The Queen is not the only one celebrating six decades this year. Birmingham Hospital's Broadcasting Network has been providing companionship and entertainment to patients for 60 years. Justine Halifax reports.
For an impressive 60 years it has provided a lifeline for patients.
Never faltering since its first broadcast from Yardley Green Sanatorium in 1952, Birmingham Hospital’s Broadcasting Network (BHBN), as it is now known, has gone from “strength to strength”.
Following in the footsteps of the Queen, it is celebrating an impressive six decades of providing a diamond service.
Former Birmingham Lord Mayor Freda Cocks, who launched the station in 1952 and attended the station’s recent 60th anniversary ball at Villa Park, summed up the station’s long-standing appeal.
When asked to reflect on the history of the network, Freda said that what pleased her most was “that the enthusiasm with which the network was begun has never faded”.
Station spokesman Chris Friday said: “The network has undoubtedly gone from strength to strength and remains as professional as any radio station in the West Midlands.
“Time spent in hospital back in the early days was very different to today where day case surgery is common. In the 1950s and 1960s a two-week stay in hospital was the ‘norm’ and, as such, the station volunteers could forge good relationships with patients.
“The network began life at Yardley Green Sanatorium, providing live football commentaries of local teams, and as the service expanded it moved home quite a few times before finally settling at Warwickshire County Cricket Ground, Edgbaston, in 1966. And we still serve the Yardley Green Hospital today.
“It was at the County Ground that the network really found its place within the Birmingham hospital community and where it became a familiar sound around the wards, popular with patients, staff and relatives.”
Serving patients at Queen Elizabeth, City, Women’s, Heartlands and Good Hope hospitals 24 hours a day, it is manned by around 40 volunteers.
Over its six decades it is proud to have been able to help launch a number of careers, including those of the National Lottery and Strictly Come Dancing’s narrator Alan Dedicoat and BBC WM’s Phil Upton.
Another former broadcaster was Sylvia Williams, a former reporter at the Evening Despatch, a forerunner of the Birmingham Mail.
Commenting on her time with the network, Sylvia, who was known as ‘Churchill’ in her heyday, said: “I enjoyed presenting my own show but it was always better when you were partnered with somebody else. Being able to banter on air and bounce ideas off each other always made the show sound more natural – better for the listener and more fun for us”.
She added: “We used to play the big stars of the day such as Frank Sinatra, Jim Reeves – both of whom are still frequently requested today – Johnnie Ray, Bill Haley and the Comets and Frankie Vaughan.”
Sylvia not only played Frankie Vaughan, she interviewed him, too, as well as the likes of Birmingham-born actor Tony Britton, the late film director Roy Boulting, actor Donald Sinden and the late opera star Joan Sutherland.
Fellow broadcaster Rudi Hill also interviewed a number of celebrities, including the late American jazz musician Mel Torme.
Remembering the good old days, one of the station’s longest serving volunteers with 35 years under his belt, David Moore, aged 51, said: “It’s a remarkable achievement for the station to reach this milestone.
“I’m extremely proud to have been a part of it since I was 16 years old. I remember when we were at Edbgaston Cricket Ground Princess Anne came to visit and gave us a get well soon message to give to patients.
“Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee helped us to launch a fund-raising campaign when we moved to City Hospital. Paul also kept children on the ward entertained with magic tricks.
“I also helped interview Joanne Lumley at Alexander Stadium. On the other side of it I, like the other volunteers, have spent hours going around the wards talking to patients giving them an extra visitor. So it’s been a rewarding and an interesting experience.
“But things have really changed in 35 years. We used to go to the Hippodrome with portable tape recorders with real tapes in them and interview people performing there, while back in the studio someone else would have to put the music on for you. Now it’s all digital, although we have kept a turntable to allow us to still play vinyl records dating back to the 1950s.”
The station’s vinyl collection amounts to an impressive 10,000 records, including 78s, dating from the 1950s to the 1990s.
But its diamond anniversary has heralded a new chapter in its long and impressive history, for it has moved to a new studio at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
The station had been operating from a building at City Hospital since 1989 but it faced being made homeless when the lease expired.
University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust responded to a plea from BHBN by providing part of one of its theatres in the old Queen Elizabeth Hospital for the station to move into.
Director and technical controller David Horton, who has been with the station since the 1980s, said: “We are extremely grateful to the hospital for enabling us to carry on, especially as we are celebrating 60 years of broadcasting this year.”
One of the first presenters to broadcast from the QE Hospital studio was PR account manager Sarah Morris, from Staffordshire , who has worked as a station volunteer for four years.
She said: “Being on the new site really benefits our request presenters, who are now available to personally visit wards more regularly.
“Everyone is extremely excited. There is a great buzz going through the studio at this fresh start, which hopefully marks the beginning of another 60 years in radio.”
* BHBN broadcasts to City, Heartlands, Good Hope, QE and Women’s Hospitals along with the skin and eye centres. Visit http://www.bhbn.net/history%202.htm for more on the station’s history.