Hospitality ward 

9 April 2007

Despite the fact that Transdiffusion in its original incarnation had a close association with hospital radio, and despite its influence on radio broadcasting in Britain in earlier times, this is just about the first article we’ve ever run on the subject. In it our anonymous TBS Correspondent gives an account of his experiences over almost two decades of this almost uniquely British form of ‘narrowcasting’.

I’ve been doing voluntary broadcasting for 17 years with a number of Hospital Radio stations around the UK. In this article I don’t want to give a blow by blow history of the sector but an account of what I have observed over the time.

I haven’t been an active member for almost four years now. When you meet ‘that someone’ in your life and you also have other time-consuming interests, something has to give. And there are only so many Mantovani records you can play… but I still keep in touch and remain a member of my most recent station. Because I know the programme controller, I’m sure I can cadge the odd stand-in show here and there. I wouldn’t mind the odd stint now and again: I still find myself muttering links as I walk to work or as I wash the dishes, announcing links between compilations of songs on my MP3 player.

One of the things that really struck me about hospital radio is the close interaction you have with the patients, your listeners. They are really the lifeblood of a station because if they don’t know you are there, they won’t listen, and you get a RAJAR rating of one (yourself). Unless, of course, you are lucky enough to be piped to the canteen or other communal area. A captive audience over lunchtime too. My best ever ratings. At that station we never ever went around the wards but at others request rounds were done daily. Patients are often bored, and a visit from a cheery volunteer (or a curmudgeon like your author) can really lift someone’s day. That rather gives you a satisfying feeling. The feedback I’ve received from ward staff shows the presence of hospital radio can be a real boost to patients.

Its not all pleasant. I’ve met a fair share of Victor Meldrews who told me where to go in no uncertain terms. To certain places where you can’t physically play requests. And there are others who are clearly in another place or too far gone.

Collecting requests on the wards is where you separate the wheat from the chaff. The really committed will willingly go and collect requests week in week out, and for that they deserve thanks. Many others (and I’m included here) get out of it as fast as they can and then don’t bother unless they are forced to. I actually found it quite depressing for the reasons I stated above. Request collecting is something that one station I worked at made you do as part of your probation period. In the crudest but most truthful terms, many people who join are simply there to be a DJ because the experience is a good way of getting your foot in the door at the BBC or commercial organisations – or they want to massage their ego.

Then there are the programmes. Patient requests should always take priority over the DJ’s choice. Sometimes we had so many requests that each listener got about a 2 minute snippet, which is rather tough luck if you requested American Pie. And such a deluge of requests on a one hour show meant I couldn’t bring the listeners the latest in Chicago gangsta rap.

As a result of the requests, we had some very interesting juxtapositions. How would you follow Handel’s Dead March ? Why, with Smack Your Bitch Up by The Prodigy, of course! And it’s true – two songs requested to be played at 8.30 on the same night. That’s some mix. Could you imagine the maelstrom that that would put listener’s focus groups into at a commercial radio station ? The demographic models would explode. Who would have thought the someone in such a position would be wanting to hear something so depressing, though I don’t mind the Prodigy.

The playlist of most request shows reflects patient demographics and the coverage of your station. On one there was a very distinct bias to easy listening and classical music. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jim Reeves were far and away the most popular although The Beatles, Abba, Rolling Stones and Cliff Richard were all big hitters. On another we got loads of requests for big acts of the day such as U2 and Simple Minds. On one station on Merseyside we broadcast to the Maternity Ward which gave us a very young demographic indeed.

Patients do request some contemporary stuff and Celine Dion has been the death of me. Thank God I’ve not been presenting while the housewife’s favourite troubadour James Blunt has been in the charts.

The stations I’ve worked at have broadcast most of their programmes on weekday evenings and Sundays. The advance of technology means some stations now broadcast 24hrs a day using pre-programmed software packages. This really boosts the profile of the station. Many patients are bored during the day when the volunteers are at work. Some shows became poison chalices that no-one wanted to present. I recall real difficulty filling country and classical music programmes.

I don’t think an article about hospital radio would be complete without commentary about the members. Everyone I’ve encountered has been a volunteer but some of the politicking I’ve encountered needs to be seen to be believed. You would have thought huge financial rewards were at stake. The bitching and backbiting would put a bar full of drag queens to shame. I’ve seen it spill over at AGMs and witnessed purges that Stalin would have been proud of.

All that being said, I would like to show a special appreciation for all the committed volunteers I have encountered over the years. I’ve mentioned those who diligently collect requests and there are those who always turn up to do their shows. There are many, many, many unsung heroes who manage the stations, fund-raise, organise outside broadcasts and staff stalls at local fairs. These are the people but for who I and others would not be able to present the programmes. Thanks to you all.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Arthur Vasey 21 February 2016 at 12:18 pm

I myself have worked in hospital radio at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, Somerset throughout most of the 90s – it was, for me, pretty much what the article says – you have a six-month probationary period, during which you mostly collect requests for existing presenters – there were two lists of records that we had to exercise caution over – one which said DO NOT PLAY UNLESS REQUESTED and some to not play at all – songs like My Way were in the former list and Green, Green Grass Of Home was in the latter – the reason for this was that we had to avoid playing records about death – couldn’t play records with swearing in them, either.

Some of the younger presenters often turned up with only a few minutes to go till their show started – and just grabbed the top 20 off the shelf in the studio and played some of those for the entire show – they fancied themselves as would-be Radio 1 disc jockeys – as far as requests were concerned, artists like Jim Reeves, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck (the crooner, not the opera composer) were popular – occasionally, The Carpenters – had endless requests for either The Lady In Red by Chris De Burgh or The Power Of Love by Jennifer Rush – neither of which we had in the library – I was the only one, it seemed, who had both of those, albeit as tracks on compilation albums – later on, we were inundated with requests for I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, Love Is All Around by Wet Wet Wet or Everything I Do etc by Bryan Adams – must have seen the films they came from at the cinema.

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