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Features / Happy birthday, SIBC – and co-owner Ian admits he hasn’t had a full day off in 30 years

The main control desk at SIBC's Market Street studio. Photo: Shetland News/Neil Riddell.

POP MUSIC radio station and local institution SIBC this week celebrated the landmark of 30 years on air – during which time one of the station’s two voices, Ian Anderson, has never had a full day off.

SIBC, run by Ian and his wife Inga Walterson, first began broadcasting in an era when playing music on the radio meant standing queuing up vinyl records one after the other for shifts lasting four hours at a time.

Having been one of the earliest adopters of an automated system, things are thankfully less labour intensive these days – though Ian is still in at 5am every morning preparing his hourly morning news bulletins.

The station has been broadcasting for almost 11,000 days, but there has been only a solitary morning when Ian wasn’t in the studio to read the news – in 2013, when he was honoured as one of 40 pioneers of commercial radio in the UK, and Inga deputised more than capably.

Other than that trip to London to collect his award, he has not left Shetland in 30 years. Asked if it had been a rare excursion, he replies: “Rare? 24 hours, that’s it.” You couldn’t even call it a day off – he still worked the first half of the Wednesday and the second half of the Thursday.

Unlike us more slovenly journos at Shetland News, he even works Christmas Day – though Inga points out that “it’s your choice, hahaha – I have told him to take a break!”

‘It makes you feel old!’

How does the station turning 30 make them feel? Having been 23 when SIBC first went on air, Inga – who voices many of the adverts carried by the station – has devoted nearly her entire working life to the enterprise.

“Well, it makes you feel old!” she says. “In some ways it doesn’t feel that long. But when you think back, you think ‘gosh, it is’. There’s things that I can remember that Ian doesn’t, and vice-versa, but yeah, it’s a good chunk of our lives.”

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Ian had been involved in the formation of Radio Forth in the 1970s and was a freelance writer and broadcaster, involved in pirate stations including Radio Caroline, before setting up SIBC in 1985. It began broadcasting on 96.2FM in November 1987.

In the days of those four-hour rota shifts, they had a girl called Beth Manson working with them for a couple of years. And for a time prior to automation, the station was only on air from 6am to 7pm each day, but from the early 1990s onwards it has broadcast 24 hours a day.

The first automated system, adopted in 1991, used a 16 jukeboxes each holding 18 CDs, along with digital audio tapes for adverts. By 1997 SIBC was “one of the first to commit entirely to hard disk audio”, Ian notes.

The format has been “pretty much the same in that it’s always been a hits station”, he says.

“Some folk say ‘you’re not playing what you played 30 years ago’, but that’s because the hits were different 30 years ago, and in 30 years’ time or 10 years’ time or a year’s time it’ll be different again.”

Inga recalls a spell in the 1990s when country artists crossed over into the mainstream and the station tapped into that trend, but it “just seemed to die overnight” as some acts felt they had “become too pop and wanted to go back into traditional country”.

“The number one station [in any area] is always the chart music station, and we were always that,” Ian says. “It was just that extra thing that we put in country stuff.”

Moving wth the technological times

Local music has filled that void in recent years, which Ian says is mainly down to the availability of better recording technology enabling Shetland acts to make more professional recordings of their songs.

In the past there was “maybe nothing wrong with the performance, but the actual audio quality was often recorded on cassette porta-studio type things”.

Now local acts including The Revellers, The Bashies, Trookers, Arthur Nicholson and Claire Laurenson nestle alongside chart hits of the day on SIBC’s airplay ‘B’ list.

Within the small studio complex are some 6,500 alphabetised and categorised vinyl LPs – mostly from Ian’s collection pre-dating the station itself, as records were only played on air for the first couple of years. There are many more thousands of CD albums and singles, many stashed in the loft, though these days record labels mostly send out digital files.

The vinyl collection seems to form a pretty comprehensive history of post-war popular music up to the late 1980s, and some of it must be worth a fortune – when Shetland News notes that a copy of The Beatles’ White Album was recently on sale in a local charity shop for upwards of £100, Ian whisks out two original copies of the pioneering double LP – including a numbered one – as well as a limited edition original box set of Let It Be.

While there has been a resurgence in vinyl of late, the station’s focus is naturally on more modern forms of technology.

The Lerwick couple’s 19 year old son Bo, currently living in Glasgow, has been involved in the technical side of things for a few years now. He designed the station’s website while still at school and has more recently developed a new app that, when it goes live, will display whatever song and artwork are playing on the radio’s online stream.

“What we’re gearing up to is basically a young person might not have a radio, but they always have a smartphone,” Ian says. “If you’re driving up from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, you can listen to us all the way up, you can listen to us on the boat because there’s wi-fi…”

Before Twitter increased its character limit, SIBC’s page on the social media site had mastered the art of condensing three or four news stories into a single 140-character post.

Global appeal – ‘big in Brazil’

While half of all listeners and 80 per cent of listener hours are within the UK, by some quirk or another the station has also found an audience in Brazil.

Last year SIBC received a flurry of emails from residents of the South American nation, which appeared to come about after being picked up by Brazilian network Radio Globo.

“For over a year, it seems to be that they were distributing our off-air feed to use. We had this little fantasy that Radio Globo, somewhere up the Amazon, was relaying the fish landings!”

A record plugger from Sao Paulo even got in touch with some music by Brazilian artists, including one touted as the “Jimi Hendrix of the accordion” (he was “anything but”, laughs Inga).

“Big in Brazil”, Ian chuckles, before reeling off some of the nations where SIBC is not yet ubiquitous. “North Korea – that’s the one we want to get, because we’ll know who it is, hello Kim – and apparently he’s a Katy Perry fan!”

Both Ian and Inga are warm, welcoming and refreshingly open as interviewees, although they prefer not to pose for photos to protect their anonymity, never use their names on air and, incidentally, did not seek any publicity for this anniversary.

Having reached the 30-year milestone, do they expect SIBC will still be here come 2047?

“Depends on advertisers. End of story,” Ian says. “As long as we’ve got adverts we’ll keep going as long as we can.”

The station is licensed until October 2028. Ian, now 70, says he does not expect his sons – Bo has a younger brother, 15 year old Finn – to inherit the business.

“I wouldn’t want them to be tied to something like this – it’s okay when you’re older and you’ve got family.”

SIBC is what would be classified in the US as a “mom-and-pop” station and Ian – who intends to keep on going “as long as there’s health” – says you “always hear about such-and-such [a family radio station owner in America] passed away at the age of 92, his last programme was on air last Friday, or something like that!”

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