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Sheffield Talking News doesn’t miss a beat

Sheffield Talking News has read news aloud for disabled people in the city since 1988. Now on edition 1506, we found out more about this vital service.

West Street, Sheffield
Dom Fellowes

When Sheffield Talking News launched in 1988, it sent cassette tapes sent by post to listeners every week. Now there is a range of options for listening, including Amazon’s Alexa, a telephone number to call and podcast formats, with numerous USB memory sticks also sent out every week. Now on edition 1506, Sheffield Talking News sends news out weekly to listeners across the city.

Its audience is predominantly made up of people who are visually impaired, but Sheffield Talking News is available to anybody who cannot read for reasons of disability, perhaps because they can’t concentrate or can’t hold a paper.

Neil Blackwell has been listening to Sheffield Talking News since 1991 after a motorbike accident left him completely blind and with a head injury. He is also a wheelchair user with other physical impairments. He listened to Sheffield Talking News on cassette for 20 years before switching to memory sticks.

Alexa is now his favourite way to listen, as he likes “the fact that you can listen to the magazine whenever you like. And you can go backwards and forwards vocally between different articles.”

Listening online also gives him access to other talking newspapers, which he listens to keenly.

A person wearing a face mask and headphones
Disabled and Here

Neil is one of the service’s younger listeners. Many others have lost their sight later in life and are not internet savvy, perhaps having no online access at all.

John Stratford, the organisation’s technical co-ordinator, explains that this demographic is why getting the news on USB sticks is so popular for many listeners. But he notes that, as time goes on and the people who move into that demographic are more comfortable online, there will be less demand for memory sticks.

Mary Callaghan, Chair of Sheffield Talking News, is the only remaining member of the team of volunteers who was involved in its 1988 launch.

Mary tells me that the online shift expands the service’s reach but brings its own issues. Talking News has gone from knowing who each individual listener is and where they live - thanks to sending out cassettes, CDs or memory sticks - to relying on inconsistent online data which provides little demographic information. This makes it harder to know what listeners want to hear.

She said the number of people listening to the service using USB sticks is "now down to about 160.

"Whereas when we used to send out tapes, we were sending out 400 at one time. But that’s way in the distant past. We're conscious that we're only reaching a very small number in the city who are registered blind.”

Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind
Google Maps

Most listeners find out about Sheffield Talking News when they first access support from Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind, which owns the building Sheffield Talking News is based in, though they are an independent organisation.

John divides the listeners into two main camps. “A lot of the more elderly listeners seem to regard it as being similar to companionship, they seem to like the voices and the routine. Then some people genuinely value having the news.”

Listener Neil particularly enjoys hearing news about “things that are done in Sheffield in regard to the environment, and things that are done in Sheffield in regard to the care and the help of the disabled and the blind specifically, but it could be any disability." He’d like to hear more about football.

There are lots of talking news organisations across the country, more than 30 in Yorkshire alone, Mary tells me. They vary greatly, with smaller set-ups operating from sheds and front rooms, while larger groups, like the one in Sheffield, have their own office and an enthusiastic team of volunteers.

Of course, Covid changed everything, but Sheffield Talking News did not miss a single edition. There was a period when memory sticks could not go out in the post, but news was still released online every week without fail.

This shift began with the editors moving from physically cutting and pasting articles from the Star, the Sheffield Telegraph and the Yorkshire Post onto pieces of paper to digitally copying and pasting their chosen stories into emails. Next, John sent out tips for readers to record news articles at home on their phone or computer and their recordings were then shared online. The edition was compiled from there.

After many years of Monday evening group readings around a table on Mappin Street, this was a big change. But whereas some talking news organisations just stopped recording news, Sheffield continued to increase its output.

Mary Callaghan tells me, “We have an information bulletin after the news now, when we put information from RNIB and from the SRSB website, information that is of use to blind people: where the scaffolding is in the city, when we change the clocks, and recent developments in eye technology, new gadgets and equipment available for them.

“So that's a new thing we've started during the pandemic. And then we do the magazine eight times a year - that always goes down well. And we also have a slot that we call Out and About in Sheffield, which is interviews of well-known local personalities or walks around places of interest... We've done Kelham Island, the Victoria Quays, we’re going to do the General Cemetery which apparently is of interest. And we've interviewed people like the Man with the Pram.

“We had a Thai student last year, and it was wonderful because she was really easy to listen to and she'd never been in the Peak District, and she and a friend got the local train out to the Peak District. She did a walk over Burbage Edge, and she described everyone she met, what she could see. It was absolutely wonderful. Young people getting involved like this is brilliant.”

Neil is full of praise for the whole production team. “The editors do an excellent job in finding articles which I know I, and I’m sure other readers, have phoned in and left a message on the answer phone, asking them to find.

“They’ve done everything they can to make it as easy and clear was to hear as possible to do and it is extremely appreciated.”

Unsure of the future ahead, technical co-ordinator John Stratford remains hopeful.

“I'd like to think that we are serving a younger generation of listeners. Certainly at the moment we know the people who are in their 80s tend to be lonely, living alone. We know we're giving them quite a good service.

"But when that generation fades away, I would hope... there would still be a role for a talking newspaper, or talking newspaper-like organisation, meeting the needs of that group of disabled people who cannot read.”

Mary sums up the ongoing success of the organisation. “I never cease to be amazed at how it works so brilliantly, to be honest.”

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