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Tantalizing News About Captioned Radio

Tantalizing News About Captioned Radio

By Cheryl Heppner

Editor: Captioned Radio? Really? This topic has been bouncing around for years, and as Cheryl points out, already exists in a limited form. Cheryl is advocating the universal adoption of captioned radio as a method of emergency communications. It sure sounds like a great idea to me!

Thanks to NVRC News for permission to republish this article. Please be sure to credit them if you share this article. (See credit at the end of the article.)


Two years ago, NVRC did a follow-up survey to learn more about the experiences that deaf and hard of hearing people had with communication in the Washington metropolitan area on 9/11. One of the questions we asked was what improvement people would most like for receiving emergency communication. Full captioning on television was the top answer, but a quite a few people wrote that they wanted to be able to have captions for the information being broadcast by radio.

During the three years I spent researching and writing “Emergency Preparedness and Emergency Communication Access: Lessons Learned Since 9/11 and Recommendations,” the national report by NVRC and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Consumer Advocacy Network coalition, I learned that captioning is already being provided to radios through radio data service (RDS). RDS is what makes the station number and other information appear on the display screen for your car radio. In the United Kingdom, BBS is already providing captioned radio broadcasts several times a day.

Hurricane Katrina gave new reasons to push for captioned radio. When all other communication was down or unreliable, people who had portable, battery-powered radios were often the only ones who could get news.

I believe that all forms of emergency communication need to be accessible, so that if one is not working we will have other choices. And I’ve long felt that the biggest gap that individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing people face is that much of our accessible equipment is in our homes, schools or workplaces and is vulnerable to power failures.

While working with the great team at Gallaudet University on the recent Accessible Emergency Notification and Communication: State of the Science conference, I said that if only one thing could be accomplished by the conference, my wish would be to make captioned radio a reality. One of the best pieces of news from the conference was that work is being done on captioned radio right here in our backyard. Mike Starling, who is Vice President of Engineering and Operations for National Public Radio (NPR), made a tantalizing presentation about it.

Last week, Starling and Kevin Klose, who is President and CEO of NPR, came to NVRC to meet with me and Lise Hamlin. Their interest in captioned radio goes far beyond emergency broadcasts. Starling has laid out a plan for steps to accomplish it, and he has enthusiastic support from Klose.

Starling thinks that captioned radio could become available as soon as 3 years from now, and that another year down the road, we might see a battery-powered portable radio designed for it. Klose said that 85% of NPR broadcasts are completely pre-scripted, enabling them to make transcripts immediately available on their website. This could help keep down the expense of captioning. Also there is a 6-second delay in broadcast time even for live programming, so NPR may be able to generate realtime captions that synchronize with the audio when they are broadcasting something that isn’t scripted. Starling and Klose said they envisioned making arrangements for a captioning service in emergencies if necessary.

Starling has talked with BBC in the UK to learn about their captioned radio. While there he also saw a demonstration of an Internet signing program and was interested in learning more about whether that would be something that would also be useful, and should be incorporated in broadcasts.

Captioned radio would be accomplished through multichannel broadcasting. Instead of just one program on each station, it can make different programs available through different channels, broadcasting sports on one, news on another, etc. Right now, a station has the capability to broadcast 4-6 channels, but if the FCC permits additional spectrum it rise to 22. Closed captioning data requires minimal bandwidth. It would not require a separate channel. The closed captioning would be carried simultaneously with the audio, just as it is for TV.

Lise and I asked many questions and gave Starling and Klose a lot of information. We said that while we wanted a product where the audio and captions are synchronized, we aren’t sure exactly how to best synchronize them. For TV, you often have someone to speechread, so you can scan the face of the person speaking and then scan the captions. We suspect that when there is no face to watch, a slight delay of captions might be best.

Starling and Klose welcomed our input on what features new radios should have. Some of the things we mentioned wanting were an audio output jack, ability to hook up other devices such as a strobe light and bedshaker, and the ability to incorporate NOAA weather radio alerting features. We would also want a large display with good contrast, and captions that can be bolded and adjusted for size for people with impaired vision. Ideally radios should have access features for everyone, including controls that are easy for someone with limited hand movement.

The discussion energized us. As you can imagine, with the opportunity to make such an important breakthrough, I said that NVRC would help however we can with focus groups, product testing, etc. I’m pretty sure I can count on many of you to volunteer!

(c)2005 by Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons (NVRC), www.nvrc.org. When sharing this information, please ensure credit is given to NVRC.