A history of STN – over thirty years!

This article is adapted from chairman Mary Callaghan's speech to the 2018 Annual General Meeting.

Back in 1988 there was no Talking News in Sheffield. Yes, there was one in Chesterfield, Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham – but none in Sheffield.

That was to change thanks to one man – BILL CROZIER. Some of you will recognise that name – Bill presented the well - known radio programme FAMILY FAVOURITES, along with Jean Metcalf. Bill was the secretary of TNAUK – now known as TNF – Talking News Federation. This is the parent body of all Talking Newspapers in the country to which we are affiliated.

Bill was amazed to find there was not a branch in the city – so, along with a Solicitor friend (who also happened to be visually impaired) ROY CHESTER (pictured with wife Barbara) – 
Founding member Roy Chester and wife Barbara
they, very appropriately, advertised in the local press for anyone interested in forming a TN in Sheffield to attend a meeting at the back of the Cathedral. A handful of people turned up. Further meetings were held at the Volunteer Bureau on Division St. This is now  VAS (Voluntary Action Sheffield) in different premises and where we advertise for volunteers (and they now even audit our accounts.)

A member of staff from the Bureau, Shelagh Gleeson, led the first few meetings to help us get started. At those initial meetings I got to know several volunteers who were to play a key role in STN’s development. Amongst them were Norman Bradbury (Otherwise known as Norman News, who so generously left us a legacy in is will), Ron Westwood, Elizabeth Draper (who came to the recent Tapton meal), John Bisby (later our Secretary), Pat Canwell, and a few others.  

We had no funds and it was a case of beg and borrow equipment. The most vital part was the copying machine which arrived on loan from TNAUK after detailed negotiations. We started from scratch and raised our own funds. 

Very soon we saw the advantages of linking up with SRSB (Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind) in whose building we are right now! Len Miles, who was then general Manager, was a tremendous help in those early days and became a great friend to us all. Apart from Bill, we were all new to the organisation and had to learn as we went along. We were fortunate to gather a growing band of volunteers over the coming months and soon Shelagh left us to go it alone. That was a big moment and one I shall never forget. 

We did ‘dry runs’, constantly changing our format and reading procedures. It was very experimental in the early days and a ‘hit and miss’ affair!! Remember though, it was not ‘high tech’ – only basic recording equipment and copying from a master cassette tape. 
Another important and essential figure was the Chief Editor of the Sheffield Star – Michael Corner, who was most enthusiastic and helpful. Initially, we submitted copies of our tapes which met with his approval. Matters were progressing! 

We now had an official title and a signature tune. We were meeting at very short intervals and by the 10th October 1988 the arrival of Sheffield Talking News became reality. By this time we had sufficient volunteers to arrange ourselves into three teams for tape productions and the vital Tuesday morning Copiers and Dispatch.  All was in position, so at the end of October it was decided to ‘go for it’. We were very nervous about things going wrong but we produced a Master Tape and made 40 copies. The launch was hailed a great success!! 

The rest, as they say, is history. But looking through the archives (mostly old Minutes only one page long!) it is clear that, although we made progress in those early months, the majority of change was yet to come with the onset of the Digital Age. 

So, what milestones can we unearth? It has been great fun delving into those early days! Some of the items from long ago may well surprise some of you. 

In 1990 the STN Magazine carried an article about the curator of the city’s Botanical Gardens, Don Williams. He gave Talking News a copy of a suggested list of Seed Plants for the blind or partially sighted. A packet of mixed wallflowers seeds cost just 49p. 

In 1991 a cheque for £600 was presented to us as one of several small city charities. Holding it in the picture is Mary Callaghan our current chairman.

In November 2000 we produced an STN Newsletter – one article read……. 

‘So after two whole years our pink backing paper has come to an end. How many thousands of newspaper cuttings have our Editors stuck down on this paper? Our office cupboard had a stock for years but it has run out!’ 

Also, in 2000 we secured a National Lottery Grant of £14,000. 

In 2001 Dore choir gave us a donation of £70.  The same year a problem was recorded  -  having more than 2 cassette tapes in one wallet. This had happened on several occasions when we had sent out our News, Magazine and Information tapes all in the same week. Wallets were being damaged and volunteers were suffering sore fingers when trying to prise out the tapes. (What’s new!!). Also, some letterboxes were too small to accept 3 or more tapes in one wallet. It was agreed to limit the number to 2. 
Image of 10 year anniversary cake

Again, in 2001, minutes stated ‘There are difficulties on some Monday nights with the room used for recording often being cluttered up with trolleys and clothes hangers etc.’  During that same year we took our first step into the digital age when we began using a computerised dispatch and returns system. It caused occasional problems but volunteers agreed they would not be without it.  

In 2002 ‘Standards’ reported that readers were still good at remembering the essential pauses and reading through the material prior to recording. However, it was also reported that we had received feedback disapproving of an article relating to ‘using cocaine in a Ladies Toilet’. It was felt that this did not fit in with or usual high standard of items. 

The AGM in 2002 was held under a cloud as we had just lost our Chairman, Roy Chester, and his funeral had only taken place the previous Thursday. The Election of Officers was deferred until the next monthly meeting. 

In 2003 the responsibilities of Trustees were clarified with a booklet from the Charity Commission. This led to us reviewing our insurance cover and raised the issue that the recording groups should ensure that they all leave together and that one person should not be left alone to put away equipment and lock up. This was clearly stated in the ‘Notes for Tape Producers’ issued in June. 
In the Minutes for December 2003 it states that the flask used to provide coffee at the monthly meetings, dribbles over the table and Eileen was instructed to try and obtain a suitable replacement. That replacement flask is the one we still use!! 

Again in 2003 the PC was upgraded to Windows XP. Also, a lot of talking could be heard over the music at the end of recordings!  

There was still a shortage of men on Rota A. Coughing had been coming over on the tapes and idle chatter at the end before the mics were switched off. 

In 2004 a trial was held using the Dolby noise reduction system. One side was recorded with the system and the other without. It was unanimously approved and was then use every week. 

Readers complained they were being left in the cold outside as the bell was not loud enough. 

By 2005 the rota consisted of four teams with 8 reserve Readers. Each team had it’s own Tape Producer. The picture shows Kevin Callaghan checking the cassette tapes on a Tuesday morning. Note the bulky-looking tape duplicators on the bench behind him! It took hours!

Also, in 2005 four volunteers visited Graff Electronics for a familiarisation course on digitalisation. We subsequently purchased our first CD copier and the move away from tapes began in earnest.  

In 2006 the Meeting Agendas had around 10 items – now we have almost double that. 

By 2007 CD production was still in single figures but increasing. 

This was the year of the first big upheaval as we moved to temporary premises in Darnall whilst the Mappin Street building was demolished and rebuilt. It would have student accommodation above and we would have a purpose built studio and office within the building courtesy of SRSB. We owe them so much! 

We had to dismantle and pack everything away ready for removal. It was a major operation. Royal Mail were notified to about re-direction of the mail. Even our publicity material and letter heads were now out of date.The goodwill and extremely hard work of a few volunteers ensured that we only lost two week’s of production before everything was up and running again in our new home. We lost only a few volunteers due to the re-location. 

During this year the idea of having our own website was investigated and it was agreed that this should go ahead. 

A plan of the two rooms in the ‘new’ Mappin Street was inspected and later a site visit was arranged to measure up and see what would be needed in the way of furniture, cupboards, work surfaces etc. Air Conditioning was to be a real bonus!  

By 2008 we were 20 years old and struggling for Editors. A postal strike caused a disruption of our service. Towards the end of 2008 a listener survey was piloted and the resulting findings proved quite revealing, particularly about listeners’ preferences for topics on the weekly news. We planned to go for broadband when we moved back to Mappin Street. 

In 2009 the one-off-recordings brought in over £3000 – food for thought!!!  Also in 2009 we moved into the new Mappin Street building and the first recording was made from there on 6th July. We had to dip into funds to finance the move and, I think for the first year ever, our expenditure was more than out income. We still offered a free service. The old Graff copiers were taken to the tip. By now we were reaching around 600 listeners. Probably the peak of numbers. 

It was costing £18 to send out Committee Minutes by surface mail and we began to compile a list of email addresses which then gradual grew and grew over the subsequent year. 

By 2010 we were settled in our new home and were excited to discover that we were to reach our one thousandth recording in August. We decided to celebrate with memories from the past 22 years and holding a prize draw for listeners. The 1000th edition was released with a message from David Blunkett, MP and long term subscriber of STN, and a lucky subscriber won the draw and a prize of £100. 

Our £4500 tape eraser failed and the recording computer gave cause for concern. Expenses lay ahead. 

During this year we bought 9000 CD’s, which were not re-usable, and decided to go down the road of Memory Sticks. The question of how listeners could hear them arose and boom boxes were explored. The cost would be substantial.  

Interesting to note that on the Contact list in 2010 (published along with the Rota) there were just 9 mobile phone numbers! 

By 2011 we had introduced Memory Sticks  and were still receiving a steady stream of volunteers. The Bi-monthly Magazine was proving ever popular. 

Whilst struggling a bit with funding the gods were smiling down on us ,although not in the way we would have wished, as it meant the loss of our founder member Norman Bradbury (pictured) or ‘Norman News’ as he became known. Norman’s commitment and enthusiasm were second to none and you can find his picture in our office to this day. He was an Editor, Trustee and Archivist and a very dear friend to all who knew him. I recall him staggering into our home porch at Easter with bars of chocolate just months before he died. There were a considerable number of us at his funeral and I was privileged to speak about our loss and that of the family. The biggest shock came when Norman’s brother arrived at our house with a cheque for £55,000. Such was his love for STN. This legacy gave us the security which we still enjoy. This was 2012. 

This was not to be the only blow in 2012, as in the November we said goodbye to another volunteer – Gordon Sexton – our Secretary for 10 year. He died suddenly and around 25 volunteers travelled to Grenoside on a very wet and windy day to say their farewell, which was testament to the high regard in which he was held. Once again I was privileged to speak, this time about Gordon and his dedication to Talking News. 

How’s this for more dedication? A 90 year old reader decided, when her lift no longer came with her, that she would catch a bus in and get a taxi home rather than give up. 

In 2013 we were 25 years old and we celebrated with a Birthday Party / Social. It included a brief look back at our history. That year we also held a stall at the Nether Edge Farmer’s Market as we were to be one of the beneficiary Charities. We gave away some 150 helium balloons to children – with our logo on them. 

By 2014 the move to Memory Sticks was well underway. We held a workshop for Readers and had a healthy Bank Balance of £64,000. A Database for all volunteers was taking shape and a recruitment Evening for Editors (after an advert in the Sheffield Star) was hailed a great success. Many of those Editors are still with us today. 


Also, 2014 saw the setting up of the Norman Bradbury Award with SRSB. We wanted something to remember Norman by and we agreed to donate £500 each January to SRSB for use as an emergency fund for clients. Over the years it has supported many worthy causes of which we know Norman would have been proud. EG Travel to visit children in hospital or for new clothes for a job interview. 

In 2015 our new initiative ‘Out & About in Sheffield’ took off with an interview about ‘Snowy the Polar Bear’ in Weston Park Museum. This continues now as a regular feature on the recordings with many other interesting interviews. 

2016 saw our Secretary Bev re-instate the Volunteer Newsletter and we held a Social evening at which Mike Lewington, from The Talking News Federation, came and spoke about the future of TN’s in a Technological Age.  

The phasing out of tapes and CD’s continued and on 7th July ’16 there were just 6 tapes and 7 CD’s remaining. 

The following year, 2017, saw us introducing listeners to the Talking Newspaper Services where they can hear STN’s recordings over the telephone. STN was also welcomed by the blind community on ‘Alexa’  as well as by other means. 

 Following a visit to the ‘Star’ Offices by Bev, our Secretary, and myself -Nancy Fielder, Editor of the Sheffield Star and Telegraph, spoke at the AGM about local journalism which further strengthened our links. 

One of the ‘Star’ journalists helped re-write our website which is now thriving and much more up to date. Listening to the weekly recording on here is so easy. 

One of our readers, Phil George, became the Sheffield ‘Bus Voice’ on the experimental scheme on First Buses Route 120. If funding is extended we could see more. 

In October 2016 the National TN Conference was held in Wakefield and four of us attended. 

In December, Councillor Anne Murphy, the current Lord Mayor of Sheffield, visited our studio and recorded a Christmas message for our listeners. She reciprocated with an invitation to the Lord Mayor’s parlour which we visited in Feb. of this year. 

So, we reach 2018. We wrote both Data Protection and Safeguarding Policies in line with the Law and updated the Volunteer Database. 

30th Anniversary cake
Finally, in September, we held an Anniversary Dinner at Tapton Hall where around 40 of us celebrated 30 years of STN (photo by Chris Seaman, Seaman Photographer Ltd). 

We have now exceeded 1350 editions! 

We have had our ups and downs but a great deal of satisfaction along the way. We have lost old friends and gained new ones. I am proud to be part of such a welcoming and friendly Charity which I hope will go on for at least another further 30 years! 

I would like to end with an abridged version of a letter we received early this year, which is typical of those we receive on a regular basis. I quote……………. 

I am writing to inform you of the death of my mother. I want to thank you for sending the Sheffield Talking News. My Mum was so full of life and had been an avid reader, doer of crosswords, always wanting to keep informed and learn.  

When she lost her sight in her eighties it was devastating for us all. When SRSB enrolled her with your charity this had a major impact on her life. During her last two years she became increasingly frail and bed-bound and it was one of her few outlets. 

She really looked forward to receiving the news and in fact, it gave her a sense of independence in that she often told us what was happening in Sheffield, rather than the other way round. 

Please accept our thanks and a cheque in remembrance of my dear Mother. 

With enormous thanks from a grateful daughter and family. 

 
Mary Callaghan (Chair of Sheffield Talking News) 

November 2018