20 years on, Radio Lollipop still has it licked

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IN a quiet corner of Edinburgh's Sick Kids' Hospital, in a room that once housed the VIP and royal visitors' toilet facilities, a team of dedicated volunteers is pulling together the latest Radio Lollipop broadcast.

There are a few requests to get through, some sent in by text message – a new addition to the hospital radio studio – while out on the wards other volunteers are touring the bedsides of desperately sick children encouraging them to chat, play and, for a little while at least, forget their aches and pains.

"You know, when you're in hospital, it's the little things that can make the big difference," nods volunteer John Macaulay with a knowing smile. "Radio Lollipop gives them that link with outside, it's more than just someone playing records."

He is speaking as the service prepares for a special birthday celebration. For these days Edinburgh's Radio Lollipop is considerably older than its young listeners – and in a few weeks' time the station will mark its 20th anniversary.

Yet despite the age of portable entertainment like Nintendos, MP3 players and mobile phones, it's still required listening for many of the young patients who find themselves confined to the city's Royal Hospital for Sick Children.

Launched in June 1989, it has now notched up two decades of, as John puts it, "putting a smile on sick children's faces".

And all from what was once the hospital's royal loo...

"It was decided that Edinburgh should be the location for Scotland's first Radio Lollipop," explains John, the station's longest serving volunteer, "but the trouble was finding somewhere to put it.

"There was a toilet space that was kept just in case anyone famous or any royals came to the hospital to visit. So we got that!"

Along with the room with a loo came 20,000 in funds to help buy all the equipment, records and technology required to operate a radio station.

And on June 3, 1989, the first disc – The Only Way is Up by Yazz and the Plastic Population – heralded the start of Scotland's first children's hospital radio service.

"It was incredibly exciting," says John, a police officer at the time whose love of music and work with youth clubs had drawn him to joining Radio Lollipop's Edinburgh committee.

"We all brought along a lot of our own stuff to play. And people would come in to donate records – vinyl 45s and 33s back then, even cassette tapes."

But what the station really needed was a jingle. And luckily for them, there just happened to be a superstar musician in town willing to provide them with just that.

"One of the guys involved with the station, Gary McWilliam, mentioned he'd met someone who was involved in a gig at the Playhouse. Through him, he arranged a meeting at the Sheraton Hotel.

"At 7.45pm that night, Stevie Wonder was at Radio Lollipop recording a jingle for us when his manager phoned to ask where was he because he was due on stage at 8pm!"

The Motown legend is far from the only celebrity to grace the hospital radio's studios. Latin American dance diva Gloria Estefan recorded a song for the station while at the height of her fame and Sir Cliff Richard took time out from appearing as Heathcliff to join the radio station's Christmas celebrations.

And there have been dozens of other celebrity visits to the station to brighten up the sick children's hospital stay – from pop stars Steps to Blue Peter presenters, from Hibs and Hearts footballers to theatre stars like Gary Wilmutt, and even entrepreneur Richard Branson.

The station even welcomed Geordie sensations PJ and Duncan, among the biggest stars of the time. "They're Ant and Dec now," laughs John. "And I doubt very much we could afford them!"

Today the Edinburgh-based station broadcasts for two hours, Monday to Friday and has around 40 regular volunteers who tour the wards encouraging youngsters to take part in games and competitions and hand in their requests for songs. But back in 1988, John, now 58, was one of just a handful of people helping to make the dream of a children's hospital radio a reality.

"I remember going there as a child to get my tonsils out," he says. "Back then, come 6pm exactly, a bell would ring for the parents to leave and that was it . . . nothing. There was no music, no entertainment. You were left surrounded by strange people and it was quite scary for a child."

He spotted an advert appealing for people to help organise the launch of the brand new Edinburgh version of Radio Lollipop. And he recognised how it could help transform a stay in hospital for a child or teenager.

"From day one it brought a smile to faces, kids were encouraged to interact, volunteers would play games, read stories, do things that the nurses might not have had time to do," he explains.

"Now the technology has changed dramatically – there aren't any records any more and everything's done by computers – but the idea of helping kids through their stay in hospital, that's just the same."

It's not only children who benefit from the service, he adds. It provides vital support for parents too.

"Sometimes parents want to talk to someone who isn't wearing a white coat, someone who can distract them from what is happening on the ward.

"And handing in a request to Radio Lollipop is a means of them letting their child know they are thinking about them."

Presenter Graham Barr, 36, agrees that the station – which broadcasts through speakers above each child's bed – is more than simply a vehicle for playing music. "Children who can make it to the studio come along, they play the Wii or press the buttons during the broadcast – it's almost as if they are presenting the show.

"They play games, do arts and crafts. It's a chance for them to escape the clinical environment."

Now an architectural technician, he was a teenager in 1991 when he became involved as part of his Boys Brigade Queen's Badge. He planned to stay for a few weeks – he's now the station's programme co-ordinator.

Even now he's taken aback by how crucial the station has become for patients and their families. "We recently had a lovely letter from parents whose son had sadly passed away," he says. "They wanted to tell us how they had great memories of him coming to the studio. Inside was 50 – it makes you realise how worthwhile it is."

Volunteer Stephan Verth, 22, has almost a lifetime of experience with Radio Lollipop – first as a cerebral palsy patient at the Sick Kids' and now helping behind the scenes.

"As a hospital patient, having Radio Lollipop to listen to and the volunteers on the ward makes a huge difference," he says. "People might not think it's such a big thing, but it is.

"Say you've just had an operation, you're back on the ward and all you want is to be in your own wee world. It's times like that when being able to listen in to the radio station or knowing that between 6pm and 8pm that night the volunteers will be coming around with games and competitions – it really does aid recovery."

Recent improvements to the Radio Lollipop base means Stephan is now able to manoeuvre his wheelchair into the studio to join in broadcasts. "It's hard for kids in hospital," he adds. "It can be depressing looking at the same four walls every night.

"A few play their Nintendos or bring in their own MP3 players, but Radio Lollipop is more personal – they hear their names and those of other children and feel more 'part' of something."

Twenty years on and the vinyl records and cassette tapes have been replaced by digital technology. In January it launched a new text service provided by communications business Veecom Systems in Edinburgh, which means friends and relatives of sick children – and the patients – can text requests direct to the station.

And recent money from the Sick Kids Friends Foundation has helped purchase a new mobile Radio Lollipop which is hired out for community events, helping raise cash towards the annual 7,000 running costs.

So important is the service that plans for the new Royal Hospital for Sick Children at Little France in 2012 will include space for a custom-built Radio Lollipop.

"It means when the new hospital opens we'll have our own purpose-built studio," nods John. "And it won't be in an old toilet!"

To find out more about Radio Lollipop go to www.radiolollipop.or g. Edinburgh Radio Lollipop provides a mobile roadshow for community events, with proceeds from its hire helping boost its funds. For details e-mail Edinburgh@radiolollipop.org.

GLOBAL SUCCESS

THE world's first Radio Lollipop was launched in 1978 at Queen Mary's Hospital for Children in Carshalton, Surrey, at the time the largest children's hospital in Europe.

By 1985 the benefits of hospital-based children's radio had received global recognition – and the first Radio Lollipop outside the UK was started in Perth, Western Australia.

The organisation has expanded with services in America, Australia and New Zealand joining those developed in the UK.

Edinburgh Radio Lollipop broadcasts to children at the Sick Kids' in Edinburgh as well as to the children's ward at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.

The service to children and young people is provided entirely by volunteers who have been specially selected and trained to make a child's stay in hospital more fun and less frightening.