Michael Alexander spent an evening with Hospital Radio Perth to find out how it helps make patients’ stay at Perth Royal Infirmary more enjoyable.
Handcuffed to his wheelchair and flanked by two G4S custody officers, the slightly agitated inmate from Perth Prison is debating his medication with nurses at the reception desk when he spots the hospital radio team approaching down the corridor.
It’s the intention of the cheerful and upbeat volunteers to go into the bays at Perth Royal Infirmary’s pre/post-operative ward seven and ask patients if they have any song requests for that night’s radio show.
But the first request of the evening actually comes from the prisoner who, it turns out, is no stranger to having his favoirite track played on air.
“Ed Sheeran – can I get Ed Sheeran?” he interjects after overhearing the hospital radio team introduce themselves to the charge nurse.
“I cannae mind the name of the song, but it’s the one with the ski jump! I think it’s called Perfect.
“You done it yesterday and you mentioned my name. Remember I want Ed Sheeran!” he shouts, his voice growing ever distant as the custody officers wheel him away down the corridor for the next stage of his treatment.
It’s perhaps not the most conventional way to get a song played on the radio, but for Hospital Radio Perth DJ Peter Drummond Hay and his fellow volunteers, it’s not an unusual situation for them to encounter either during their rounds – and Peter is true to his word when, just over an hour later, he plays the track on the live request show.
Hospital Radio Perth, which is run 24 hours a day by 35 volunteers, has been operating from premises within the PRI grounds for more than 25 years.
During that period, major changes have included the hospital undergoing a massive rebuild during the 1990s, changes in medical practice and the evolution of broadcasting technology whereby vinyl and cassettes have been all but replaced by CDs and latterly digital computer files.
The recent introduction of free wi-fi in many of the wards has allowed the station to launch an internet broadcast service which can be accessed not just by plugging in within the hospital, but also anywhere in the world.
But what’s remained constant, say hospital radio volunteers, is the care and dedication of the hospital staff while the dedication of the volunteers themselves has been recognised with the award of the prestigious UK Hospital Radio of the Year Award four times.
“Being in hospital can be a difficult and stressful time for anyone but hospital radio plays an important part in making patients’ stay a little easier,” explains Peter, 64, a retired Scottish Hydro employee from Perth who has been volunteering with Hospital Radio Perth for three years.
“We tend not to disturb anyone who looks asleep.
“The stroke ward is a difficult one, for example, where we tend not to get much co-operation.
“But generally we find that people enjoy the interaction as we come round and it can give people a lift at what can be a difficult time.
“For some people we are the only visitors they get!”
The Courier was invited to accompany Peter and his colleagues on their ward rounds and then join them in the studio for the broadcast of their two-hour Wednesday Request show.
Following our early encounter with the Perth Prison inmate, there was a mixed response as ever-polite Peter went against the clock to seek out more requests.
Several bed bays were empty, a tired elderly lady called Peggy – struggling after an operation – said she would “just take anything” while another female patient responded with an abrupt: “No thank you – I’m watching TV tonight!”
However, it wasn’t long before we encountered several patients who were delighted to place a specific request and, perhaps more importantly, have a chat about their stay in hospital.
Retired Perth firefighter and former Perth Labour councillor Jock Munro, 65, is in side room seven, accompanied by his wife Susan – a cook at the fire station where they met.
Putting a sore back down to years of firefighting, he was diagnosed with an aggressive strain of prostate cancer two years ago which had spread to his bones.
Following a recent fall using his zimmer, he is in hospital awaiting a hip operation – and opts for Linda Ronstadt’s version of the Eagles classic Desperado.
“Nobody wants to be in hospital but the radio does help take your mind off things,” says Jock.
Susan, who strongly urges men over 50 to get their prostate checked regularly, adds: “Radio is good for Jock because it’s easy listening as well. It lets you drift away. We would recommend that to anyone.”
In a neighbouring bed bay, Gavin Redford, 58, from Perth, has recently undergone a minor operation on his hand.
The owner of fitted kitchen company Premier Kitchens at Glencarse is back in hospital because the wound got infected.
“I’ve never been in hospital for anything serious, but it’s good to be able to request a tune,” he says as he selects a Bon Jovi track.
The dedicated and cheery demeanour of the nurses is central to the atmosphere of care within ward seven – and put on the spot by Peter, they select a recent track by English singer-songwriter George Ezra.
Charge nurse Sharon Sime says hospital radio is “really important” because it can be “quite boring” for patients spending time in hospital.
She adds: “Quite a few folk have just had operations today so they might not feel like getting involved.
“But a few days down the line they might feel better and be more interested.”
With a dozen requests collected by Peter and his colleagues in various wards, the approach of 8pm means it’s time to re-negotiate the rabbit warren of corridors and hot-tail it back to the studio for the start of Peter’s two-hour request show.
With proceedings running slightly late, fellow volunteer Colin Heller, 40, whose day job is duty manager at Perth’s Salutation Hotel, goes into the station’s record library to quickly locate the requested tracks with the remainder found on Spotify.
“I enjoy making a difference,” adds the lifelong St Johnstone fan who got involved after he saw something pop up on the Saints Forum page, looking for volunteers.
“It’s nice to get a wee insight into peoples’ lives.”
Squeezing into the studio as Sylvia O’Donnell’s preceding country music show draws to a close, Peter gives the “we are coming to 20 seconds” countdown for going live – and he launches his show with a request by ‘Edna in ward three’ who wants to hear Celine Dione, The Power of Love. The request was taken by Perth UHI audio engineering student and radio volunteer Michael Soutar.
“Now it’s a question of playing what’s being selected,” Peter explains as the opening track plays and he switches his microphone off temporarily.
Peter generally lets the tracks do the talking, but there will be a bit of banter between songs – and on this occasion there will also be a special interview with yours truly talking about The Courier!
Peter says requests tend to be mainly easy listening. But in the past “eyebrows have been raised” – for example when a patient requested Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper and Iron Maiden’s Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter.
“Occasionally you wonder if tracks are appropriate in a hospital setting!” he laughs, “but it’s what people want to hear that counts.”
Dominic Howatson, 21, from Inverness, has been volunteering since 2016 and is request show co-host for the evening.
The cerebral palsy and scoliosis sufferer, who uses a wheelchair, and even has a Hospital Radio Perth tattoo, does not mince his words when he says what Hospital Radio Perth means to him.
“Doing this has saved my life,” he says. “I can’t put it any more strongly. It’s my anchor in life here.
“I had a lot of operations when I was younger and wanted to give back to the NHS in any way that I could.
“It’s an important service not only for the patients, but for the folk who do it it’s very stimulating and it creates a good bond of friendship between each team.”
*Hospital Radio Perth are always on the look-out for volunteers and budding DJs. To find out more go to www.hrperth.co.uk