The Diary of David Heathcote (3) 

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Southend Action Radio was largely ignored by the adult football commentary team, and I suspected by the hospital engineer who had to remember to switch the radio circuit over to our landline at 2pm every Saturday afternoon. I think many weeks we broadcast to an audience of precisely 0.

In an attempt to get the engineers to be more reliable with their switching, I wrote to the man somebody told me was Chief Hospital Engineer. Days later I received a furious telephone call from TocH Radio leading member, Peter Vernon Salter. (You could tell a lot about him by the fact that he went by his full name.) I had mistakenly written to one of the “ordinary” Hospital Engineers, who then had been flaunting the letter round the department, boasting that he had been called Chief Engineer. To the irritation of the actual Chief Engineer.

Looking back, I can see how the both Engineers’ reaction and Salter’s reaction were typical of the stuffy 1960s. Nowadays the letter would be seen for what it was, a teenage lad’s inept attempt to get some cooperation from the engineering team. Then, it was regarded as a major incident. As it was, I learnt a valuable lesson in petty politics, but – fifty years later – I can still remember trying to choke back the tears as I withstood Salter’s blistering tirade down the telephone.

My own A-level exam clock was ticking ever closer to zero hour, and I knew if I was going to do myself justice in my preparations for university, I had to resign from Southend Action soon. And once again Mr Gibbons, the Maths teacher at Southend High School, was prevailed upon to find someone interested in tape recording…

It turned out there was a group of quite keen, budding broadcasters, ready to take over. Rather too keen for my liking, and I soon realised I needed to make a fast exit from the station before I was “democratically” ousted. A case of “The King is dead, Long live the King!” I produced and presented my final show, said goodbye to whoever was listening – if anyone – and handed in my key. The rest of my cohort had already left the group with their own exam preparations in mind: it really was a case of “Would the last one to leave please turn out the light?” No ceremony.

Nevertheless, when I came to fill in my UCCA form for Cambridge Entrance and in particular write my all-important personal statement, I was able to say with complete honesty that I had successfully run a radio station for over 18 months, at a time when the country was still buzzing from the arrival of pirate radio. My university application had the essential “Sit up and take notice” element about it.

To cut a long story short, I got an interview at Gonville & Caius College, where I spent most of my allotted 45 minutes discussing the ethics of running a radio station, rather than having to answer questions. That, plus my performance in the Entrance Examination, earned me an Open Exhibition (it’s less valuable in monetary terms than an Open Scholarship, but still an honour) and in October 1969 I started as a Freshman Engineering student at Cambridge.

I had no idea what I wanted to do once I had my degree – that was at least 3 years away. But I have no doubt that hospital radio played a pivotal part in getting me my university place, in particular at Cambridge, and I look back on Southend Action Radio with great affection.

MORE: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11] [Part 12] [Part 13] [Part 14] [Part 15]

 

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