Who Listens To Hospital Radio These Days?

We wrote a couple of articles for the trade press that helped our radio career no end.

Anybody Out There?

If we are out to criticise the audience figures of hospital radio stations, then could we state the numbers gathered around the radio for the Bob Ellis Music Show? No matter which way we look at it, it wasn't a lot.

The Ratings Game is radio's black art. The figure given for any presenter will be an average, not the simple averages we learned in school but averages biased by time of day and demographics - groups broken down by age and sex, to use the old gag - into which the listening millions fall. They play a weighting game.

For us to set an average for my fan club, I'll need maximum and minimum figures to play with. Setting the minimum is easy. Zero. In the early days at my station, we “took over” Channel One on the headsets by switching us on and Radio 1 off. This meant we used the hospital's headphone system and, as we had decided the best level to send was when the PPM pinged against the end-stop, we blew the thing up at regular intervals.

Consider now the plight of the maintenance electrician. Given the choice of a emergency kidney machine repair in Dialysis or resetting the trip for the hospital radio, which do you think he goes for? As a charity group, he won't feel bound to let the station know when they are on-air again. So, our best efforts, including mine, went no further than the techie's reset button. If the system was ever damaged by a careless hospital station, the local PCT (Primary Care Trust - I'm sure you have heard of yours) rightly never saw funding for repairs as a priority.

Requesting a reset gave the bloke on duty the editorial powers of Michael Grade. If he wanted to carry on listening to Radio 1, he would do. We are agreed, then. My minimum audience figure was zero, zippo, zilch. Nowt.

What of the maximum? Our publicity said we could reach 3,000 bedsides. A more realistic figure came when we went request collecting. So many factors conspire to keep patients, or are they clients now, away from the radio. Health, faulty headsets, faulty programming as in they simply not liking you, the TV, the iPod, catching up on reading, endless visitors turning up as the hours become more flexible, leering at nurses and nurses getting their revenge; "We always keep our bedpans in the freezer, Mr Ellis, as it discourages MRSA".

BBC Audience Research suggests you can get an idea of your audience figures by the correspondence you get weighted by the area demographic and previous experience of their likelihood to write. At least you can be sure that those who are down for a request that night will be listening. At least until Eastenders starts.

No, in the end you send out people with clipboards to do an actual headcount. I had to be pressured to do this by the station boss. Pure protectionism on my part. I really felt we were not getting back what we were putting in terms of reaction. I was right. Local students did the count. They came back with 42, then used all sorts of excuses to run back into the hills of Derbyshire. Forty-two?

Could it have been 42% of the 3,000 beds? If it was and the result rolled out over the UK, we would be the most listened to in the country. After all, Radio 1 was only getting 23% in its quandam days.

If it was 42%, even of those in our hospitals we would have nearly twice the audience for the local brand leader, BBC Radio Derby. In any event, it would be one hell of a result to take to the Trust managers.

If it was 42% of the people available to listen, then we still have reason to be proud. After all, those stations that are public service providers are not looking for a mass audience, are they?

Even it was a total of only 42 souls, it would still be worth doing. A little expensive, perhaps, compared to the activities of the League of Friends. In The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, 42 was seen as the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. You don't think our student friends found the results of the listener survey so inconclusive, they just said "Forty-two" knowing we'd see the joke and buggered off?

No surely not. Another survey I completely failed with was The Great Music Debate. Ask as many patients, listeners or not, to name their favourite artist or composer. The results could be a benchmark for producers who are not otherwise guided by requests. When my results came up with a music mix closer to Radio 2/Classic FM/Radio Derby, the younger presenters ignored it on the "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he" basis and compounded their indifference by voting me out at the next AGM. My campaign for standards was rewarded by The Order of The Boot the following September. Funny old world, isn't it?

The last word must go to Sir Terry Wogan when he suggested that a hospital radio audience only consists of those poor folk too weak to reach up and switch the thing off.

A Lost Cause?

It had to happen. The need for a consistent Corporate Image has even found it's way down to Hospital Radio.

The thousands of volunteers who keep Hospital Radio on the air nationwide have not been forced into grey suits yet, but down in Head Office something stirs.

The title of NAHBO, the dear old-fashioned name of the National Association of Hospital Broadcasting Organizations has gone. Catchy though it was, changing times mean new thinking and the new title reflects this. From now, they will be known as The HBA, quite simply The Hospital Broadcasting Association.

Hospital radio is the second largest charity with no full-time paid members supporting a network of over 300 stations in the UK and around the world. We feel the time has now come for this third force in broadcasting to take its place on the dial along with The BBC and Commercial Radio.

So many changes have happened recently in the way we listen to radio. The digital revolution means people going into hospital can take their radio or iPod with them without causing disturbance to others. The personal headphone has replaced the hospital headset. We see this as our greatest challenge and a real catalyst for change in the way we produce our programmes.

Hospital radio has to provide something different with a strong sense of community and identity. But in the end, a Radio 2 listener - there is a lot of them about - will want to carry on listening to Wogan when they wind up in hospital.

Add to this TV/Radio/Phone services, albeit charged for, and the hospital station is just another voice at a multi-channel bedside. The future does not look good, especially as Trusts look for best use of space and no longer see it cost effective to maintain the traditional headset system, some going back 40 years.

But stations are working closely with OFCOM to set up very small FM RSL stations in the major hospitals so we can take our place on the dial and compete on better terms for the short time an ordinary radio listener becomes a hospital radio listener.

But when FM becomes DAB, who will hand over a channel for hospital radio?