Quiet, please, it’s time for words to leap from page

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It’s a crisp, cold Thursday night in the back streets of Boxmoor and the reading team are well wrapped up as they approach the silent studio.

We’re at the Social Centre For The Blind in Alston Road, and it’s time to turn this week’s Gazette into a talking newspaper – and just like the paper from which it takes its material, it’s a real team effort.

Each Thursday a team of four readers meets at the centre, along with a technician, but a lot of work has already been done to set up a smooth recording session.

Each team of readers is served by an editor, who fillets the Gazette each week to create an hour-long broadcast of news, views, comment and local information for anyone who has a visual disability and finds reading the paper difficult.

This week’s editor is Fola Balogun, and she’s some along to the reading armed with news cuttings carefully snipped and pasted to script sheets, carefully timed to fill the weekly bulletin and divided up among the four readers to provide a variety of voice for anyone listening.

Each reader introduces themselves by their first name to help listeners identify them, and keep the whole bulletin as informal as possible, and then we’re off.

With a thumbs up from technician Paul Brett, a 10-year veteran of the service, readers Andrew Sheard, Julia Langdon, John Farrant and Jean Sudbury are away.

You don’t need to have a ‘BBC’ voice to take part, as long as you can read clearly and confidently, and organisers try to make sure there is a good mix of voices, male and female, younger and older, on each of the five reading teams.

The readers go straight through the weekly round-up, only stopping if there is a hesitation, a mispronunciation or other hiccup, and Paul is quickly able to wind back and put things right with the help of a modern digital recording system – a big improvement on the days when it was all done on old-fashioned tape.

Moving with the times is something that the Dacorum Talking Newspaper has done throughout its 25 years of serving the community.

When it began in 1977 it only had 17 listeners, who were each sent bulletins on compact cassettes, which were returned the following week to be used again.

In their first base acoustics were so bad that readers were forced to crouch in a cramped cupboard, but things starting looking up when the Alston Road complex was built by the Herts Society For The Blind in 1989.

The complex included a bespoke studio, and continued support from Hemel Hempstead Lions allowed the team to develop the service.

In 2005 recording switched to a digital system, which greatly improved the sound quality even if the bulletins still went out on cassette.

A year later, tapes gave way to CDs, and earlier this year CDs stepped aside for MP3 memory sticks, which are played on a neat player which has been specially designed with simple controls for those with visual difficulties.

And once the bulletin is complete, there is still work to do – on Fridays volunteers create the MP3 files and arrange for them to go out to the 150 or so current users of the service, although the bulletin can also be downloaded from the internet at www.dtnhemel.org.uk/download.php – or use the handy link on the home page of the Gazette’s website if you’d like to have a listen.

Listening to the calm, clear voices of the reading team as they work their way through Gazette stories is a little unsettling if you’ve been involved in shaping the stories in the first place, but it’s very reassuring that, in the expert hands of the DTN volunteers, our reports have a satisfying flow in audio form.

Like many of the reading team, John Farrant found himself recruited through flattery – someone told him he had a lovely voice, and then invited them along so see what goes on.

Readers are only usually required to muster for a session once a month, so it’s not a huge commitment, and it’s clear that this week’s quartet enjoy seeing each other and catching up as they are working their way through tales of court appearances and community news.

The DTN always welcomes new blood and at the moment is seeking an editor, who does the vital prep work to knock the bulletin into shape. Fola, who has put this week’s script together, finds it a very convenient way of putting something back – it’s work that can be done at home and at a time to suit between the Gazette hitting the street and the recording button being switched in the studio, and with five teams working on a rota the job isn’t a weekly chore for any one person.

Anyone who would like to know more about the work of the Talking Newspaper, one of more than 600 operating every week up and down the country, call secretary Audrey Mackie on 01442 217918 or get in touch via the www.dtnhemel.org.uk website.