Helping to make the local news accessible to all

Hear all about it! 

Many of us enjoy keeping up to date with local news either when the paper edition lands on our doormat or reading it online, but for some, reading the local paper is not so simple. As we get older, our sight can deteriorate, and certain disabilities can make it hard to read a paper. According to the RNIB, one in five people aged 75 and over are living with sight loss; one in two people aged 90 and over are living with sight loss and nearly two-thirds of people living with sight loss are women. 

Stevenage & North Herts Talking News helps those who cannot easily read the local paper by turning it into an audio file that users can easily access to ‘listen’ to the local paper.  

The Heritage Foundation awarded Stevenage & North Herts Talking News, the only talking news group in the area, team a £610 COVID Catalyst Grant to help expand their work. This has helped provide audio players, USB sticks and plastic wallets for listeners to use, and pay the annual subscriptions associated with running the service. This service has been able to stay free of charge to listeners, most of whom are suffering increasing difficulties due to worsening eyesight and disabilities. 

Stevenage Talking News was originally run alongside the Lichfield Talking News, but in 2018 the organisers saw a need for expansion in Hertfordshire and put a call out to The Comet newspaper for local volunteers to take over the Stevenage edition.  A group of people from North Herts and Stevenage started soon after and, due to the expansion of listeners in Letchworth and Hitchin, changed the name to Stevenage & North Herts Talking News, putting out the first edition in October 2018. They experimented with different technical set-ups to find the method which gave the best standard of recording, eventually deciding on the system of remote recording which they use now. This set-up proved to be ideal for continuing the work during the pandemic and they were gradually able to welcome new listeners. Feedback from new users on sound quality and delivery has always been very positive. 

Stevenage Talking News became a registered charity in July 2019 with the aim of providing the service completely free of charge to listeners. They can do this thanks to grants and donations, and to their workforce made up entirely of volunteers with different areas of expertise. 

After putting a call out to The Comet Newspaper in 2020, they were able to increase their volunteers to 29, doubling on the amount in the previous year. 

Volunteers send listeners an edition every week, within two days of the local newspapers being published. They aim to get to know their listeners by keeping in touch with many of them by phone and offering friendly contact to those who may be lonely or isolated, something that has been very important during the pandemic. 

Stevenage & North Herts Talking News Treasurer, Wendy Roskilly said: “Thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Heritage Foundation and other funding bodies we are able to offer our service completely free to local blind and partially sighted listeners, as well as those who are physically unable to read a newspaper, allowing them to keep in touch with local news, and listen to magazines and articles of general interest.   

“We have been very aware that for many of our older blind or partially sighted listeners this has been a time of greater isolation than usual, as they are unable to be with their families or go out to their usual activities. We have kept in touch with them more often than usual by phone and provided phone numbers which they can call if they need help. We have also expanded the content of our weekly editions to include more general interest articles and some light relief while most of the content of the local newspapers has been about the pandemic.” 

Due to most of their work already being conducted remotely, volunteers were able to adapt to the pandemic quickly and the committee has been able to continue to function effectively by having virtual meetings via Zoom rather than in person, and through the increased use of email and WhatsApp messaging. 

Helping accessibility  

Wendy continued: “We have become increasingly aware of how many people live with sight loss especially in later life, and how this impacts their lives. We have gradually learned better ways to record, and our technicians have developed their technical skills in a bid to constantly improve the quality of the content we send out. 

“We have around 50 listeners at present. Many of them are referred to us by sight loss professionals or hear about us at local support groups or by word of mouth. All this contact has been reduced during the pandemic which has meant we have had fewer new listeners than usual joining us over the past year.  We are currently looking at ways to increase our listener numbers, including recently recruiting a new outreach volunteer and looking at setting up a website.” 

The future 

The group hopes to expand their listener base further as 2021 progresses, as they believe that their service could help a greater number of people, including those with physical and cognitive disabilities as well as deteriorating eyesight. They are also hoping to start personal contact with listeners when restrictions are lifted for an event such as a tea party and to get their volunteers together for social gatherings, something many of us are missing.   

If you, or someone you know, could benefit from this service, email the Stevenage & North Herts Talking News on to find out more, or you can ring Wendy on 07903 978802. 

The Foundation has adapted its grants programme in 2021 to meet the evolving needs of Letchworth Garden City. For more information, visit the Grants page