Voices that bring the news to life

For 30 years, volunteers across the country have given their time to record and distribute taped newspapers for the blind and visually impaired. Sheena Hastings sat in on this month's recording of the York Talking Newspaper.

MARY Grainger's sight began to fail when she was 26. Her condition was diagnosed as a variation of retinitis pigmentosa, which attacks night vision and peripheral vision. But over subsequent years she became fully blind, and by the time she was in her 50s had stopped going out of the house.

Her world expanded again when she got a guide dog for the blind, and nowadays she and her dog Oakley are always out and about in York. She is also an avid theatregoer, attending audio-described performances at the Theatre Royal.

"The thing I've always missed most, though, is reading," says Mary, who is now 75. "From the age of three I was a compulsive reader, and no longer being able to do it was quite a blow. I listen to audio books now, and more and more books are being recorded, so there's a fair amount of choice.

"I listen to news on the radio, but it's not the same as reading a newspaper, as it has much more detail, and you get the more colourful features in it. When I heard that a talking newspaper had started in the York area, I signed up immediately, and it's something I so look forward to when it drops through the door once a month.

"The voices are very important. They use good voices that I find easy to listen to. They bring the stories to life."

Bringing the stories to life is the mission of the people who gather in a conference room on a business park one morning a month to produce the York Talking Newspaper.

It's 9.25am, and Graeme Robertson, a silver-haired retired management consultant in his 60s, is checking the wiring on the two microphones.

His colleague, retired city librarian Gordon Hand, is reading through scripts for the 336th edition of the York Talking Newspaper, while Peter Whitaker and Neil Hounan await their moment, poised over the sound mixing equipment at the far end of the table. They're on standby to record 90 minutes of material which will be copied onto 350 tapes and distributed by post in yellow padded envelopes.

At 9.45am, the team are "on air". Each side of the tape is divided into sections, with four newsreaders in male/female pairs taking turns to read a story, giving the listener or "reader" as they're called, a variety of voices.

Because this newspaper is only published monthly, Gordon looks for stories from regional newspapers (some from recent editions of the Yorkshire Post) which give information or entertain but are essentially timeless.

The first few stories are newsy: a new centre in York for the treatment of the eye disease macula degeneration; redundancy terms announced for Terry's workers; the Archbishop hanging up his mitre; the controversial merger proposal for two Yorkshire regiments; and the son who organises the weekly shopping delivery for his elderly mother in York by phone from his home in Toronto.

Teacher Sue Skirrow and Gordon take their turn with the some of the stories, while Graeme and Ann Jackson, a retired school secretary read the rest. Their delivery is highly professional. More than 45 minutes of material is recorded before anyone fluffs a line and needs a retake.

In the tea break the team explain the ins and outs of their involvement, and the logistics of producing a service which costs subscribers nothing.

"The tapes cost us 40 pence each, and the Royal Mail post them for free because they're items for the blind," says producer and chairman Peter Whitaker. "Ann and her husband Ken take the master tape and with equipment at home they copy it onto seven blanks at a time until 350 are done. They then haul the sacks of tapes to the post office, and within 48 hours the readers have their tape. Ann and Ken also keep the database, and monitor the return of the tapes for further use."

The service is free to readers. The recording "studio" and storage space for equipment is provided by the Wiberforce Trust, and the 1,000 a year cost of

producing the tapes is covered by donations from efforts like carol singers or presents from grateful readers.

Ann and Ken got involved in 1987, although the Talking Newspaper in York had been up and running since 1976. "I saw a notice saying that they needed volunteers. My husband was about to retire, and we were looking for new interests. No-one in my family is blind or sight impaired, but it must be dreadful losing your sight, and we wanted to help out in some way.

"There are ten of us involved, but we could do with more help. We need to ensure that there will never be a problem in producing the tapes, even if some of us are ill or are on holiday." This active group of youthful retirees happily give their time. Ann is also involved in the York Panel for Fostering and Adoption.

"And although we have 350 subscribers, we know that there are around 800 blind or partially sighted people in the York area who might enjoy the Talking Newspaper. Maybe they just don't know about us."

After tea and biscuits, work continues with side two. Graeme, who's also involved in hospital radio in York, can't get his teeth around the alliteration in "(The Percy family)... previously played a prominent role in public life."

He tries it twice more before it's perfect. There are no Radio 4-style piques here about who gets the funniest or most interesting stories.

This month readers will also hear about sheep dog training, the history of the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, memories of washday, a piece from Bill Bryson recalling his time living in Kirkby Malham, and plans for the future of York's Lendal Tower.

And what feedback do the team receive from their readers around York and Yorkshire exiles much further afield? "Well they send the odd tenner, which is lovely," says Graeme. "And today we've had a tape back with a note slipped inside the pouch."

He passes me the scrap of paper, on which a shaky hand has written: "Such a wonderful tape. I loved it all."


For information about your nearest talking newspaper contact The Talking Newspaper Association for the UK, National Recording Centre, Heathfield, East Sussex, TN21 8DB, telephone 01435 866102, or email info@tnauk.org.uk