss, and how it was to be discussed, the Real Radio phone-in had no such problems. Almost anything tenuously related to football was allowed. It wasn’t too noticeable at the time and if anything it seemed a release, but the eventual result was a race to the bottom. Controversy rather than communication became the goal.

In any narrative, conflict is necessary, and no-one wishes to be bored with universal agreement, but when it gets to the point when supposedly football shows are discussing everything but football, then something has went badly wrong.

There are the fans - of all teams - who want to enjoy an hour or two each night listening to pundits and callers speak about football. Angry and petty people blaming each other for all the world’s ills is the opposite of that and it’s simply not a happy experience.

The second major change that pushed the decline was the internet and social media. Even though the new technology allows for more open discussion, supporters have become more tribal. Many Scottish football fans now keep to closed communities where conspiracy and anger feed on itself until there is only “us and them”.

Ironically, many of the pundits on phone-ins tend to dismiss the internet crowd as rabble-rousers, while seeming to be unaware that the non-football topics they obsess over is merely an extension of the conspiracies, paranoia and hatred that is born in the digital universe.

‘The Rangers Standard' is also a reaction to the growth of football politics, but unlike the radio shows discussed, it tries to throw water on the flames rather than petrol. It's partly because Rangers Football Club is subject to misinformation broadcast by callers to these programmes, that we have to try and stem the tsunami of ignorance.

With the Real Radio phone-in now gone and Radio Scotland’s ‘Your Call with Jim Traynor’ plodding along, only saved by the licence fee, Clyde’s ‘Superscoreboard’ feels like the last years of a spent force.

It’s a sad decline for a once cherished (and even loved) show that defined a few generations of football fans in and around Glasgow.

The only way it can be saved is to offer the listeners something different from the ignorant partisan tribalism that it now revels in, not more of the same. It would require the show to return to its football roots and leave the other nonsense behind. But it’s probably too late.

In a sense these phone-ins are also victim of a culture that is destroying the national sport, by using it as a political proxy for everything from morality to criminality. In the end these shows hold a mirror to what many Scottish football fans and pundits obsess over and the reflection is ugly.

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