Wealden Talking News may not be the most widely known news channel, but a form of news channel it certainly is. It is distributed weekly around East Sussex on 175 memory sticks to the poorly-sighted, who receive stick players or use their own computers to play them back. It also broadcasts on its website, bringing to life the main content from the likes of the Courier, the Sussex Express, Sussex Life and Sussex Living. In addition it brings pleasure to over 70 unpaid volunteers who run the organisation from its studio in Cherwell Road, Heathfield. The studio had a revamp last year with improved equipment and sound-proofing, thanks to a grant from the Lottery Fund and generous donations from the public, local businesses and several local organisations, including Sussex Lions Clubs and many other generous donors.
Heathfield has seen many changes over the past sixty years. Although a small town of around 10,000 residents, it had a poultry industry with Buxted chickens sent by train to London along the Cuckoo line until the Hailsham to Eridge section was axed in 1968. The axe also fell on the Heathfield studios of Talking News UK, when in 2016 the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) moved its Talking National Newspapers and Magazines operation to Peterborough in Cambridgeshire under pressure from the publishers to use paid professionals for the readings. This left 250 local volunteer readers disconsolate, readers who over the years had established close ties with their listeners although some had to travel many miles from surrounding communities to give their services. However, “it’s an ill wind….” and now Heathfield has bounced back, giving several of those unpaid readers the opportunity once again to delight blind or poorly sighted listeners, by offering news and views culled from current papers and periodicals for the sister organisation, Wealden Talking News. The Courier, the Sussex Express, the Hailsham and Seaford Gazette, the Battle Observer, and the Wealden Eye – all have given their permission to use their material without charge. From the internet or the small USB memory sticks posted to them each week, there is now access to articles about all that is going on in a sizeable wedge of East Sussex (around Heathfield, Battle, Hailsham, Polegate, Uckfield, Crowborough, and down to Seaford and Newhaven) and the Sussex-wide publications, though in their infancy, have a rapidly expanding audience.
THE EARLY DAYS of TALKING NEWSPAPERS
The original pioneers of local Talking Newspapers for visually impaired people in the UK were a group in Cardiganshire (Ceredigion) led by Ronald Sturt, a librarian who had visited Sweden in 1968 to study public library services for disabled people and found a tape recording of the local newspaper made for blind people in Vasteras. The first issue of Cardiganshire Talking News was produced in Aberystwyth in January 1970. The number of local Talking Newspapers grew slowly and by 1983 there were around 250 Talking Newspapers (TNs) and nearly double that by the year 2000. There are said to be over 400 today, offering weekly recordings of items from the local Press and features of wider interest.
THE ORIGINS OF WTN
Charities soon sprang up all over the country and Doris Boston, who was on the committee of the Hailsham Care Group, part of East Sussex Association for the Blind (ESAB), joined forces with Roger Payne to seek funding for the first Talking News in East Sussex. They applied to the Lions Club and were given £1,500 to buy basic equipment and more importantly, met and inspired Lions member Ted Davis who was to carry the Talking News forward in huge strides.
On the 3rd September 1975, the Heathfield & District Talking News Association was set up and on the 12th September the committee appointed Ted Davis as Chairman and Editor in Chief. Volunteers were recruited to edit and record items from newspapers working in a caravan in the garden of Ted Davis at Woodhatch, High St. Heathfield.
Heathfield and District Talking Newspaper Association (HTNA) issued its first news tape on 31st October 1975. Very soon up to 200 tapes were created each week and sent out to blind and partially-sighted people across East Sussex. One edition was produced with the Courier being read in full first and followed by the Sussex Express. A magazine was also produced that featured cookery, gardening, music, radio and natural history. Interviews were conducted and actor Cyril Fletcher gave a 3 minute talk every week. At this time, production and editing took place in the caravan by Hazel & Jack Mitchell and Jay Lush, and the recording was done in Ted Davis’s dining room. In 1976, Ted met Dorothy and Wayne Bottje and they quickly became involved to be described as ‘Head Slaves’ for the next 10 years. At that time there were 60 – 70 volunteers. In 1994 (the thousandth issue) there were between 250 and 300 listeners. Ted, however, had higher ambitions – the success of the Talking Newspaper concept led him to envisage a national operation, to cover not only news, but also magazines and other publications. This led eventually to a split of the local organisation, and the formation in 1983 of the Talking Newspaper of the United Kingdom (TNAUK), also based in Heathfield. HTNA continued to produce local news under the direction of Bob Slattery (Chairman) with Wayne and Dorothy Bottje, and new premises were found above the Oxfam shop in Heathfield, 68a High Street, in 1992. The following year or so, Derrick Trueman joined as an editor and quickly realised that HTNA would benefit from more business-like methods. He put in place a number of improvements and in due course persuaded the Trustees to change the name to Wealden Talking News. At the same time the output expanded to include separate magazine tapes, edited by blind listener Richard Foster.
When cassette tapes began to give way to CDs, WTN held off, and their confidence proved to be spot on, as the next upgrade to the technology, the Memory Stick, came along at a point when funds were sufficient to allow them to abandon tapes completely. Not only was it possible to equip the studio with the hardware to produce the sticks, but they were also able to supply every listener with a stick player.
The advent of new technology has to some extent reduced the attraction of the Talking Newspaper and together with local newspapers declining and advances in ophthalmic surgery and treatment, the listener numbers have now fallen to around 170. WTN are however, evolving to the next stage in the history of the Talking Newspaper with the first edition of the WTN being published online on the upgraded website on Friday 28th April 2017.
NATIONAL TALKING NEWS
When Ted Davis split away from The National Talking News and Magazine, in 1983 the new association rapidly became fully nationwide though still based in Heathfield. Unlike the local forms of Talking Newspapers, the national service built up a small paid staff to handle technical aspects such as recording, the production of tapes and CDs, marketing and fund-raising, and administration. Accordingly a subscription was charged (£30-£45 a year plus postage, for up to three titles). At one time, the service recorded around 230 titles including digests from the National Press and a wide range of magazines. The aim was to provide something for every taste, interest and hobby: not only current affairs, music, fashion, history, cars, holidays and gardening, but also more niche interests such as steam trains and classic buses, culled from sources such as Woman’s Own magazine.
At its height at the millennium, there were around 13,000 people with impaired vision subscribing to the national service, but since then the numbers have tailed off due to the wide range of other media available. A commercial subsidiary, Talking Newspaper Enterprises (which became Sound Talking), was established but was not successful, and the organisation split into National Talking Newspapers and Magazines (NTNM) on the one hand, and the Talking News Federation of local talking newspapers on the other. With 6,300 subscribers in 2009, NTNM could not cover its costs and sought financial help. The next year it gained the support of the RNIB, which finally took it over on 1 July 2013. However, numbers and income continued to decline, and the RNIB moved the operation piecemeal to London, closing down the Browning Road site completely in 2016. In 2015 their service became free for all blind and partially sighted people in the UK. Today, over 40,000 of them use Talking Books of which there are now over 60,000 accessible items, making the RNIB Library the largest of its kind in Europe.
Wealden Talking News continues to produce recordings from its attic studio in Bank Buildings, Cherwell Road, and these are available free of charge each week to the sight impaired who can receive them on USB memory sticks or access them through the internet. July 2018 has seen an exciting new initiative – the biggest innovation since its inception in 1975 – with the commencement of the Sussex-wide publication of four magazines; Sussex Life, Sussex Living, Richards Audio Magazine and a special compilation entitled Listeners’ Sussex. This includes subjects such as Sussex history and wildlife, poetry and listeners’ letters. If you are sight impaired or know someone who is, and would like to receive this service call 01435 862304 – leave your number and they will ring you back.
The recordings are made in the Heathfield studio by 70 unpaid volunteers – several of whom once read for TNAUK – and distributed to the blind or partially sighted on a USB memory sticks which arrives in the post and can be heard via a stick player, computer or tablet.. The recordings are also available on the WTN website (www.wealdentalkingnews.org.uk) which contains details of how to register for this free service from anywhere in east or west Sussex.
Wealden Talking News is a charity with a Board of ten Trustees, including blind listener Richard Foster who researches, presents and records his own magazine. The Board is headed by chairman John Clemence, and Dianne Steele is Secretary, responsible for the website onto which recordings are uploaded weekly.
The studios of Wealden Talking News in Heathfield, were upgraded last year and were formally opened by Councillor Pam Doodes in December 2017. On 20 July 2018 the studios were visited by Heathfield MP Huw Merriman who was concerned to learn that 90% of WTN listeners are not online, and promised to carry forward to government a proposal that broadband should be free for a limited period for sight-impaired people who struggle to meet costs.
Whatever else Heathfield will be remembered for nationally and locally, one enterprise is thus well known – talking! Similar organisations exist elsewhere in the UK, to cater for people who have trouble reading because of various disabilities, but Sussex can be proud that here in the south-east the service is expanding – and free.
10 September 2018