The radio industry and accessibility

With World Radio Day on our radar in February, AbilityNet chatted to stars of the radio world who are blind or have sight loss about life on air and behind the mixing decks. How has the accessibility of radio technology changed over the years and what do they love about their work? 

Interviewee 1: Darren Paskell, Mushroom FM

"I joined Mushroom FM in 2015 to rediscover my passion for internet broadcasting and devote some of my time in pursuit of an enjoyable hobby. I love the station because of its reputation for professional production standards and its well established spirit of innovation. We have a great community of listeners.

It’s easier than ever to be an internet radio broadcaster as a person with sight loss, thanks to some excellent developments in accessible software. StationPlaylist, which makes professional software for the broadcasting industry has always been mindful of accessibility needs. StationPlaylist Studio has many advanced features and can handle the whole process of broadcasting, from playing music and managing schedules to connecting to the internet radio stream and monitoring listening levels.

Brian Hartgen from the station Team-FM has worked to build add-ons and adaptations with StationPlaylist software which makes it even more accessible to use.

Radio broadcasting used to be so much more complicated. All that's required these days for a budding broadcaster is a decent Windows-based computer, a USB microphone/headset, some content and a radio station to complete the link between you and your audience. I would encourage anyone interested in internet broadcasting to get involved, we love welcoming new people into the industry."

Listen to Darren's Mushroom FM show, Sunday for Tea on Sundays from 5pm-7pm.

Interviewee 2: Allan Russell (pictured below), RNIB Connect

"I started volunteering at RNIB’s Connect Radio in 2001 and was offered a post as content producer in 2005. It’s a full-time job involving production and presenting. I didn’t think about radio presenting until I lost my sight and had to leave work. I had to take time to train with a white cane, a guide dog and a screenreader and my previous work took a back seat.

Allan inside the RNIB studio surrounded by equipment wearing headphones

While learning to use JAWS screenreader software on an RNIB course, I heard the charity was thinking about setting up a radio station and looking for volunteers and things evolved from there.

I use JAWS screenreader with a PC and VoiceOver with my smartphone or tablet and use a mix of both for editing and researching stories. We’ve got a mainstream studio set up, similar to those used by most radio stations. It’s not completely accessible, but it’s used because RNIB wants presenters to be able to use mainstream equipment, should the opportunity to work at a station like Radio 2 arise.

Studios are very tactile anyway and I use JAWS for some aspects of the work. The playout system, RCS, that we use for promos, adverts, music and to schedule shows is accessible to a point. Though I have a support worker through Access to Work to help with this side of things, i.e. setting up shows, putting audio on to live logs and voicetracking programmes. When I go out and about, I can do things on my own. I have flash mics for recording when outside, they record everything in the microphone so it's simple. My job is always different. People think you just come in and talk on a mic, but there’s a lot more to it."

Listen to Allan on weekdays at 8am presenting on Early Edition: RNIB Connect Radio's newspaper review and discussion programme around issues relating to blind and partially sighted people. RNIB Connect Radio is available across the UK on Freeview channel 730 and online.

Interviewee 3: Brian Hartgen, Team-FM

"I’m a computer programmer by trade and in the last ten years I’ve made many adaptations to the StationPlaylist software to make it more accessible both for myself, my wife Lulu (pictured below) and the rest of the crew at Team-FM. These adaptations are also available for people who are blind or who have sight loss and work at other radio stations.

Lulu Hartengen speaking into mic, smiling

I write JAWS for Windows Scripts as my day job and so some of the accessibility measures are about getting the StationPlaylist Suite communicating with JAWS more clearly to improve accessibility for everyone.

I create scripts for StationPlaylist Studio, (for planning playlists and song playout), together with StationPlaylist Creator, (for station management and scheduling).

We refine accessibility as the need arises. I’m lucky to have development skills and there’s always something to improve upon.

We now sell the adaptations as part of our consultancy company. Without such adaptations blind people have to rely either on human assistance or convoluted methods to put together a radio show. A good example would be having to quickly learn how long a music track still has to run. Without using the JAWS script we’ve created, that is a very slow and complex thing to do. 

Most station software is Cloud based these days, but I don’t feel that method sounds anywhere near as good as the StationPlaylist suite of products and we prefer it for that reason.

Listen to Brian at 7pm Saturdays on his Music Machine show - an interesting musical mix from different genres and at 5pm Sundays on Our Time - with a selection of music from the 60s and 70s."

If you have a disability and need help using technology, contact the AbilityNet helpline on 0800 269 545.

Check out 7 radio stations with an accessibility / disability slant here.