What are talking newspapers? Talking newspapers are a free service. They contain a digest of local news and information and are produced by volunteers especially for people with sight impairment. Regular editions are delivered free by Royal Mail all over the UK. They fill the gap between national news and chatting to neighbours over the fence. Many talking newspaper listeners report that they are in fact better informed than their neighbours. Regular listeners enjoy hearing the same familiar voices in their homes every week. The concept started nearly 50 years ago. There are now over 500 groups and over 60,000 listeners.
My involvement began in January 1975 after being invited by my aunt to witness something which “might interest me”. Unbeknownst to me my aunt had taken on the task of providing a talking newspaper service for the blind and partially sighted residents of the London Borough of Bromley. She had gathered together a team of experts and established a format for a weekly tape drawing on their joint experience of journalism and recording and they had produced a “zero edition” to introduce the concept to an invited group of interested parties. I remember well the stunning effect the zero edition had on its listening audience. The standard set at the beginning was professional and used as a benchmark by other talking newspapers. The original format is largely unchanged today, 2228 editions later. A name was chosen – the Bromley Cassette – which prevailed until the medium was updated briefly to CDs and then memory sticks with the event of digital recording. The motto “In touch through tape” was adopted.
What had my aunt been up to in the previous few months?
In 1969 Mr Ronald Sturt, who was then a Head of Department at the College of Librarianship in Aberystwyth, made a visit to Sweden to study communication problems and by chance met a group of volunteers taping news for distribution to the blind. By chance too, when he returned to Wales, he mentioned the scheme during a talk to local businessman, who forthwith offered to finance a local project if he would organise it. So was born the Cardiganshire Talking Newspaper in January 1970, the first in Britain to use high-speed copying and effectively the beginning of the movement in this country. Earlier talking newspapers existed, particularly the Enfield Microphone, whose volunteers would record the week’s news on reel to reel tape and visit listeners’ homes to play the news to them. The introduction of high speed cassette copying machines enabled others to follow the Cardiganshire Talking Newspaper and the Talking Newspaper Association of the United Kingdom was formed.
Mr Sturt, now the Association Provost of the city of London Polytechnic, was its Chairman and later its first president. By 1974 some 20 groups were in existence, and an interview with Mr Sturt was broadcast on the BBC programme “In Touch” in April of that year. It was heard by a lady in Bromley who had switched on her radio to hear her favourite programme: Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America”. She was a little early for that and caught a snippet of “In Touch” which preceded it. It was part of the interview with Ronald Sturt and it aroused her immediate interest. She jotted down “talking newspapers” and that afternoon wrote to the BBC asking them for further information. The lady was Dr. Ilse-Marie Leaver. German born, she was married to my uncle, an English journalist, and had lived in Bromley since 1959. She too was a journalist, an accomplished linguist and a person of great energy and determination.
From that day in April 1974 it was no longer a matter of fortunate chance triggering off events. Dr. Leaver devoted much of her time and skill to making things happen. The BBC put her in touch with Ronald Sturt who had told her that there was no talking newspaper in or near Bromley and that if she wished to help in the scheme she would have to set one up. This she proceeded to do. She got in touch with other talking newspaper associations and received copies of their tapes. In June the Kingston upon Thames association invited her to go and see for herself the whole process of production. After the session she came away convinced that she must proceed with her plans. Towards the end of June 1974 she addressed a letter to local organisations and clubs for the blind, explaining the concept and asking if there was a perceived need for a talking newspaper service in the borough.
Nearly everyone replied positively and the majority response, which indeed exceeded her expectations, convinced her that she had reached a point of no return and must carry the scheme into full effect.
Dr. Leaver used her network of contacts and was fortunate in finding the right people at the right time including a visually impaired recording engineer and a visually impaired ex bank manager, the future treasurer, both of whom had had similar aspirations. Relationships were struck up with the local newspapers and local blind associations. The then Director of Social services of the London Borough of Bromley was a man with great experience in care for the blind and showed an immediate interest in Dr. Leaver’s plans enabling the setting up of a list of 74 original listeners.
Bromley Talking News, as it is now called, is independent of the social services, council and blind organisations and relies solely on volunteers and voluntary donations. Without the Royal Mail free postal service for the blind it could not exist.
The process occurs every week and is as follows:
Editing – Each Thursday a team of volunteers peruse the local papers and extract the most interesting articles.
Recording – On Thursday evening a team of volunteer readers meet at the studio to record the articles. Well known local “celebrities” with very familiar voices have been volunteer readers.
The duty recording engineer then prepares a master memory stick of that week’s edition.
Copying and dispatching – on Friday morning the copying team prepares enough copies on memory sticks to post out to the listeners and puts them in their yellow pouches. The postman/woman calls to collect the sacks.
Saturday morning is the day it should arrive at our listeners’ homes.
They post it back on Tuesday ready for the office team who arrive at the studio on Wednesday to check them off on the register and prepare the memory sticks for the next copying session.
My involvement has ranged from helping with refreshments at early meetings and taking out cassette players to new listeners, repairing broken cassette tapes, copying hundreds of tapes for listeners (at 2 to 3 o’clock in the morning in the early days) and recording editions at the mixing desk. I have now gone full circle and have again joined the team of house visitors, this time introducing new listeners to memory stick players. The players are provided free by the organisation as part of the service. My late mother was involved on the administration side for many years and my husband has been involved, on the technical side, almost as long as I have.
We also now include a download of the BBC “In Touch” programme on the weekly memory stick, the trigger of this whole organisation 44 years ago. The Talking News is now available for listening on line.
Dr Leaver died in her native Göttingen, Germany in 2015, always maintaining an interest in her project.
Bromley Talking News is available on the website Welcome to BROMLEY DISTRICT TALKING NEWS!
You can find your local talking newspaper here Your Local Talking Newspaper
Source: In Touch Through Tape. The Story of The Bromley Cassette 1974-1980 by Richard Harrison 1981
© Audrey’s daughter 2019