NHS at 70: The ‘hero’ volunteers who help make hospital radio such a success

Hospital radio is an integral part of the NHS. Neil Hudson chats to the volunteers who help put a smile on patients’ faces

Believe it or not, hospital radio actually pre-dates the NHS, with the first station starting in York in 1925. The first service in Leeds began in 1951, although it has not been continual. One of the oldest is the Heavy Woollen District Radio (HWD), which today broadcasts to hospitals in the Mid-Yorkshire NHS Trust, including Dewsbury, Pinderfields and Pontefract. While many people might have an image of such parochial stations being run from pokey little rooms, nothing could be further from the truth, as Mike Binns, 66, chairman of HWD Radio, which is 64 years old, is only to keen to point out.

300618    Lincoln Livsey a Presenter on the Dewsbury District Hospital radio for 12 years (left) with Mike Binns Chairman  of Heavy Woollen District Hospital Radio, in the studion at the hospital.

300618 Lincoln Livsey a Presenter on the Dewsbury District Hospital radio for 12 years (left) with Mike Binns Chairman of Heavy Woollen District Hospital Radio, in the studion at the hospital.

“HWD Radio is almost as old as the NHS and almost as old as me. Some people imagine it’s run from a little broom cupboard with low quality equipment but it’s not like that, it’s a three-room studio with 20 presenters and state-of-the-art equipment. We have one of the best hospital radio studios in the area, it’s very professional. When people see what we have got, they can’t believe it.”

Their record collection is also vast, extending to over 5,500 singles, 2,500 LPs and many more on CD. Thanks to the internet, they also now broadcast 24/7, offering a round the clock service which can be accessed from anywhere in the world.

Mike, a retired salesman for Unilever and Hoover, whose wife Elaine is secretary for the organisation, said the service was an integral part of the NHS and even helps patients to get well. “We know the audience we have got are not feeling very well, that sometimes they are miserable, away from home and just want to get out and go home. There’s a lot of research which says that if patients have some sort of entertainment, it can help their recovery. It’s our job to cheer them up and help make them better. It’s a personal service, we chat to people on the wards, taking requests for songs.”

The station relies heavily on its volunteers, most of whom have other jobs. It has also broadcast live from Huddersfield Town FC and Dewsbury Rams RL club games, running collection buckets to generate about £2,000 a year.

Mark Oldfield, chairman of Harrogate Hospital Radio for the last three years, said their radio station was busier than ever.

“We have been broadcasting for 40 years, we celebrated our anniversary in October last year. We started off in broom cupboard next to mortuary. It’s evolved from there, now we have two fully equipped high tech studios. Originally, it was two days a week, now it’s 24/7 with over 90 hours of live radio.

“We have 27 on air presenters, 43 members altogether, who go round the wards taking requests. From July, we will be doing that six days a week.

“In 2016 we went live on the web, which made such a difference to broadcasting ability because friends and family can now listen. In our first month alone, we had over 3,000 hits. Last year, we launched brand new ‘app’, so even more can listen - we decided to invest some of our own money into that and it’s worked wonders, trebling our viewing figures. Within the hospital, we are at 148 per cent the amount who listen to Radio 2.”

300618     Mike Binns Chairman  of Dewsbury District Hospital Radio, in the studios at the hospital looking a  record from their vast collection of LP's singles and cd's.

300618 Mike Binns Chairman of Dewsbury District Hospital Radio, in the studios at the hospital looking a record from their vast collection of LP's singles and cd's.

The station is always on the lookout for volunteers, too. It’s youngest presenter is 19-year-old Joshua Dykes, their eldest is 93-year-old Harry Lewis, who still tours the wards taking requests, and their longest is Ian Wighton, who has been there since the beginning.”

Mark, a sales development manager for a Skipton lighting manufacturer, became interested following an open day.

“I was just so impressed by their set-up, so I applied to join. It makes such a difference, because sometimes we are the only point of contact people have. It’s a one-to-one service, playing specific music for someone. Telephone lines are always open. It’s a proven statistic that it helps people relax and feel better in hospital. We play everything from AC/DC to Abba.”

Over in Leeds, Francis Klonowski is chairman and presenter of Radio Allerton, which has broadcast from Chapel Allerton Hospital for 40 years. The station has been deemed so successful that the registered charity could soon be expanding its coverage to include St James’s and Leeds General Infirmary, which currently have no provision.

The 66-year-old financial planner first became interested in radio presenting after seeing a snippet in the YEP asking for volunteers.

“I think it makes a huge difference to patients. It’s the only service which can tailor programmes to them, accepting requests and making sure we play appropriate music and also that we don’t play inappropriate music. We also chat to patients on the wards and possibly end up giving them a bit of a smile in a way most other radio stations cannot.”

The station, which bills itself as ‘company in bed’, has a collection of 650 vinyls and 1,300 CDs. It broadcasts from two adjacent rooms but in 2011 they installed a brand new studio thanks to a generous donation from the Friends of Chapel Allerton. They have two CD players, two record decks and a computer that houses a record library plus jingles.

The other function hospital radio performs is providing a springboard to aspiring DJs (the list is long but Chris Moyles, Ken Bruce and Simon Mayo rank among the most famous).

Francis took on the chairmanship in 2003 and says he is ready for the station’s next big challenge: “I am already on to the next phase of our development, to expand the service into Leeds’ two bigger hospitals which don’t currently have any broadcasting, and to get our broadcast online. The music I play is fairly laid-back, easy on the ear, specially chosen to help the listeners feel relaxed – bearing in mind the situation they are in. ”

That said, he’s had his fair share of hairy moments.

“During the stations hiatus in the late 90s I volunteered at another hospital station in Leeds. One night I saw blue flashing lights through the windows and two fire engines were outside another part of the building. By coincidence at the time I was playing a Moody Blues track It May Be A Fire.

“The first time I had to ‘drive’ a programme I had no warning - the usual presenter hadn’t turned up, so I had to quickly select a few records from the library. About three tunes in, I looked up to see the then chairman waving frantically, before poking her head round the door and remonstrating with me to think before choosing the music. The song playing was Don’t Fear The Reaper. Then there was the time I fell asleep during my own programme. I sat back in the chair, headphones on, listening to the words of a particularly lovely song. Next thing I knew it was 20 minutes later. I muttered something about a technical hitch and pressed the button for the next track I’d lined up.”


Playlists for hospital radio DJs can be fraught with danger - here are some songs they try to avoid:-

Stayin’ Alive (Bee Gees)

The First Cut Is the Deepest (Rod Stewart)

Time To Say Goodbye (various artists)

Bye Bye Baby (Bay City Rollers)

The Drugs Don’t Work (The Verve)

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan/Guns n’ Roses)

Who Wants To Live Forever/ Another One Bites The Dust (Queen)

Killing Me Softly (The Fugees)


HWD: www.hwdhospitalradio.com

Allerton Radio: klonowski@btinternet.com/07710206950

Harrogate Hospital Radio: www.harrogatehospitalradio.org.uk