Sal McKeown talks to the disabled radio presenters and production staff who are using modern broadcast technology to make their voices heard…
According to Rob Symons, General Manager of Able Radio, “Radio stations are a great way to lose a lot of money quickly.”
Able Radio started in 2007, when a group of people came together with the idea to develop a radio station run by disabled people, for disabled people. In the years since, it’s changed a great deal. “Able Radio was a bit worthy in the beginning,” says Rob, “but we had lots of feedback, and our audience said, ‘We know about disabilities. What we want is more about life, soaps, news and some good music.’”
Though based in Wales, Able Radio has external correspondents creating programmes for the station who are located in Glasgow, north-east England and London. It’s possible to become a remote presenter for the station with just a bedroom studio – but it’s an essential requirement for all correspondents that they possess a really good microphone.
The medium and the message
Many feel that radio as a medium is more ‘disabled-friendly’ than television, where there still seem to be occasional ‘image’ issues – witness the hue and cry a few years ago when Cerrie Burnell became a CBeebies presenter, for instance. Radio, on the other hand, lets people showcase their skills more readily and offers ways round some of the technical problems. In the past, for example, presenters with visual impairments would often have had someone else in the studio with them to operate the equipment. These days, thanks to screen magnifiers and other forms of assistive technology (see ‘Vocal Talent’), they may feel more confident to carry out such tasks for themselves.
“A radio presenter needs to have reasonably clear speech, but we would not exclude anyone,” adds Rob. “One of our first volunteers was deaf, but he had a good clear voice, could lip-read very well and made an excellent presenter.”
Rosaleen Moriarty Simmonds OBE is thalidomide-impaired and author of the book Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes. One of Able Radio’s earliest presenters, she first discovered the station via the internet and went on to contribute links for the station’s music shows. She was eventually given her own weekly programme, Telling It As It Is, comprising a mix of current affairs and disability issues. Since leaving Able Radio, Rosaleen has freelanced for BBC Radio Wales, presenting a series called Rosie’s World.
“I love working on radio because it is very fast medium,” she says. “Radio is almost instant. Something happens and you pick up on that, put it all together and get it out before your competitors do.”
The funding question
Able Radio was previously awarded a capital grant from The Heads of the Valleys Innovation Programme in South Wales, before later obtaining revenue funding from the Big Lottery Fund. This ran for three years, but on a ‘tapered funding’ basis that resulted in them needing to generate more of their own income each year.
In a former life Rob was an advisor to social enterprises, and thus familiar with the dangers of being over-reliant on external funding and keen for Able Radio to generate its own income from the outset. As such, the station uses its radio studio to train adults and children with learning difficulties and disabilities and to help them to develop their confidence and assorted other soft skills.
Radio Enham is an online radio station based in Andover, Hampshire that has 40 presenters, researchers and production staff. It launched on 7th November 2011, funded in part by an ‘Awards for All’ grant from the Big Lottery Fund and the disability charity Enham Trust. Its programmes cover numerous topics relevant to disabled people, from getting a Blue Badge to wheelchair tests and finding accessible holidays. “They can give information, advice and guidance on a level playing field,” says Station Co-ordinator, Rachelle Stevenson. “No one judges – all people hear is the voice.”
The station currently has a growing number of listeners across the UK and abroad, in places as far-flung as Norway, Bahrain and Australia.
Tim Abbott has previously worked most aspects of radio journalism. Born with cerebral palsy (which doesn’t affect his speech), he earned a degree in broadcast journalism at Nottingham Trent University, which gave him the skills and confidence to earn his living in radio.
One of his previous roles was working for Resonance104.4fm – a free-thinking ‘radio art’ station based in London that specialises in programming and topics from outside the mainstream. “I did pretty much everything except make coffee at Resonance,” he recalls, “and that’s only because I would find it physically impossible.”
Tim’s experience took in working on links, topping and tailing programmes, editing speech for broadcast, checking and adjusting sound levels and welcoming guests. Resonance’s programming has a heavy emphasis on the arts – but one day, after Tim had been complaining about the amount of time he spent at hospital having tests and check ups, the station manager offered him his own show. With a nod to his engineering skills, Tim called it Technical Difficulties and proceeded to present the show for over three years, giving him the chance to explore social and disability issues in his own way.
The show’s highlights included an interview with Signmark, a deaf Finnish rap artist who maintained that music wasn’t just for the hearing, and a programme broadcast from behind the scenes at the 2012 Paralympics testing out the venues’ accessibility. He also fondly recalls a broadcast by the filmmaker and playwright Dolly Sen in which she discussed suicidal thoughts – “A difficult programme, but one of the ones I’m most proud of.”
His highpoint was an interview with Tanni Grey-Thompson, from whom he was able to grab a special soundbite – “I would have loved to have radicalised more people, but I didn’t have time.”
Tim is now in the process of emigrating to be with his wife in America and on the lookout for new opportunities: “I am hoping to rock up and work behind the scenes to help others get on with their stuff – that’s what I really like.”
Claro Software, a Preson-based UK software company specialising in screen reader and text-to-speech solutions, was recently delighted to receive a testimonial from a correspondent on the other side of the Atlantic, Pete Gustin, which read, “It is because of you guys and this software that I am able to do what I do.”
Pete is a well known radio figure in the US. His voice is heard from coast-to-coast and syndicated throughout the world across hundreds of radio stations, as well as on TV networks and even film trailers. Diagnosed with macular degeneration at the age of eight, he began working as a voiceover artist at the age of 18 – but his eyesight continued to fail, he began wondering whether he would have to retrain for a different job.
He told Claro Software, “Once I found ClaroRead it quite literally saved my career and allowed me to not just survive, but thrive in the industry. Never before had I been able to read so much copy. Before the program I was struggling to get through a couple pages of copy a day. Now ClaroRead allows me to get through as much copy as time will allow.”
To find out more Rosaleen Moriarty Simmonds’ company, RMS Disability Issues Consultancy, contact 029 207 57818 or visit www.rms-consultancy.co.uk