When Russ Kane told me about his new radio venture I was delighted. When he told me it was ‘men’s radio’ I was less thrilled; then I discovered why he and his colleague Howard Jameson decided to set it up.
Sex and drugs, emotional health and well-being are the centre of my professional world, alongside working with young people. So when Russ asked me to be the first woman to speak about them on Men’s Radio Station I had no hesitation.
In 1979, I joined Capital Radio – then London’s premier radio station – as a member of the ‘Helpline’ team, which was a 24-hour, off-air, confidential telephone service open every single day (and night) of the year. It was set up in a time before computers, when if you needed to know something one turned to reference books and many NGO services.
We were a team of 11 from a variety of professional backgrounds (such as social workers, teachers, librarians, nurses, etc.), and we answered questions on anything and everything. We were the answer to the radio station’s ‘community support’ element when bidding for a franchise.
We were always busy. Shifts were 11 hours, 40 minutes long: One minute I could be taking a call helping a child find an answer to a homework question; another explaining that it was important to remove the plastic bag of giblets from inside a fowl before cooking it – and indeed how long to cook it for; then there might be a call about what safer sex means and often, into the night shift a desperate person about to commit suicide. Varied doesn’t begin to cover it; I loved that every minute of every day was different.
While I was working on Helpline I was able to attend various courses. I learned a lot about contraception and sexuality for the FPA (Family Planning Association) and about HIV, with the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT). We were just beginning to hear about it here the first case of a mystery illness which killed five men in Los Angeles was diagnosed in 1981).
Terrence (Terry) Higgins died in 1982, and in 1983 THT was set up. THT was the first charity in the UK to be set up in response to the HIV epidemic and have been at the forefront of the fight against HIV and AIDS ever since. I was flattered and delighted when they asked me if I would like to be a voluntary ‘trainer.’ Helping people learn about HIV/AIDS and safer sex.
Subsequently I was asked to become a member of their ‘drugs group’, which had been set up to find solutions to the problems of HIV transmission among injecting drug users (illegal drugs) and working towards stopping the epidemic.
Meanwhile, my work on Capital Radio’s ‘Helpline’ continued; they paid for me to attend a six month course at the (then) National Broadcasting School and I learned how to put programmes together, edit tape, conduct interviews and more. But I wanted to get back into my original profession; I missed working with young people, helping them to learn.
Timing was perfect as in 1986 the then government put up funding for every single education authority in the country to appoint a ‘Drugs Education Coordinator’. The ‘drugs menace’ was waving its ugly head and there was a ‘war’ to be won.
I applied for a post and recall, quite clearly, explaining at the interview that I felt drugs (and alcohol) and sex should be linked together in a curriculum programme akin to ‘life skills’. I got the job.
From working with one Local Education Authority (LEA) I was invited to work across a health authority and after a few years was working across two inner and two outer London LEAs consecutively. We set up teams that we called Sexual Health and Drugs Teams comprising experts in their fields who were trained up (by us) to work alongside teachers in the classroom and youth workers in clubs as part of the planned curriculum.
This all worked so well, however like so much in public service it couldn’t be sustained without funding and my department went through five reorganisations in six and a half years. I had to re-apply for my job ( or one like it five times) and eventually decided in 1997 to go freelance.
Since then I have been successful at building my own business working all over the UK, Europe and having working links with the US.
You can listen to Men’s Radio Station episode with Lesley de Meza by clicking here.
Lesley de Meza is a teacher, consultant, trainer, counsellor and writer with over 40 years’ experience in education, health and media.
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