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Radio Lollipop

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By PJ Swift From Pass It On! Issue #36 (Fall 2000)

When I was four years old, I was hospitalized for several weeks. The nature of my illness required that I be admitted to a specialized children’s hospital, miles from my home. My mom didn’t drive, so she had to take the bus and transfer twice, just to come and see me. Then there was her job and my older sister’s child-care needs. Suffice it to say, I didn’t see my family much while I was in the hospital. It was a very unsettling experience.

There were the hundreds of needles and constant tests from the doctors. The nurses kept on changing; I hardly knew anyone’s name. And somehow, the kids in the beds next to me kept vanishing with no explanation. There were long days and even longer nights. I felt bored and lonesome and very scared. Nowadays, many hospital workers seem to be more sensitive to the needs of children.

There are specialized residences, such as Ronald McDonald houses, so that families can stay near kids while they’re hospitalized. Some hospitals have “child-life” or “family-resource” services, bringing toys, books, and tapes to kids. And some hospitals even have a closed-circuit TV system, featuring G-rated movies on a continuous loop. But surprisingly, there are few organized, national programs that address the loneliness and isolation of kids in hospitals, here in the United States or in other countries.

Although there is the “Starwave” internet program, there are few “big brothers in hospitals” or “hospital-parent associations” that can link real volunteers with real kids or bring entertainment during those long afternoons and nights. That is, there were none until Radio Lollipop came along. Radio Lollipop was started 1978 at Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children in Surrey, England, by Mr. Hedley Finn. At the time, Queen Mary’s was the largest children’s hospital in Europe, with over 36 wards on 92 acres. Yet, like many hospitals, Queen Mary’s had no organized entertainment services for children.

Radio Lollipop had a simple goal: to bring a steady stream of nightly entertainment directly to kids in their beds. And what better way to do this than through radio? The plan included providing children with special phone lines linking their rooms directly to the hospital’s onsite radio studio, so that they could call in requests or tell a joke “on the air.” Although the focus of the program would be on the nightly two-hour radio show, Radio Lollipop would also provide other services for kids, such as parties and hands-on play activities. The radio show would provide the catalyst for bringing kids and volunteer radio staff together. And Radio Lollipop did provide that catalyst, with great success. It took just over a year to raise funds, wire the wards at Queen Mary’s for radio and telephone, build the studio, and recruit a team of broadcasters and facilitators. Soon, the Radio Lollipop idea spread throughout Great Britain.

There are currently over eight hospitals in the U.K. that feature such site-specific radio programming, in Southampton, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, and two in Bristol. In addition, there are partner programs in Australia and New Zealand and two in the U.S. One such hospital is Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. The child-life coordinator there is a new CMN member, Katie Hopkins, daughter of longtime CMN member Susan Hopkins. The program started up and, under its own direction, recruited volunteers for the after-hours program. Katie says that the Radio Lollipop program has been a true gift for Texas Children’s: “Before Radio Lollipop, every child-life specialist left at 5 PM, and nothing happened for the kids after that. Now, kids can come down [to the studio] and interact with our new volunteers and the radio program. It’s been wonderful—we’re not just `the toy ladies,’ passing out toys, anymore.” While some hospitals can take the “feed” or entire Radio Lollipop program signal from other hospitals, Texas Children’s has built its own closed-circuit station. That way, kids at the hospital can interact with other kids from the same hospital via the radio signal.

It doesn’t take much in the way of equipment to create such a station, especially if the hospital is already wired for TV. Although the station only had about 100 recordings to rotate into its programming in the beginning, the kids themselves provided a lot of diversity. They told jokes, they said hi to their friends, they made dedications, or they provided commentary. Katie says that the entire Radio Lollipop program—the station and its outreach activities—allows children to “step away from what their [health] issues are and come and be a kid.

It gets kids talking to each other and doing stuff that’s fun.” By PJ Swift From Pass It On! Issue #36 (Fall 2000)