A TEAM of dedicated volunteers committed to ensuring isolated residents are kept abreast of the news is celebrating a notable anniversary.
Bury Pipeline Talking Newspaper held its first recording session in 1978 — making last autumn the start of its 35th year of telling the headlines to blind and partially sighted residents.
Each week chairman and co-founder Jean Spencer organises the circulation of 60-minute recordings of news items from the weekly editions of the Bury Times, Radcliffe Times and Prestwich and Whitefield Guide to about 180 listeners.
During more than 30 years of devotion to the cause, retired social worker Jean, from Ramsbottom, has seen cassettes, CDs and most recently MP3 files come and go.
Organising teams of readers, recorders, tape posters and collectors and a small committee, Jean, now in her mid-70s, has all branches of the charity functioning like a well-oiled machine.
After moving to Bury from Preston in 1965, she took up an appointment with the local authority’s welfare department with responsibility for the visually impaired.
It was then she and colleague Dorothy Williams considered the idea of launching Bury Pipeline, which has now been based at the Seedfield Centre for more than 15 years.
“In 1977 and 1978 there were talking newspapers springing up in other places in the country and we thought, why should Bury miss out?” Jean said.
“Our first recording was sent out to 36 visually impaired people. Back then, most people didn’t have anything to play the tapes on and initially the cassettes went out only to those with cassette players.”
The talking newspaper has come a long way since its first recording at Holy Trinity School, with the readers squashed into small children’s chairs in a classroom.
Donations meant Bury Pipeline could buy cassette players to be sent out alongside the tapes to those who did not have the means to play them, before the move to CDs was made in 2008.
Nowadays, some listeners receive their copy of Pipeline in MP3 format on a USB drive they can plug into a computer or talking book facility.
“Gradually, over the years, the numbers grew and at our peak we had 300 listeners in the borough,” said Jean.
“Listeners are often isolated — elderly people living on their own whose families might be working or might live away from the area.
“These are people in their 80s, 90s, even in their 100s and they say they really look forward to the package dropping through the letterbox each week.
“It keeps them up to date with what is going on in their immediate area and they are able to talk about what is happening in Bury.”
Each hour-long recording compiles the front page and biggest stories of each Bury Times group weekly edition alongside smaller articles, and features around 30 items in total.
“We often also feature something from the Looking Back pages, which our listeners enjoy, and we always cover good news like diamond wedding anniversaries and 100th birthdays,” Jean said.
“Crime stories involving elderly people being targeted are important because they remind listeners to be careful and events they might be able to attend are also good.
“It is about getting a mix between serious pieces and stories which are more light-hearted, such as those about charities and animals.
“It all comes down to the human touch — our listeners recognise the readers’ different voices.”
Jean’s husband Ron, who died 12 years ago, was also a committee member. Growing up with a blind grandfather and mother meant for him the cause had particular significance.
In 2006 Jean hit the headlines herself after being awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for her services to visually impaired people.
“It was not just for me, really, it was for the whole organisation,” Jean said. “I could not have done it on my own.
“As it went along and the numbers grew we felt like we were helping people, and that makes it worthwhile.
“Getting the MBE was something which never even crossed my mind — but just knowing our service is appreciated by the listeners is what keeps us all going.”
Retired volunteer reader Janet Gumby, who lives in Bury, got involved with Bury Pipeline 10 years ago.
Janet enjoys amateur dramatics and so had experience of speaking and reading aloud when she decided to join the organisation.
“We are quite a friendly venture,” she said. “We always wish happy birthday to any listeners who have a birthday coming up.
“These people are elderly and often isolated so they like to know what is going on.
“My grandmother was blind, and because it was before the days of tape recorders and computers she relied quite heavily on members of the family reading to her.
“Some years ago when my husband had a stroke, it affected his eyes and he couldn’t read, so he got talking books from the library. These experiences made me appreciate the value of people with sight problems being instead able to listen to things.”
In 2008, Bury Pipeline still had more than 200 listeners but in the past four or five years the figures have begun to drop.
Despite Jean sending letters on behalf of Bury Pipeline to every care home in the borough, currently only one, Rose Court in Radcliffe, receives weekly copies.
Allison Porter, activities co-ordinator at Rose Court, said Pipeline is enjoyed by residents who are unable to hold the newspaper, unable to see, and who cannot read.
She said: “Pipeline keeps our residents up to date with the community they live in.
“The recordings also give them the independence to use whenever they wish and they can listen to it with family, staff and other residents.”
Rose Court resident John Dennis, aged 54, is unable to read the Bury Times due to a neurological impairment.
He said: “I have always read the newspaper and would be lost without it — otherwise I would have no knowledge of the outside world.
“Bury Pipeline is beneficial because it can be stored and used again at any time and is my alternative if I do not want to listen to the radio or watch TV.”
This ability for people who are disabled or have sight problems to keep up to date with what is happening in their community is what Jean feels is key.
“We like to think we are like a family,” she said.
“Everyone who volunteers is very committed and positive and working with the blind is something we all feel very passionate about.”
The committee currently has five members and as Jean puts it, none of them is getting any younger.
She said: “We need an influx of young people to the committee and eventually we will have to embrace change – we can’t go on forever even if we want to.
“How much longer we will be here for I don’t know, but for now we are still here.”
n—For more information about getting involved with or receiving Bury Pipeline: call Jean on 01706 824401.