Talking Newspaper volunteers make sure the news is available to all

BLIND and visually impaired people are still able to enjoy the news and features published in the News & Mail, despite problems caused by the coronavirus.

They are listening to recordings of articles read by Woking Talking Newspaper (WTN) volunteers, who swiftly changed the way they work when the pandemic began.

Tony Charters recording articles from the News & Mail sports pages

Now working from home, the people who create the service are carrying on providing a connection to the outside world that has become even more important over the past year.

WTN is believed to have been set up in the mid-1960s by a resident called Roland Hill, operating a one-man system from his garden shed to produce recordings to send out to listeners on a tape-based system.

Kay Anderson is one of the readers, using a microphone connected to a laptop

Over the years, a growing number of volunteers joined the project as producers, editors and readers and, in 1988, the organisation became a registered charity.

Before the pandemic, volunteers met each week to record articles from the current Woking and Chobham editions of the News & Mail and Woking Borough Council’s quarterly Woking Magazine.

At the turn of the century, recordings moved to a purpose-built studio at Moorcroft Centre for the Community at Westfield, but this had to halt last year because of coronavirus restrictions.

The system of recording, editing and despatching the weekly bulletins was quickly adapted so that volunteers could operate at home, communicating via email and an internet file-sharing system. Just one issue of the paper has been missed because of the pandemic

The WTN editor, Gerry de Lacy, sends out page proofs provided by the News & Mail and allocates articles to the readers, who have high-quality microphones attached their computers.

Readers upload their audio files to the internet using a file-sharing facility. The files are collected and processed by the producer, Tony Charters, a former News & Mail photographer who now lives near Christchurch on the South Coast.

News & Mail journalist Stuart Flitton recording letters for the weekly bulletin

One of Tony’s tasks is to equalise the sound levels, before he sends them on to the copier, who prepares a master recording and copies it on to USB memory sticks that are sent out to the listeners in returnable wallets.

Tony – who records the sports articles – has been working WTN for around 30 years. “I was roped in by the then chairman, Tony Ellis, when we were both members of the Knaphill Players amateur dramatic group,” he said.

“We wanted to record a play we were in and Tony suggested we use the talking newspaper facilities at Trinity Studios in Knaphill. We did that and I became interested in WTN and have been involved with it ever since.”

Tony was responsible for the voice of radio DJ and TV presenter Ed “Stewpot” Stewart, who then lived at Pyrford, appearing on bulletins around 10 years ago.

“Ed called me out of the blue and said he had heard about the talking newspaper through a connection with the RNIB and was interested in getting involved,” said Tony. “He came along to the studio and recorded articles in a very polished and professional way for around 18 months.”

WTN changed from recording on cassette tapes to USB memory sticks in 2010, making the service more versatile. Listeners enjoy their weekly bulletin by plugging their stick into a laptop, home computer, an audio system or a player provided by WTN.

WTN treasurer Tim Harris making USB stick copies of the master recording on his dining room table

Recordings of News & Mail and Woking Magazine articles can also be listened to online via the WTN website.

Sheila Smith, aged 80, has been a listener since the late 1960s, when Roland Hill was still involved. Born and brought up in Woking, she was diagnosed as having severely impaired eyesight when she was 16.

“It really is an excellent service and they do a fantastic job,” she said. “I don’t know how they have managed it during the pandemic but I’m glad I can still look forward to getting my weekly delivery.

“I just like to keep up with the local news and I particularly enjoy hearing Ann Tilbury’s column and the articles in Peeps into the Past, which always bring back a lot of memories.”

The service is free, supported by community grants from the borough council and donations from charities including Woking District Rotary Club, Woking Rotary Club, Woking Lions and Woking Round Table.

WTN is keen to attract new listeners. Anyone who is blind or visually impaired, or one of their relatives or a carer, can make contact via the website www.wokingtn.org.uk or by calling the association’s treasurer, Tim Harris, on 07971 512786.

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