Kirkcaldy’s VRN hospital radio celebrates landmark 50th anniversary

A pioneering Fife radio station is marking a special milestone this week – 50 golden years of broadcasting.

Tuesday, 2nd March 2021, 4:30 pm

Victoria Radio Network, the radio station of Kirkcaldy’s Victoria Hospital, marked its golden jubilee on Wednesday, making it one of Scotland’s longest serving hospital radio stations.

It began broadcasting in March 1971 and has won numerous awards for its output over the years, which is generated entirely by volunteers.

Victoria Radio Network came about through the great love of the medium of radio by founder member, Colin Johnston.

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Tony Fimister plus early VRN presenters broadcasting from the broom cupboard in 1971.

He mentioned it to his close friend at the time, Bob Liddell, and they both ended up joining forces with local DJ and freelance radio presenter Richard Park, and Richard Park - who went on to be voted most influential person in the music industry in 2001 – to form a plan.

The trio approached Fife Health Board to seek support.

It liked the idea and gave it the green light. Bob and Richard joined with two other groups, pooled their resources – and Victoria Radio Network was born.

Colin and Richard, both from Kirkcaldy, were soon joined by Danny Burke, Arthur Ballingall and Tony Fimister as the station prepared to hit the wairwaves

From left: VRN presenters at Asda: Eddie Bowie, Laura Haldane, Peter Gordon, John Murray and Colin Johnston. Pic: John Murray

John Murray, former VRN chairman, revealed what those early days were like.

“From a broom cupboard in occupational therapy, they started with two shows a week on March 3, 1971, and from those humble beginnings would provide the training ground for professional radio personnel all over the country. With just one turntable and a microphone, they were off and running."

Elaine Bowie, who has been honorary secretary of VRN for 25 years, said the network moved out of the broom cupboard in 1975 when the members learned that the Anderson Trust had a flat in St. Clair Street, Kirkcaldy which was made available to VRN on a peppercorn rental basis. The team made the move!

She said: “With help from many sources, including the Friends of Victoria Hospital, money was found to convert the flat into a new studio.

Volunteer presenters from Victoria Radio Network VRN are preparing for a marathon 26-hour broadcast over a weekend in May 2016 to raise funds for the radio station.

“On a Monday in May 1976 the studio went on air.

"Mr A Christie, vice-chairman of Fife Health Board, opened the studio and, once again, the first programme was hosted by Colin.

"All in all, the St. Clair Street days saw the network expand into a full-blooded radio station, with live commentaries from Raith Rovers matches and outside broadcasts from shopping centres.”

John said funding for the studio allowed for jingle machines, a Ferrograph tape recorder, three quality record turntables, a speech studio, a growing record library and a member’s lounge.

John Murray won male UK Presenter of the Year and Laura Haldane won UK Female Presenter of the Year at the National Hospital Radio Awards. They are pictured with Fenella Fudge (BBC radio news). Pic: John Murray.

He said: "They extended the service to Forth Park and Hunter Hospital with live commentaries from Raith Rovers and interviews from the Adam Smith Theatre."

But with the buildings due for demolition to make way for a proposed dual carriageway, the volunteers were given a portable unit which housed its recording studio within the hospital grounds.

VRN’s next, and last move, in 1990 saw the network relocate to its present home in a converted boiler house in Willow Drive off Whyteman’s Brae, helped by a grant celebrating Marks & Spencer centenary.

John said: “From there, the station would go on to broadcast 24 hours a day on landlines and on the medium wave on 1287AM from February 2002.

“Relaying programmes direct to the hospital and surrounds meant events like the hospice opening and Raith Rovers finest moments such as winning the Coca Cola League Cup in 1994 could be heard live.”

Over the years VRN has won many accolades.

Richard Park, one of the founder members of VRN.

When it entered the National Hospital Radio Awards for the first time in 1993, it became regional winners for Scotland which prompted many awards including presenter of the Year which John has won three times along with the John Whitney Award which also went to Colin.

Many presenters have also won Hospital Radio Awards.

In 1997, VRN celebrated more success, including the regional award for Scotland and runner up for the UK – prompting a Fife Council civic reception, hosted by Convener John MacDougall.

Many presenters also credit VRN as their start in broadcasting both locally and nationally.

The roll call includes Richard Park, who is now managing director of Global Radio; Arthur Ballingall former manager of Radio Tay; BBC Scotland football commentator Scott Davie; and Kevin Brady, the first employee at Kingdom FM.

The alumni extends to Dave Connor and Vanessa Motion, current breakfast show hosts on Kingdom FM; Dave Price, Gary Robinson, Mike Richardson, Alex Horsburgh, Evelyn Brown, the late Jackie Storrar and Micky Gavin.

John also founded Fife’s Kingdom FM and was chairman at VRN for 10 years. He left in 2013 to join Colin to form Kirkcaldy Community Radio station K107fm.

Today VRN is run by a volunteer committee of trustees, and is chaired by Mark Sadgrove.

Mark said: “Anyone in any hospital across Fife can now listen to VRN on their own personal device, whether it be a mobile phone or smart speaker.

"Patients can have requests played for them from friends and family.”

Elaine said: “There are currently 20 volunteers and we are always on the lookout for more members - not just presenters, but people willing to fund raise, give clerical support and be request collectors in the hospital.

“At this present time Covid-19 restrictions has meant that the studio is closed to presenters, however, but hey are broadcasting from home so provision is in place for patients to access hospital radio.

“The station has been grateful for support over the years from many sources and without public support the station would have been unable to continue.

"The dedication of its volunteers is to be applauded.”

Richard Park added his congratulations: “When Colin Johnson and I set up VRN, I didn’t really think it would still be serving patients 50 years later. It is a great tribute to the volunteers that this longevity has been achieved. Congratulations all.”

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Mark Sadgrove, chairman of VRN, who has been broadcasting from home during the lockdown.
Former VRN member Sandy Izatt. Pic: John Murray.
VRN volunteers at an awards night: From left: Steve Anderson, John Murray, Elaine Bowie, Colin Johnston, Laura Haldane and Alex Airnes. Pic: John Murray.
Colin Johnston , founder member of Victoria Radio Network, pictured from the broom cupboard in 1971.