WINCHESTER’S Talking Newspaper has an unusual HQ.
Whilst undoubtedly a pleasant location, the funeral directors on Chesil Street is not the first place you’d think of for an office.
As you enter the pristine frontage of Richard Steele and Partners, you can see down the corridor to St Mary’s Chapel and the quaint garden of remembrance beyond – still no hint of a recording studio though.
But tucked away in a side room you’ll find just that, as a group of volunteers gather each Friday to make sure that the city’s visually impaired get their news.
A small, cosy room has duvets on the walls to muffle external sound, while a green baize table has four microphones dotted around the side. Somehow everything combines to give the place the feel of a 1940s war room.
“Yes, it does give the place a kind of war room feel! They’re just duvets on the wall but we take advice from two technical people who came in and assessed what our sound was like. Now, with these microphones, it is absolutely BBC quality sound,” says John Richards, the chairman.
He adds: “We’ve been here for two years now. But what you see here is the tip of the iceberg.”
There are more than 80 volunteers in all, but today’s “tip of the iceberg” comprises of four readers: Brian Woodruff, Vara Williams, Margaret Boyden, and Michael Wyard.
Although unpaid, all four have been chosen because they’ve got the tools for the job.
Their role is to read stories from the Hampshire Chronicle clearly and in an engaging manner, and they are encouraged to describe the pictures for their listeners, so they must have a strong command of language. All this they must do ‘on sight’. That means they get it right first time - no rehearsals, no warm-ups.
Little wonder then, that many readers, such as Vara, have a theatrical background.
“The Chesil Theatre supplies quite a lot of the speakers. It’s because we can read aloud with clarity. A lot of the readers are retired teachers, too,” she says.
The stories are cut out and glued on to cardboard – to eliminate any rustling sounds – and are recorded onto memory sticks as they are read out.
A basic and easy-to-use MP3 stereo is provided for listeners, and the memory sticks are sent out around the district on Friday.
By Saturday morning, people like 66-year-old Keith Hatter are eagerly awaiting the familiar sound of their talking paper, in its plastic wallet, hitting the mat.
“There is no way that I can read a newspaper. It’s imperative to have the local news, so I do look forward to it,” he says.
Mr Hatter, who lives in Hyde, lost his sight about ten years ago through an inherited, degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa.
“I need it not only for the general news, but also because as a visually impaired person you get to know things going on in the town, like major road works, or things that are likely to cause obstructions. For a visually impaired person, that’s probably more important than for other people.”
To some people’s thinking, the paper might have other benefits too: it does not include sport or advertising, while major incidents, death notices, and letters always make the cut.
Recordings cost the listener nothing and it costs them nothing to send back the memory sticks. Even the listening device is free.
There are 500 talking papers in the country and Winchester’s has been running since the late 1980s.
But numbers are in decline and Mr Richards thinks his group is down to around 100 readers, from 160 ten years ago.
“This is the pattern across the UK. A lot more people are computer literate and can access their news online, and blind people tend to get out and about more today as well, I think.”
He also believes that advances in medical science mean that fewer people are losing their sight.
But for now, the team on Chesil Street are still very much dedicated to delivering the stories we all want to hear.
As Mr Hatter puts it: “They do a magnificent job and they give their time freely. I, and everybody who receives the paper, should be very grateful.”
Clearly, demand for the talking paper remains. And besides, it won’t be going anywhere on Mr Richards’ watch.
“We will keep going as long as there is one listener in Winchester who will benefit,” he says.