Many years ago…
In the early Sixties, a group of men from the Round Table set up a system of playing requests for patients in Birch Hill Hospital. However due to waning interest the service ground to a halt by the end of the decade. It was not until around ten years later, that a pair of male nurses resurrected the service, and Birch Radio was reborn on the 16th December 1978.
The first studio was a very Heath Robinson affair, and very small. The controls left a lot to be desired, to stop and start the record decks each was switched on or off at the mains socket. The microphone had its own switch on it, and the volume sliders were fixed to a home made mixer on the table. Long, flexible arms were essential. Electrics were also a problem, because boiling the kettle meant going off air, or else the fuses blew. Finally in the good old days, a trip to the toilet could only be undertaken during a very long record, as the nearest toilet was down the stairs, across the courtyard, and behind the kitchens.
As the eighties progressed, Birch Radio grew. An inside toilet was built, the second studio formed, and a larger record library created. Fund raising was a necessity and took many forms, including discos, raffles, sponsored swims, a bed-push and the member’s favourite – good old pub crawls.
In 1992 the hospital service was broadcast for a week across Rochdale on the Medium Wave via a studio erected in the Wheatsheaf Centre. An outside broadcast was also undertaken from Hollingworth Lake, including a interview with a fast moving water skier from the back of a motor boat.
More recently, the Birch Radio Roadshow has taken on a high profile, with the addition of a purpose built mobile unit. The team attend many summer events providing music, fun and games for the audience, whilst earning valuable funds for the upkeep of the station.
In February 1994, a long standing ambition was finally achieved, when Birch Radio’s service was extended to the Infirmary, thanks to a grant from ITV Telethon. This was then followed by the broadcasting of football commentaries from Spotland which commenced in November of that year. The commentary is also relayed to blind or partially sighted spectators within the ground itself.
In September 1995, Birch Radio launched Appeal 95, to raise funds to re-equip our studio complex, as the existing gear was getting quite long in the tooth, obsolete and unreliable. The outcome of the Appeal is, another story as they say!
A project plan was drawn up, estimates obtained and then the task of writing grant applications, begging letters, etc. began.
The National Lottery drew a blank, and another major funding body said it would be at least four years before our project came to the top of their pile. However, the good people of Rochdale in the form of Heartbeat, the Hospital League of Friends, Rochdale and Milnrow Carnival committees, Littleborough Lions and of course the Healthcare Trust, came to our aid.
In April 1996, Phase One of the project was undertaken. This involved completely gutting our main
broadcasting studio, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that when our engineer made anything, he made it to last. However much wrenching and grinding later an empty shell of a room was all that remained.
The old adage of ‘Many hands make light work’ came into play, and before very long, the new equipment was in place and working. Then came the biggest task, training all the presenters how to use modern technology.
To celebrate the completion of the refurb, it was decided to broadcast Birch Radio throughout Rochdale, Heywood and Middleton for a month as a Restricted Service Licence on 106.6 FM. This allowed us to
publicise the service we provide, and gain valuable experience.
In association with the Rochdale Observer Group, the broadcast took place throughout November 1996, and as well as being a great success, it also allowed us to swell the remaining Appeal kitty to the extent that we could now look at upgrading our second studio.
Two factors governed the choice of equipment for Studio Two, firstly our budget was extremely limited, and secondly the studio itself is much smaller than the main room.
Thankfully, as luck would have it, two new products hit the market at just the right time. Firstly a small but versatile mixer was launched, at a very attractive price, then secondly a computer system which allows music to be recorded to and played from the hard disk was brought to our attention.
A sponsorship deal with the Wheatsheaf Shopping Centre, which would see the studio named after them, allowed us to proceed with Phase Two earlier than had been envisaged.
Again the old equipment had to be wrestled from its fixings, and the room redecorated before the hard worked and underpaid contractor (his words not mine) spent a fraught twelve hours installing the new gear.
By April 1997, we had finished all the refurbishment and declared Appeal 95 closed. Due to popular demand however, it was decided to undertake another borough-wide broadcast, and in June 1997, Birch Radio hit the airwaves again on 106.6 FM.
Whilst all this activity was going on, our summer roadshows were still undertaken, a site on the world wide web was provided through Zen Internet, and broadcasts were continued to patients and staff in both Birch Hill and the Infirmary.
A re-launch of the service took place in February 1998, with new programme formats, and music content.
Unfortunately, our bid for a permanent licence to broadcast across Rochdale failed in September 1998.
A grant from the National Lottery Charities Board was received in April 1999 to purchase further computer hardware and the Myriad automation software. This allowed 24 hour broadcasting to commence during Autumn 1999.
As a consequence of the digital playout facilities, Birch Radio has now disposed of a the vinyl in the record library, leaving only compact discs and minidiscs as well as the music stored on the computers.
On 16 December 1999 Birch Radio celebrated its 21st anniversary. To mark the occasion, we held our fourth and best received RSL. This again included roadshows, football commentaries, celebrity interviews and a month-long competition, the prize for which was over £600 of holiday vouchers. At the end of the broadcast, a Party Night was held for all the competition winners, and their friends at a local nightclub.
Following a successful application to the National Lottery Awards for All program, the roadshow trailer was completely refitted in time for the summer season. With continued sponsorship by the Wheatsheaf Centre, the vehicle is used throughout each summer, visiting events, taking part in parades and providing the sound system for the local version of Last Night of the Proms.
In 2001, finance became available to extend our service to Springhill Hospice, allowing patients there to hear not only our 24-hour a day programming, but also the football commentaries from Rochdale AFC. Coverage from away games started to become more common during the 2001/2 season.
2002 saw upgrades to our Myriad playout system, allowing voice tracking for the first time. It also saw preparations for our 25th Anniversary year, especially the RSL.
2003 was indeed the 25th year of broadcasting for Birch Radio. A new jingle package was commissioned featuring montages of hits from each of the years from 1978. Then from 11th August, our anniversary RSL was on air for 28 days. It was another resounding success, and was also broadcast live on the Internet courtesy of Zen Internet, one of the country’s leading ISPs.
In 2004 the service became available through the Patientline system that was been installed at Rochdale Infirmary. At that time it appeared the studios may be relocated to the Infirmary too, but a lack of space put paid to that.
Over the next 18 months it became clear that Birch Radio would have to relocate by Spring 2007 so meetings were held with the hospital Trust administrators and members of hospital radio stations within the Trust. A suitable site was identified at Fairfield General Hospital in Bury, where the Bury Lions broadcast at weekends.
An amalgamation of the two organisations followed which was joined by HFM, the local community radio group from Heywood.
Studio construction began in October 2006 and Birch Radio broadcast its last show from the old studios in Birch Hill Hospital on 22nd January 2007.