Whipps Cross Radio And Fifty Years Of Service

Looking right back we started in a transplanted wooden garden shed in 1969 and it wasn’t until 1992 that we moved into professional studios in the main building. Those early days were rudimentary and involved playing vinyl records and cassette tapes, on dilapidated equipment. CDs were still 15 years away.

The station was co-founded by Chris Rowsell who was running a service at Chelmsford Hospital. Enquiring at the Walthamstow office of Commercial Union Insurance about equipment cover, he met Ivor Gilbert, a committee member of the Walthamstow Lions Club. Gilbert thought that a service at Whipps Cross Hospital might be possible and the Lions agreed their support with a grant of £200. Ivor Gilbert became the first chairman of the station clunkily named Walthamstow Lions Whipps Cross Hospital Radio. Chris later emigrated to South Africa. Ivor sadly passed on in 2012. 

The station went on air in 1970, initially on just Friday evenings, and under the wing of the Walthamstow Lions Club. It expanded its hours and members during the 1970s but with growing arguments about who was in charge. Then in 1982 new chairman Mike Myers led the station into establishing itself as a registered charity, separate from the Lions. On the 12th Nov 1982 the Walthamstow Lions part of the name was officially dropped and the station made its own way forward. 

Requests have always been the bedrock of the station. Early programmes involved a weekly walk around the wards with bits of paper but in 1971 a live edition of Down Your Ward began with 2p pieces for ward payphone trolleys. This was later refined into the ‘Contact’ programme where patients were linked up via the phone with relatives who could not visit. It was very successful but put the phone bill up alarmingly. These days a live radio mic is used around the wards and, in an age of technology, many patients are in contact with friends via a smartphone, though patient contact is still a key aspect of the service.  

Fundraising has always been a core function, as it is for any charity. Presenter Pete Dowsett came up with an idea in 1983 for a sponsored 1200-mile weekend car drive around Britain, calling at other radio stations on the way, while back at Whipps Cross special programmes were broadcast. A car was loaned by Gates of Woodford (and later Hancock Ford) who also funded the petrol. It was highly successful and ran every few years until 1996. It wasn’t perhaps environmentally friendly but at least there were no dents in the cars – or none that was admitted. A guess-the-mileage competition was tied in and a holiday for two in Paris was offered when the drive was extended to Disneyland via the new Channel Tunnel.  

Many members have gone on to work in broadcasting professionally. In the very early days Ralph Bernard CBE began with us and went on to run the GWR radio group, Classic FM and GCap. Sports journalist Steve Tongue started at around the same time. We have also enjoyed the services of Alan Ross (ILR), Mike Porter, Annabel Port (Absolute Radio), Kevin Ward (Capital Radio), Clare Phillips, Sumit Bose, Geoff Hemming and many production and engineering members who progressed into the BBC or commercial radio and television. Hospital Radio has traditionally been a training ground and we are proud to have played our part.

The station has won many awards sponsored by the Hospital Broadcasting Association. The first were in 1995 for station of the year and presenter of the year (Mike Jones) and they were handed over by singer Frankie Vaughan at the top of the revolving BT tower and broadcast live on BBC Radio 2. In total there have been 16 awards since then for national station, regional station, best presenter, best speech package, outside broadcast, special event and best promotion. Our wall is full and the trophy cabinet bursting! It’s great to be recognised by your peers but we still try to focus on our patients.

In the summer of 1998 the station broadcast on FM for a month under the Restricted Service Licence regulations. It was funded by spot advertising and after an enormous round-the-clock effort from members, it turned a profit of £600, half of which was donated to the hospital. Advertisers included Metlock Printers, Bailey Garner Cars, The Curry Queen, Gates, Burns Brett Insurance and Spitalfields Market. The event tied in with the 50th anniversary of the NHS and was heard (patchily due to pirates) on 87.7FM over the local area. Another licence was taken up the following year for just a week and less successfully due to interference. The idea was then dropped as it did not serve well the principal reason for hospital radio – the patients. 

We have produced 24 editions of our patient magazine and guide (see our current edition HERE). They have been published every couple of years from the first in 1984 to the latest in 2019. The early editions were written and produced in-house with a rather ‘home-grown’ style. More recently Hospital Radio Publications have delivered professionally finished and printed editions. We provide the editorial and Michele at H.R.P. sells the advertising, does the layout and arranges printing. We also get a substantial donation to station funds. It works for everyone and provides some free, fun reading for the patients.

The station currently has around 35 members and enjoys strong support from Barts Healthcare Trust and with the aid of computers is able to provide a 24-7 service via the Hospedia bedside units, via speakers around the hospital, online via this website and on smart speakers in the wider area. Providing music, requests, conversation, entertainment, short stories, poems, news and sports coverage the station is genuinely a fully-fledged radio service for the Whipps Cross health community.  

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