Celebrations are being held tomorrow as Borders Talking Newspaper (BTN) notches up its 1,000th recording.
Leading the team reading the news from TheSouthern Reporter, Berwickshire News and the Hawick News will be BTN’s founder and patron Matilda Mitchell.
It was she who saw the need for a service to enable the visually impaired in the Borders to be kept up to date with news and features from their own area.
“A blind friend in Hampshire told me about the Talking Newspapers and I discovered that the Borders did not have one,” she told us.
With the help of her postman, Jim Nairn, neighbour Eileen Ovens and travelling librarian Dougie Smith, Matilda went about setting up BTN.
Recording engineer John Coy agreed to produce the tapes and it was in his loft in Greenlaw that the team recorded the news, fortnightly in the early days before going weekly and moving to new premises in Duns.
The first recordings were made on cassette tapes, limiting the length to 45 minutes on each side. For listeners, it meant having to listen all the way through or stopping and starting the machine in the same place.
Today BTN is one of the leaders in its field, with recordings going out on memory sticks. They not only have plenty of space, but can also be separated into individual tracks, enabling listeners to skip or replay tracks on the simple two button player/speakers, which are provided by BTN.
It is this new technology that has also enabled the inclusion of the Hawick News, recorded in its studio, set up three years ago by the Rotary Club of Hawick, in partnership with Teviot Church.
Their recordings are emailed to the BTN office in Duns where they are incorporated with the readings from TheSouthern and Berwickshire News.
The memory sticks are delivered and returned free of charge by Royal Mail. They are eagerly awaited by listeners such as Terry O’Doyle, the listener representative on the BTN Committee.
She says: “Without the paper you could be very lonely and out of touch with what’s going on.”
And for her it has been a great way to make new friends, although she does have one complaint.
“In the early days when it was on tape I was getting at least one phone call a night from other listeners complaining that the tape had broken or wasn’t working. Now I’m redundant. No-one phones me now because the sticks are so good and easy to use,” she says.
And it’s not just the tapes that could prove problematic. Recordings have not always been without incident.
“We learned the rules of the trade – no personal extras thrown in by readers, no bonus jokes or criticisms – our job was to read absolutely straight. I had to sack my husband – he was not pleased,” recalls Matilda.
“My own worse scrape was to discuss Christmas parties with the recording technician under the impression the recorder was turned off. We got only one cross letter saying we should keep our social life to ourselves!” says Matilda, who now takes life with BTN a little easier.
Three years ago she handed over the reins of convenor to Tim Usher, although, along with him, she remains a major force in the constant strive to raise the £22,000 annually required to keep up to date with equipment and memory sticks, as well as the day-to-day running costs of the office and part-time manager, Wendy Moss.
Thanks to Wendy, BTN has never missed an edition, although Christmas and New Year editions are combined to overcome postal delays.
The service is funded by donations from local trusts, listeners, the Charity’s Talking Prizes, and stalls at Christmas events. There is a small additional boost from BTN Enterprises, which sells its services to organisations requiring documents and leaflets produced in audio form to comply with the Equality Act.
These include SB Connect, the Scottish Borders Council’s own newspaper, which is read by council convener and the ‘Voice of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo’, Alasdair Hutton — BTN’s other patron.
Tomorrow’s weekly recording team will, no doubt, also be reminiscing, for, in addition to their leader Matilda, will be some of the longest serving volunteers reading the news.
Among them are well-known Scottish country dancing teacher 88-year-old Peggy Spouse from Duns, and former Selkirk Provost Jim Newlands.
The handful of volunteers from the early days has now grown into a 70-strong team who read, record, edit, and send out the memory sticks.
“I am truly impressed at the skills our volunteers have acquired, using complicated ultra-modern equipment, and I’m truly grateful to the 140 or so different people who have worked with us to keep our beloved listeners properly informed over the past 20 years,” says Matilda.
Recording the news tomorrow will be BTN’s ‘techie’ Tom Ingoldsby, who joined the team six years ago. He ensures that the equipment is not only in working order, but kept as up to date as possible in the fast-changing market.
As part of the celebrations, Tom has been producing a celebratory package of his own, for he has been trawling through the past 20 years of BTN magazines – special productions which are sent out quarterly to the registered listeners.
One of the most popular programmes was one recorded by the late Colin Townsend Rose, under his pseudonym of Rufus, featuring the story of Cumledge Mill and Laidlaw blankets.
That, along with excerpts from interviews and news stories from the past, will be included on the 1,000th edition, providing listeners with a bumper bundle of items – including, of course, this story.
And more is planned with a special magazine programme going out for Easter and a commercial CD that includes contributions from local celebrities, due out mid April.
Full details on that, along with information on volunteering, making donations and BTN Enterprises, can be found on BTN’s website www.btn.org.uk and its Facebook page www.facebook.com/borderstalkingnewspaper.
If you know someone who could benefit from the service, phone 01361 884206 and leave a message if Wendy is not available.