ONLY a very daring commentator would call the outcome of the American presidential election. At the time of writing, Joe Biden has edged into the lead in key swing states, but as fires rage in California, smoke suffocates the citizens of Portland, and white militias cock their guns to make America great again, the only thing we can safely predict is volatility.

America is polarised as never before. Not since the explosive Democratic Convention of 1968 at the height of the Vietnam war has the unpredictable politics of the street seeped into the electoral system. This presidential election will not only shape America’s future, it may even cast a spell over the future of democracy too. The stakes are high. Indeed, apart from in times of war they have never been higher.

We have our own election looming and whilst it will not be conducted in the same dystopian atmosphere, Scotland’s next visit to the polls is mission critical. It is an independence referendum by default and an overwhelming Yes majority will take us closer to endgame.

So, as we plan the next phase of Scottish independence, spare a moment for Gladys Knight’s Midnight Train To Georgia.

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Last week, Knight shifted the dial on new media. We are all familiar with the recent innovations in American media, including the so-called streamers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple+. During lockdown they reshaped how we watch television. Then there is the relentless progress of social media, with snarky disputes on Twitter, teen narcissism on TikTok and the dark conspiracies that lurk on 8chan, in the shadowy edges of the web.

All of that apart, the media phenomenon that has excited me the most in the past few months has the been the African American entertainment concept Verzuz.

Verzuz, also known as Verzuz TV, is a webcast series created by producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. It was conceived during the Covid-19 pandemic as a virtual DJ battle, with the two founders facing off in an Instagram Live broadcast in March 2020.

It was the kind of idea that could have remained hidden in the restless subculture of hip-hop, but the idea has spread like the virus itself.

The biggest Verzuz show to date has pitched soul legend Gladys Knight into competition with her friend Patti LaBelle. Although it was trailed as a “battle”, Knight, who is now 77, and her rival, who is a year younger at 76, played it for respect, encouraging each other through a catalogue that still stands the test of time, everything from Midnight Train To Georgia and Gladys Knight’s Bond theme Licence To Kill.

LaBelle retaliated with a version of Over The Rainbow, If You Asked Me To and her New Orleans sex-industry anthem Lady Marmalade.

The show has lessons for Scotland. The two divas brought the idea of progressive voting to a much broader audience. In this iteration it was a message to older African American women, a marginalised demographic ignored by pollsters.

Only a few months into its existence, Verzuz has become a hot media concept. Another battle pitched Alicia Keys against John Legend, attracting audiences that mainstream network television struggles to reach.

At least 1.2 million people tuned in to the Verzuz battle between R&B legends Brandy and Monica on Instagram Live. Former First Lady Michelle Obama, who could sell a gangsta rap record to your granny, engaged in live chat with the audience.

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Then unexpectedly and with no fanfare at first, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris appeared on screen wearing a de rigueur sweatshirt from Washington DC’s Howard University. It was as if Spike Lee was directing Instagram.

She spoke to Gladys Knight but beyond her to the audience itself. “I just wanted to thank you ladies, just you queens, you stars, you icons,” Harris said, reminding the audience to get out there to vote. The appeal was to the older women who may feel intimidated by the Black Lives Matter movement and yet who still worry about their grandkids in the face of pathological policing. Harris’s message was that those women, often ignored, could influence the election. If Scotland can shift older women towards Yes, then it’s game over too.

Verzuz is pure entertainment shot through with electoral advice. Between songs, Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle reflected on a variety of topics including food, fashion and family. Always in the air was the need for people to get out to vote. The women wrapped up the evening with a surprise guest appearance by their friend, singer Dionne Warwick. All this and not a traditional broadcaster in sight.

The Verzuz format is straightforward: a battle can consist of up to 20 rounds of what would be an artist’s hit songs or cover versions. The artists are paid but their songs are not delivered in their entirety to prevent it undercutting the artist’s own online catalogue. During the battle, the artist will play each song one after another, through audio sound systems via computer or studio recording equipment. It is not as all-encompassing as a concert or owning the album, but in the days of Covid lockdown there is enough unique access to charm viewers and keep their attention.

It made me think of Scotland and our media. Where is the entertainment that reaches out to older women or to sections of our society that harbour concerns about the speed of social change? Where are our social destinations that encourage people towards Yes?

We, too, are facing one of the most dramatic elections ever, the outcome of which will bind us like supplicants to a decayed British state or take us forward to independence. It is that crucial. What can we learn from Verzuz?

Verzuz is remarkably flexible as a concept. It can be hosted on already existing popular technologies via Instagram or Facebook Live. The old lumbering days of trying to chase down a commission, make a pilot and wait for broadcaster feedback already feel like the rituals of the ark. Television turnaround times are now akin to a lumbering beast, cumbersome and staring extinction in the face as the future races by.

The current state of broadcasting and news journalism serves Scotland poorly. Our producers are a distant thought to London commissioners and our stories all but irrelevant to network schedulers. Yes, there has been progress and the BBC Scotland channel, for all its many challenges, is one example of that, but we have reached a stage in our evolution as a nation where we have to invent our media and not become obsessed with the failures of the old system.

Over the past few weeks, Janice Forsyth’s Big Light network launched Great Scots, offering unique access to

Billy Connolly, Annie Lennox, Nicola Benedetti and James McAvoy among others. Each of them has the charisma and relevance to reach audiences with the same potential as Verzuz and Gladys Knight. What future variations of that idea could grow into a new media format?

READ MORE: Stuart Cosgrove: The issues at the heart of the future of Scottish media

I frequently view films and interstitial made by the independent producers Phantom Power and they are as creative and as imaginative as any network documentary. But how can they be supercharged to reach people outwith the Yes movement?

Scotland is already inventing a new media, but we are not there yet. We have the same access to live channels such Instagram, and YouTube as anyone else and they are in almost everyone’s homes or their pockets. We have several very good political debate shows and podcasts, but they tend to reach the committed and are not designed as entertainment.

Access to spectrum is not our problem nor is the breadth of our talent. But what we cannot do going forward is reduce our vision of new media to a series of bickering Twitter spats, however easy and reassuring that can be. The era of the cybernat – a construct that creaks with ancient arguments every time it is used – is over.

The next wave of engagement is creative ideas not screeching arguments.

Where is our Verzuz and who will deliver it?