Talking Newspapers are a vital resource for the visually impaired

For almost four decades a small group of volunteers have been the eyes for partially or totally blind Banburyshire residents allowing them to keep up-to-date with the town’s goings on with a spoken version of the Banbury Guardian.

Wednesday, 4th December 2019, 12:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 4th December 2019, 12:01 pm
A volunteer loads the USB sticks with the latest edition

Although not officially affiliated with the BG, Talking Newspapers has become a vital charitable organisation for many residents and now, as it prepares to enter its 40th year, it is are looking to spread the word anew.

Carole Humphris, the charity’s public relations volunteer, said: “We see it as an extension of the Banbury Guardian and part of the Banbury community. We are run entirely by volunteers and don’t receive any government funding.”

The first Talking Newspaper was recorded in Wales in 1970. The first notion of a Banbury version was aired seven years later by Banbury GP, Dr Hyslop who contacted social workers in charge of services in the town for the visually impaired about setting it up.

Two years later the idea was resurrected with the Banbury Round Table committing to taking the idea of a Banbury Talking Newspaper to the next stage. It contacted the Talking Newspaper Association of the UK, National Talking Newspapers and Magazines, the Charity Commission and the Royal Mail.

With the approval of the Royal Mail and the Charity Commission, Banbury Talking Newspapers was registered as a charity in 1980 with the first edition being recorded by round table members in February 1981.

The equipment, consisting of a recording kit, a copier and 90-minute cassettes and players was funded by the round table and Banbury Charities, and served some 50 listeners.

Since then, the number of registered listeners has doubled with around 85 recordings sent out each week. The technology too has been updated but the basic importance of the service to the visually impaired has never waned.

Alan Davies, a long time trustee has been instrumental in this technological shift, he said: “The past chairman, Peter Wroe, and I had been friends for the past 50 years and he came along one day and said, ‘Alan, we need to go into the future.’

“I had been a lecturer at the college in engineering and computing, so Peter said, ‘Alan I want you to sort our future out,’ and that’s what got me involved. That was 12 years ago.

“We’ve moved forward. We went from cassette tapes about ten years ago. We didn’t bother with CDs, we went straight to USB sticks.

“Users get a USB player, they just plug it in, it’s all free. To qualify, and we always make this stipulation, it has to be someone who is visually impaired or registered blind.

“There’s a grey area here as we send it free through the Royal Mail in special Velcro wallets, because mail for the blind or visually impaired goes free either way, but they have to qualify for it.”

There are also plans in the pipeline to create a Talking Newspaper website for archive material and a phone app only downloadable for registered users.

Currently the USB recordings are 90 minutes long, a remnant of the days when blank tapes were of that length and consist of not just Banbury Guardian stories but also copy from Four Shires Magazine and general articles from The Best of British.

The weekly recordings also feature a quiz and the Radio 4 podcast, Touch.

The original 1981 Banbury Talking Newspapers was recorded in the offices of the Heart of England Building Society, in Banbury High Street, thanks to round table member Mike O’Meara.

Recordings were later housed in the first floor of Anker and Partners Estate Agents also in the high street.

For the last 20 years, however, the team has been using the Royal Voluntary Service in the Cornhill Centre for their now highly professional Thursday recording sessions.

Alan said: “It starts Thursday lunch time around 11.30am when we get all the wallets back from the Royal Mail and we go through them, sort them, work out who hasn’t sent them back, take the USB sticks out and turn the labels on the wallets over, ready for the evening.

“At around 7pm we set up the studio at the RVS Centre, and three readers and an engineer come in. They then record from 7pm onwards. When that finishes, around quarter past nine, another team comes in, duplicates the recordings and puts it onto the USB sticks which go into the Royal Mail wallets.”

The arrival of the USB sticks is a highly anticipated part of the week for many users with one saying: “It’s like a friend being delivered through the letterbox every week. I look forward to it as I don’t get out much.”

The charity has long embraced technology replacing cassette tape with USB sticks a decade ago but in terms of public awareness and fundraising it has, for too long, flown under the radar.

The charity is now hoping to turn that around and is planning a number of initiatives to heighten its profile.

New publicity awareness officer, Carole Humphris said: “I went to four opticians in Banbury and only two knew about us. We had a brainstorming session so flyers are going around.

“We’re trying to get into care homes. Some know about us but not all of them.”

The weekly talking edition is not only sent to registered users but also played on Radio Horton and Puritan Radio are sent a copy.

There is another, often overlooked demographic the charity is also targeting.

Carole said: “It’s also getting to the younger people who have difficulties with sight.

“We want to try to set up a stall at the mayor’s day in the park so the public can come and raise a bit of money because there is not a lot of fundraising that goes on really.

“We have had donations but the money dwindles .What I would really want is to get a sponsor and they could advertise on our website.”

For more information on receiving the service call 01295 258193. For volunteering inquiries call 01295 269500. Alternatively email [email protected] or visit www.banburytn.co.uk.