The Norwich Talking Newspaper: Chatterbox

Location : Norwich

Starting up

I was one of the founders of “Chatterbox”, the Norwich talking newspaper. I would like to begin at the very beginning of the talking newspaper service.

In the early sixties, an Essex gentleman called Ron met up with a young blind man called Jack. Occasionally he would go and visit Jack and he would read some items out of the local newspaper. He was surprised how interested Jack was, but as Jack said, he can listen to national news on the radio but he never got to hear local news. There was no such thing as local radio in those days, in the early 60s.

This went on for some time, Jack going occasionally and reading the paper. And then in the mid-60s onto the market came reel to reel tape recorders. Well, Ron being a man, of course, had to have the latest technology, didn’t he? So he bought one of these machines and started recording local news items. Then occasionally he would take his equipment to see Jack and play it and they would listen together.

This went on quite happily and Ron was still going only occasionally to visit Jack. By the early 70s, cassette players were becoming more common on the market and they were cheaper and Ron bought one of those. He recorded a cassette, but he posted it to Jack and Jack had already bought himself a cassette player so he listened to the tape and sent it back to Ron to re-record. Well, that was alright for a couple of weeks but then the tape didn’t get back to Ron and he wondered why and when he spoke to Jack, he’d passed it on to another blind friend so there was a delay in getting the tape back. As the weeks went by, the delay became longer because they were all passing it round the blind people in the area. Ron then realised that there was a need for a talking newspaper, as he called it. He was very lucky to find that there was a machine on the market that he could just afford that could make several copies of the same master tape. That was the beginning of the talking newspaper service.

Word soon got round and volunteers sprang up around the southern area of England, and talking newspapers became established in big towns in the southern part of the country. In Colchester and in Ipswich the talking newspapers were established in the late 60s.

The local blind people got to hear about this service and were nagging one of our local councillors, Stan, who himself had only one eye. He had had an accident as a boy at school. He said he really couldn’t get involved because he was too busy with Council work at that time. It just so happened that I went to visit an elderly relative in Chatham and we couldn’t have breakfast on Monday morning until she had heard the local news. I thought to myself, this is something I could do in my spare time, so long as it didn’t take all of my spare time.

I wrote to the Institute for the Blind and they wrote back and said Norwich hasn’t got a talking newspaper; we suggest you contact Stan and start one. With Ronnie from the social centre for the blind nagging him from one side and me writing from the other, Stan gave way and we started thinking about establishing a talking newspaper here.

So it was in 1978 when we had some public meetings to establish whether it would be a viable proposition and would people back us. At the first meeting we had over 100 people and everybody was very enthusiastic. The second one, if we had 50 or 60 it was a lot. Then the next meeting we had, it got smaller, only 20 or so and by the time we got to the fourth meeting discussing how it was going to be done, there were just five of us.

This is quite normal when you are trying to get something new off the ground. Fortunately, we had a group of people who were going to be very helpful in getting it started. Well, that ‘s what we thought, just to get it started and get other people involved. In fact I worked for them for 28 years in different roles.

We had Stan whose business was marketing and PR. Bob was sent by Eastern Counties Newspapers – he was editor of the Evening News. At our first public meeting he had a free evening so he was sent and then of course he was involved, wasn’t he? He was sent for each meeting so we had an editor and he was also a barrister at law which was helpful when we were getting Charity Commission permission. We had Wally, whose wife had lost her sight through arthritis really and he was head of audio visual at UEA so he was the technical person. We had Sue who worked in administration at the AA so she was used to all the secretarial work and there was me. I was working at the hotel school at Norwich City College so I had lots of contacts. So, we had chairman of the meeting Stan, editor of the newspaper Bob, head of technical and recording Wally, Sue, secretary and me because I was very good at talking to people and co‑ordinating their skills, I was called the co-ordinator and fund raiser. So we had five people who were really keen on getting this newspaper off the ground and then it was just up to us to make it really happen.

Early decisions

We sat down and we decided right at the beginning that we were going to record on a C60. That would only take two minutes to copy once the master tape had been made. A C60 master tape takes an hour and a half to record. We were going to produce the tape weekly, and we were going to produce it on a Thursday, so that by the time our listeners got it, they had the tape at the weekends which people living on their own find is the loneliest time because their friends are busy with their own lives. So we thought about that carefully – weekends.

We decided the tape was going to be a free service, so we would only send to visually impaired people in Norwich because we were using the Norwich Evening News, so it would be Norwich based news. The content would be edited to the kernel of the story because when the reporters produce a story for the paper, they put some padding on to make it more interesting. We just wanted the kernel so that we could get as many of those items on a tape as possible. We aimed to get about 60.

In addition to the local news items we had interviews with people making the news in Norwich, so some of the stars at the Theatre Royal gave us an interview, as well as local people hitting the headlines. We had a sports report, especially news from Carrow Road, and letters to the editor. That was recorded messages from our listeners and we encouraged them to send us messages back, so we heard about their birds or the cats, you know, and all the things in their lives that were important to them.

We then decided that this was going to be a free service, so the people who were going to work with us had all got to be volunteers. Nobody would receive payment for anything and that still stands today – no expenses, nothing. Because we were saying it had got to be free, we would only ask them to commit two hours once a month so that it wasn’t too onerous for them, and anybody would be prepared to work for two hours for nothing, I’m sure.

Then we had to think, well how many people will we need? There’s more to producing a talking newspaper than just reading on the tape. You have got to remove the cassettes from the plastic wallets that they are sent out in. They have got to be cleaned and rewound. You’ve got to record who has returned the cassette and who you sent it out to, so that you know exactly who’s getting the tape. You’ve got to have somebody in there actually doing the recording and the readers. We decided we wanted two men and two women; a man and a woman on each side so that you got a variety of voices.

We needed people to copy the tapes using the high speed copiers and then we needed people to listen to the tapes when they come off the copying machine to make sure that there were no glitches. I mean, the first week that we actually recorded the tapes was fine. Everything was fine as the recording heads were clean. By the time you have recorded say 60 or 70 tapes, you are getting some of the carbon off the tape onto the recording head, so that it makes it muffled. So we had to listen for those and any with a glitch on it had to be discarded and then cleaned and re-recorded again. And then they had to be packed and ready for dispatch at the sorting office.

So, we calculated that the minimum we could get away with was 18 a night. For that reason we decided we’d got to have four teams. That meant I had to recruit a minimum of 72 volunteers! (laughs) We leant on our friends and relations and colleagues in the beginning. For the readers, we didn’t specifically say they were going to be readers but we did encourage people who worked with the Maddermarket Players to come and read for us, because they knew how to read copy. So, we decided on that number of people to come and work with us.

One group of people I’ve forgotten to mention were the sub-editors. The sub-editors came in to reduce the size of the story down to the kernel, as I said earlier. We recruited them from Eastern Counties Newspapers. Of course we would, because we were using one of their editors. He could lean on them, couldn’t he!

The quality control checkers listened to parts of the tape. They were very important because they had to estimate how quiet and how easy it was to listen to the voices. So they gave me a few hints if somebody wasn’t really up to scratch. It was my job then to get these people in a corner and say “Could you just do so and so”, without upsetting them and us losing them. That was something that we had to think carefully about.

The next big problem for us, and it certainly was for me as someone trying to find the money, was to decide on what we had to buy before we could become operational. The first thing we needed was printed labels to go on the cassettes so that they could be easily recognised as the talking newspaper – not for our blind listeners of course but for the helpers and carers and us.

We also needed the plastic wallets that these would be sent out in. They were hard- wearing and they had a little pocket in the front that we could put the address label in. In those days the address label was only hand written, but we’re much more organised now.

We had to have sufficient cassettes for every single one of our listeners, plus extras for new people coming in and for tapes that didn’t get back to us in time to be re-cleaned and re-used. I had to think about doubling or trebling the number of cassettes that we initially thought of. Sadly (and I got quite annoyed about this), we had no relief from VAT on cassettes or tape recorders because anybody could use them and it wasn’t just blind people.

Then we needed a high speed copy machine that would make copies of that master tape quickly. We can make a copy of a 60 minute cassette in just under two minutes. It records both sides of the tape at the same moment. Please, don’t anybody contact me and ask me how it is done because I don’t know! All I know is, it happens. That machine in those days cost us ₤1500. We also needed what is called a degouser. It is a bit like a microwave, and you put the cassettes in there and slowly bring them out again and it’s rearranged all the molecules on the tape so that you can record and all the previous recording has been erased. It is just a reorganisation of those molecules. That cost us nearly ₤1000.

Then we had to buy cassette players. We needed sufficient for our listeners at that time because not many people had cassette players and quite a lot of our listeners were elderly anyway, so they wouldn’t ever have thought of buying one. We also had to have some cassette players in hand for those new listeners coming in and asking for it. We couldn’t say, yes you can have it in three months’ time when we have managed to buy some more. We also needed extra cassette players that we could check the quality of the tapes on. But they’d to be similar to the players we were giving our listeners, of course. We couldn’t get anything very different. The cassette players that we used for checking the quality got really hard wear.

We bought some headphones for the checkers because if you’ve got four or five people checking a C60 (laughs) – and you don’t listen to it every word all the way through, you listen to little bits and then fast forward and listen to a little bit more – it would have been pandemonium, so we bought headphones so that they could listen in isolation, as it were.

We also had a recording machine for making the master tape – that cost us ₤1000 – and microphones. So, there was a lot of money that we needed to find before we could even get started. One very, very kind move was from the Lions and they agreed to commit themselves to raising the money for our first high speed copying machine which was brilliant, and that really got us off the ground.

Raising money and spreading the word

We set about raising ₤3000 ourselves. Now, we went to garden parties and church fêtes. I haven’t been to a church fête since that year because most of the time we were buying off of each other’s stalls because very few people had come to support the fête. It was very disheartening, but it made us appreciate the money that was donated to us.

I organised barn dances, concerts, very amateurish concerts, but nonetheless families and friends came and supported us bless ‘em. We went onto the street – we got a licence to have a fund raising day and money came in that way. It was hard work because when we were talking to the general public, they couldn’t understand the need for a talking newspaper. After all, visually impaired people could listen to the radio and get all the news they want from the radio. Why on earth did they need a recorded news item on tape?

Well, if you have lost your sight, my blind friends tell me, you listen to the radio with half an ear. I find I do that myself now; I’m doing something else and I hear and I think, what was that about? They never, ever repeat it whereas on tape you can rewind it and listen again. So that is why blind people took to the talking newspaper so quickly because it was expanding their horizons, really.

We also needed to spread the word as far as possible to ensure that people might have the odd coffee morning etc. So Bob wrote a very good editorial in the Evening News about us and he established a competition to name the new talking newspaper. His idea was that we would get local people involved with the new project. And it worked. We had six names and one of them that came forward was Chatterbox and we went onto that because we thought that was a good marketing gimmick, and it gave Stan something to use in his publicity.

A place to work

So the structure of our talking newspaper was established. All we had got to do then was raise the money, find the volunteers and get ourselves operational. That was quite a lot of fun actually, even if we were getting frustrated. One thing that we really did need was somewhere where we could produce this newspaper. It was one thing talking about it, but you’ve got to have a building where you can actually work.

We were very fortunate. Bob got permission for us to use offices at Eastern Counties Newspapers, in Prospect House in Rouen Road. They let us use offices after the reporters had gone home. Well, that suited us very well because the five of us were all working and we brought in volunteers who were also working, so none of us could do much before the evening. We started producing and getting the copy ready for our tape about 6 o’clock in the evening. Those sub editors would come in and get the copy ready and then they would go and the next lot would come in. So, we never overcrowded the offices and we were able to work quite happily.

But it did mean, because we were starting at 6 o’clock, that we wouldn’t have a master tape ready until half past seven or something like that. Then we had got to copy the tapes and get them packed and to the sorting office. Even though our first circulation figure was 75, we didn’t finish work until half past ten. I lived at Hethersett in those days, so I would get home to Hethersett, have something to eat, crawl into bed and I had to be at work at College at 8.00 am. I always managed to get the first lesson of the day (laughs)- I think it was done purposely to spite me! So, it was pretty heavy going.

But, we bonded and it was almost like a club in those days. We had coffee out of the machine which was awful. I used to go in with a tin of currant buns so that we could have something to eat with it and stop the tummy rumbling. It was very good; just like a club. We also had sad situations where one or two of our helpers had lost a partner and they managed to gain strength from the rest of us. We were there as a social club, but producing something worthwhile at the end.

Eastern Counties Newspapers let us use their accommodation in one of their office blocks for 18 years. We started in Prospect House in 1969. Then we went to Ber Street, a block of offices opposite Finkelgate Church. Then we went down to their conference centre on the Thorpe Road. They were very good to us. They were almost like our godmother and they didn’t charge us a penny, which was brilliant. The Post Office also provided free postage for us. They do it for all blind postage. It’s their charity and we hope that it continues. I don’t know how we would manage if we had to pay for postage for our wallets.

An expanding service

After 18 years we had encouraged other people to start a talking newspaper service here in East Anglia because our numbers had slowly risen, so that by, I suppose, the late 70s and early 80s, our numbers had got up to nearly 1000 a week. We thought that if other people had started small newspapers around the county, it would take some of the pressure off us. That was false thinking because it didn’t happen (laughs). Blind people were having all the taking newspapers! (laughs). Because, you see, we were using the Evening News but Mardler, which was based in Aylsham would be using their local paper and we all used a different paper so they were getting news items from all over – a real cross section of news items, so you can understand why they were wanting them all.

The numbers of our listeners also increased because, although we had said in the first place we would only send to people in Norwich, if somebody contacted us and asked us to send the tape to Auntie Millie who lived in Dereham, you couldn’t refuse. They had a coffee morning to give you some money, so if they were sending you money and they wanted Auntie Millie to have the tape, she had got to have it, hadn’t she? So, we spread.

Then we found that we were getting requests from people who lived the other end of the country. We would explain that it was a Norwich talking newspaper and it was only Norwich news. We would get the reply, “But she is a Norwich lady and she has come here to live with us”. And they were living on the Isle of Skye, one family, or down at Hay on Wye, and there was somebody in Guernsey, and they were scattered far and wide. They’d lost their partner and their children had got hold of them and said, “Come and live with us” and they had taken them to a strange part of the country where they had no friends. To have our tape really was a godsend. So, we expanded like crazy and we also had interesting feedback from these people, once they learned how to send a message on the tape. It was really quite interesting in those days.

More fund-raising – gardens & theatres

However, financing was always one of my major problems. I don’t know why everybody thought I was so good at getting money out of people but I do know that some of my friends would run when they saw me coming because I would be desperate, “Please give me a cheque!” (laughs). Anyway, I did manage to get some help from all sorts of sources and one of the nicest ones was the very first September, in September ‘69. Pam, the wife of our chairman, she was a city guide and she’d managed to persuade Lord and Lady Walpole to open the house, Mannington Hall, as well as the garden for Chatterbox to raise money. This had never been done before; they had always opened the gardens but never the house, but this they agreed to.

We had a wonderful day! The sun shone and everything was right. I had been very worried because, knowing this was going to be a one off, I thought we will attract crowds, and we had reports on the local radio. I said to Stan “You really must contact the police about this”, and he went into Dereham police station to have a word with the man at the desk and he said, “How many does she think she is going to get there, boy?” (laughs). Stan said, “I don’t know but Meg said you ought to know that we were having it.” “Well”, he said, “I’ll send a Bobby on a bike”. When they came, they came in their hundreds – hundreds! And they blocked the road – all the lanes were blocked down to the main road. We didn’t make as much money that day as we should‘ve done because we weren’t prepared for it. It was fabulous, and that charity day still goes on. We were the first, but Lord and Lady Walpole were so impressed that they nominate a charity every year for the first Sunday in September and that charity gets all the money from the gate. We have people there setting up stalls and it is a good fund raiser for charities, and it all started with us. So that made us feel proud that we were there at the beginning.

The following January we were going through a crisis at Chatterbox. Over the Christmas period we hadn’t received very many tapes back and how were we going to manage, you know. We really needed to have a much bigger stock and I was really tearful because we hadn’t any money in the bank.

Bob went (as was his custom on a Thursday night) up to the Theatre Royal to have a glass of Perrier water, or it might even have been beer(!) with Dick Condon. He said to Dick “Meg is really worried and she doesn’t think we are going to carry on because she can’t get the money in”. Dick said, “Tell her she can have the Theatre for the last Sunday in January for a matinee, but she has got to be out of the Theatre by 5 o’clock because I have got a show on in the evening.” Bob was so excited he phoned me that night and he said “DickCondon said you can put a show on at the Theatre”. I thought “I can’t do that, I don’t know how to do that!” But I knew a woman who did.

One of our new volunteers, Doreen, had earned her living as a producer of shows. So the next day I phoned Doreen and I said, “Doreen, you’ve got three weeks to get a show together for the Theatre Royal” (laughs). Once they got off the ground and she thought about it, the show went on. Everybody pulled together and it was all going beautifully until the day.

On the Sunday I went down there early before the show started. We hadn’t sold many tickets and it was very quiet, and suddenly people came in like a tidal wave and every seat was sold and they paid to stand. Well, they didn’t stand all the show, did they? They sat on the steps. It was brilliant. It was brilliant. I cried all through the first half, simply because I couldn’t believe it. Then Stan came and said a member of staff from Mackintosh’s the sweet people, wanted to present us with a cheque. He said “I think we’ll do it in the interval”. I said, “Do it at the end of the interval and then people will have come back from having their coffee and things”. So we got one of our blind people up on the stage to receive the cheque and Stan was with him, and then this representative came on and to my amazement, they didn’t give us a cheque for ₤50, they gave us a cheque for ₤150 and then he tore it up and he said “We will buy your second high speed copier”. So I cried all through the second half! (laughs) It was a very tearful moment; people were so generous.

That show at the Theatre Royal we called “Hello Chatterbox” and it was the first of 13 annual shows, and it was only when Dick Condon stood down when he was ill and the new manager came in that we lost the opportunity to carry on, because the new manager asked us to pay for the theatre and Dick had always given it to us for free. So, we are very grateful in memory of Dick; he was a super man to us.

That really helped people to get to know what Chatterbox was all about because everybody was talking about us. Lots of families from our listeners would come. Well, it was in 1996, I suppose, that Eastern Counties Newspapers dropped the first bombshell. They decided because we had set up small talking newspapers around the county it was time we paid and had our own premises. They couldn’t give us 100% support and not give the others some support. They said that they wanted us to move out as soon as possible.

That was a bit of a shock but we had been able to save money, especially money from the Theatre Royal shows in the bank and that had accumulated interest in those days. So we had a bit of money there, and we launched an appeal. I don’t know how I did it but I said we needed ₤15,000. I wrote to every trust and firm that I could think of far and wide, all my contacts. They all got begging letters.

We found a small property at the bottom of King Street and in 1997 we moved in. It was a shop, and the ground floor we used for Chatterbox and we’ve got a flat on the top so that the people in the flat act if you like as semi-caretakers. They keep their eye on the place, in other words.

It now meant that we could work five or six days a week, whereas when we were in Eastern Counties’ offices we could only go Thursday night. So now we could expand. The first thing we did was take on some commercial recording and we did recordings for the Local Authorities. Also, the funeral directors wanted a tape made that they could play to people who didn’t understand what happens when somebody dies and the funeral arrangements that have to be made. So we did a tape for them to make it less frightening for these people.

We established a magazine tape that we sent to all of our listeners, and a team of people were recruited to go around interviewing and finding the stories, a bit like they do on Look East sometimes. That still goes out once a quarter. We have a Chatterbox newsletter that is recorded, and that goes out once a quarter. We produced an extra tape at Christmas because we felt that some of our listeners, being on their own, would be very lonely over Christmas, so we tried to do something different.

We’ve had all sorts of things happening. We’ve done just Christmas stories and carols and we’ve recorded pantomimes. Our first one was called “Chatterella” which was based, of course, on Cinderella. It was written and produced by two of our helpers who themselves had Equity cards and had worked in the theatre in London for years, and retired up here. You see we attracted all sorts of interesting people to work with us!

The second one was “Salad Bin”. We actually sang and danced in that – an audio recording and there was us hopping around! (laughs) It was greatly enjoyed and I must say our listeners liked the in jokes and some of them were grateful really – they loved it.

The Chatterbox tape then has gone far and wide. The numbers that we send to now have been reduced to just over 400. We’ve had a peak of nearly 1000 and then it has slowly gone down. When we were sending out to 1000 people, if somebody contacted us and said “Please don’t send the tape any more because I can now see”, I would take in a cake and we would open a bottle of wine and we would celebrate because this was something special. But now it happens all the time, doesn’t it? People have their cataracts off and they can see very quickly. They can see almost the next day, can’t they? You can’t keep up with the bottles of wine and the cakes so the celebrations are not as good. Although we were disappointed when numbers started to go down, when we thought about it, we had to be grateful to the doctors for actually being able to help so many people. There are still things they can’t do for you, but a lot of people do get help and the numbers have gone down. But nonetheless, those that need the tapes are still looked after by us.

Modern technology

We are now in the process of moving over to memory sticks. You get a much nicer recording – it is very clear on a memory stick. We are the only talking newspaper in East Anglia who have decided that we will give them a choice. Because some of our very elderly people have got so used to the cassette players that the thought of coping with one of these new fangled boxes is too much for them. I’ve got an old aunt of 92 and I can’t imagine Aunt Edwina wanting to fiddle about with that silly little box. She will be happy with the tape recorder.

Some of our listeners are young people in their sixties who are very used to using memory sticks. In fact they are getting au fait with computers and have a talking computer so that the new technology is not frightening for them. But the service continues to go on. The numbers of helpers is now stationary at just under 100. We did go up to 120 volunteers at one time, but now we have dropped a little.

Royal recognition

The service is still useful to a lot of people and I hope it is going to go on for much longer. We have been recognised by the Lord Lieutenant and the authorities, because in the early days when Chatterbox was in existence, six of us had invitations to Buckingham Palace for a garden party. Also, I was given an award, just as I was about to hand over to some younger people, to keep the talking newspaper going. I got the MBE. Her Majesty actually knew about Chatterbox. She had done all her homework and was able to speak all about it. She actually said “It’s a very good service”, so we got royal approval!

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