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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 April, 2003, 08:05 GMT 09:05 UK
Digital radio 'shuns' the blind
Digital broadcasters are ignoring the people who are among the heaviest consumers of radio, the blind and visually impaired, argues broadcast professional Ian Macrae.

Pure Digital Evoke-1
Digital radio offers new possibilities but also challenges
Digits matter a lot to visually impaired people. The ones attached to our hands, as well as those which carry crystal clear radio to our ears.

Some of us use them for reading. Many of us use them for exploring what's around us.

Even more of us, perhaps even enough of us to make the stereotype valid, use our digits for twiddling radio dials.

But when it comes to the other sort, or rather to the people who design and manufacture the equipment for receiving DAB, (Digital Audio Broadcasting), they seem to have forgotten that the stereotype of the visually impaired radio fanatic even exists.

They have come very close to designing something which is unusable, or at least very difficult for us, perhaps the most avid, hungry and, let's face it, needy group of radio listeners.

Tuning lottery

Take, for a start, what used to be called in my day cruising the dial. For some this might be the riches and adventure of short-wave offering the chance to pick up something you could barely hear, broadcasting in a language you didn't speak.

It is impossible to read which stations you are passing through as you twist the tuning knob

For others, it was the easier pickings on FM and the relative clarity of your favourite local or national station.

Whatever, the process was quite simple. You gripped the dial gently but firmly between thumb and forefinger and slowly twisted it until you hit something which sooner or later you would identify or else know from memory what it was.

But now on many sets, including the Videologic hi-fi tuners, the Pure Evoke model and the Ministry Of Sound new personal DAB receiver, finding and tuning stations has been turned into a complete lottery if you cannot see the visual display on the unit.

Even if you have some sight, as many visually impaired people do, the print is so small on the displays and the contrast so poor that it is impossible to read which stations you are passing through as you twist the tuning knob.

At her school, my six-year-old daughter does something called "Brain Gym" and I am thinking of asking if I can go along to a few of the sessions in order to help me with memorising the order in which the 20 or so digital stations appear on my various receivers.

Name that tune

Then there is the second part of the digital double whammy. When I worked as a radio D J, I accepted that it was a rather predictable and perhaps boring habit to say what a record was as you went into it, in a back announcement, or in some cases, at both ends of it.

I was also required to identify the station frequently enough to embed its name and location into listeners' brains in the hope that they would come back to us.

But now there are some stations which have done away with jocks and ident jingles completely. The only way you can find out which station and which song your listening to is to look at the visual display.

Even on some of those stations which continue to offer gainful employment to presenters, it is noticeable that record titles are much less frequently announced or back announced, because the assumption is that anyone wanting to know can get that info from the screen.

That is an assumption which is not just wrong, it is nonsensical. We are talking about a medium here where people are meant to talk to each other, where information is meant to be imparted and exchanged.

After all, the logical conclusion to all of this is an edition of the Five Live phone-in 606 passing off in total silence with people simply texting and e-mailing the gifted Jonathan Pierce whose vocal talents go completely to waste as he texts and e-mails back.

I am just a humble blind listener. It is not up to me to come up with solutions. This revolution is presumably being driven by some of the most brilliant technical minds in the radio business.

What I am saying to them is that maybe they should start thinking about solutions, or at least start remembering that, if radio belongs to everyone, it belongs at least as much to those of us who need and prefer to listen to rather than look at it.

For more than 20 years, Ian Macrae has been a broadcast professional working. For almost 50 years, he's also been a voracious consumer of radio.

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