By Faith Eckersall.
Most people remember 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and the first ascent of Everest. But, in Salisbury, at the town infirmary, another important milestone was being set: the first broadcast of Radio Odstock.
Officially opened by the town mayor, just a decade after the opening of the hospital itself, the station’s come a long way in 70 years – moving from huge, cumbersome speakers to being available over the internet, as well as from units at hospital bedsides. But, says presenter, Gilbert Scammell, the values remain the same.
His live shows go out on Thursday evenings and on Sundays between 8am and 12 noon and subscribe entirely to the idea of bringing information, entertainment and a little escapism for people who are patients at the hospital and hospice, as well as for those who work there.
“We’re here for our listeners, including staff and patients, and we can be a conduit for them from the hospice to their home and friends,” he says.
Together with some of the station’s other volunteers, he’s been researching Radio Odstock’s history. One of the reasons the idea of hospital radio caught on, he says, is because it was far less easy for people to be entertained in hospital in the 1950s.
“TV sets were enormous, so you couldn’t have those in wards, and of course, there were no smartphones or things like that,” he says. “Basically, people listened because it was the only way they could get to hear their favourite music.”
Then, as now, volunteers visited the wards, chatting to patients – who often stayed for much longer than they do now – and taking details for music requests.
“I think people really liked chatting to these volunteers as they came round; they could request their favourite song was played, or make a dedication to someone else,” he says.
The original paper request forms show a lot of detail about the patient; full name, address and sometimes the nature of their condition which, says Gilbert, wouldn’t be made public now.
“We can only say a first name and a ward when we do requests but we’re back to going round the wards to chat to people, now that the Covid rules have changed,” he says.
While the station is now digital and has its own music library, in the past they were dealing with occasionally temperamental reel-to-reel tape machines, 75s and vunyl records.
“In the early days, there used to be a record shop called Suttons in Salisbury,” says Gilbert. “If a song was requested, someone would go down there on the bus, pick up the record, bring it back and play it, then package it up and take it back again the next day.”
At its beginning, Radio Odstock only broadcast one hour per day. The station now broadcasts 24/7, 365 days a year. Some shows are recorded whereas others, including his, are live.
“We have one live show every day, ranging from Caroline’s Coffee Break on Friday mornings, to Gilly & Friends, from 7pm-10pm on Thursdays,” says Gilbert.
Around the live programmes are pre-recorded packaged shows and they also have their own news service.
Weekends and evenings, says Gilbert, are most popular with listeners, perhaps because people in hospital would normally be out with friends and family at the time. Favourite music changes with the decades but, he says, Cliff Richard and the Irish singer Daniel O’Donnell are perennially popular with ‘our recycled teenagers!’.
The station is supported by a range of volunteers who all have other work – Gilbert is a Tesco Community Champion. They also have a school teacher as well as civil servants assisting.
They have a partnership with Salisbury Hospice Charity but, says Gilbert: “We always welcome offers of help, or of fundraising.”
Radio Odstock’s anniversary falls in July but they will be celebrating all year. To listen or find out more, visit radioodstock.org.uk