Whatever happened to hospital radio?

Microphone on mixing desk

With competition from MP3 players and laptops, is there still a place for hospital radio in the hearts of today's patients, asks Rob Crossan.

When I began my radio career two decades ago at the tender age of 14 at Radio Lion at the Countess of Chester Hospital, there was a list pinned to the studio window.

It made it very clear that playing Girlfriend in a Coma by The Smiths, Suicide is Painless from Mash or I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight were sackable offences.

In the intervening two decades it would seem hospital radio has developed a sense of humour. "If we've got it, then we'll play it," says Nigel Dallard, secretary of the Hospital Radio Association.

But is there any need for such a service today when patients have the options of laptops, MP3 and portable DVD players to have by their bedside?

"Patients often see us as a friend outside of visiting hours and we provide a touch that they're not going to get from just watching a DVD or reading a magazine," says Anna O'Brien, presenter on Winchester Hospital Radio.

Their daily evening request show Sound Remedy is hosted by O'Brien and Tom Watters, and there are 30 volunteers running the station. It is now in its 28th year.

They occupy a professional-looking studio equipped with flat-screen TVs feeding in Sky News and the usual radio studio clutter of old CDs, paper cups and chaotic notice boards.

"Think Patient", says one huge sign above the studio clock.

"There's no other type of radio station where we can have such a unique personal relationship with the listeners," says O'Brien. "We only have to step out of the door of the studio inside the hospital and we can be at their bedside to take requests or just have a chat. A 'normal' radio station just can't do that."

Thus the hospital radio is the most listened to station among patients.

But it would appear that hospital radio's heyday is over. In the 1980s there were over 350 hospital radio stations operating in the UK.

Today, due to the battle for funding and the closure or merging of many UK hospitals, there are now barely 200.

My former station, Radio Lion, was one of the hundreds that have closed down. The typical reasons are lack of space (all stations broadcast on hospital sites and have to negotiate room with the NHS), money or volunteers.

Hospital radio has been the proving ground for a slew of famous DJs. Chris Moyles, Ken Bruce and Simon Mayo all began taking requests on the wards at their local stations and at Winchester alone produced Radio 1's Scott Mills and former CBBC presenter Phillipa Forrester.

As the show commences there are no slick "beds" of sound that O'Brien talks over, nor are there breaks for adverts or product placement. This is "back to basics" radio - simply a presenter playing records that patients want to hear and interspersing it with clips from old comedy shows and the occasional nugget of light hearted news from the day's papers.

It's a long way from Radio One but is the main reason people choose to volunteer simply to get their first rung on the career ladder? Tom Watters, who takes requests on the wards from the patients, doesn't think so.

"There's volunteers here ranging in age from 18 to 60 plus and there's no way they all want to be professional DJs," he tells me. "People do it because they want to communicate and try and help people who are going through a difficult time and maybe don't have laptops and DVDs to keep them company. I definitely do want to work in radio professionally but if that's all I wanted then I wouldn't be accepted here."

The health benefits of hospital radio and other patient stimulation - from in ward bingo to quizzes - has been noted by the British Medical Association. Last year Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, said: "What people sometimes forget is that while helping people to feel better during their hospital stay we can reduce their need for painkillers. They have shorter times in hospital, shorter time for the problems of being in hospital and of course, save money."

The remaining hospital radio stations seem to have enough stamina to continue against the competing demands of Xbox and Spotify.

Just to prove that the days of humourless banned lists are gone forever, when the studio light goes red O'Brien leans into the microphone and says: "Going out to Dave in Bartlett Ward, this is The Killers."