Mark Bate and his colleagues at the Peterborough Recording centre recorded a huge number of books and magazines for RNIB over the past 20 years, including hundreds of hours of NB magazine. Here, Mark remembers working with over one hundred volunteers, voice actors and production staff to record RNIB’s flagship magazine produced for blind and partially sighted readers.
“When I first joined RNIB as an Audio Transcription Assistant in 1999, we had over 100 volunteer readers,” Mark explained. “The turnover of volunteers was very low because people loved reading the magazines. Some of the volunteers had been involved since 1989 and David Hobbs and David Salmon in particular, had read for us for 26 years. We were sad to say goodbye to them when we stopped delivering the service in Peterborough in 2016.”
Volunteers who recorded the magazines would often be recruited through word of mouth although opportunities were also advertised in places like local libraries. “Anyone interested in recording for RNIB had to pass a rigorous reading audition which included very diverse texts from bank statements to fiction. Those who also successfully passed a vocabulary test would receive six weeks of training before going into the studio,” Mark recalled.
For readers of NB who wanted the magazine in audio format, it would take around five working days in total to complete the recording process. This was on top of the time it would take the editor to write the features and format the magazine.
“We did evening reading sessions for volunteers who worked during the day. I remember one lady who used to work for the Environment Agency would walk over to us in her lunch break, record for ninety minutes and then walk back to work. People would always go away having learnt something interesting from NB magazine which they didn’t already know.”
“The dedicated team of volunteers would read the magazines from the front cover to back page. It would take about two to three hours to make sure NB’s features were ready for the volunteers to pick up and then about three or four hours for them to read it in the studio,” Mark explained. “They would be able to operate the recording equipment themselves so if they fluffed a line, they would stop and re-record it.”
At its height, the studio was an on-demand service producing over a hundred individual recordings each month. Mark remembers volunteers recording some obscure requests from blind and partially sighted people including one for a book to be recorded about Elvis Presley’s clothes.
When asked what his favourite thing about the job was, Mark replied, “I most enjoyed working with the volunteers but I did also enjoy preparing and editing the scripts. There was something about producing something which would help blind and partially sighted people which was very satisfying.”
“I would always find the new products reviewed in NB fascinating. I liked hearing the quaint adverts too. I remember repeatedly reading one ad placed by a lady in Swindon who was a braillist offering her services to blind and partially sighted people. I don’t know if she ever got any business.”
A lot of the audio work RNIB produces now is synthetically recorded (using a computer). “We used to read telephone bills and bank statements which was ridiculous”.
Today, RNIB produces hundreds of Talking Books, newspapers and magazines some read by famous personalities including Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, J K Rowling and Benedict Cumberbatch.
In 2014, NB was made available online and recording audio editions ceased allowing for people to use screen readers.