The Story of Fenprobe

The story began in the mid 70’s. Tony May, then a young man living in Stretham with his family with a good job as an inspector at Marshals Airport in Cambridge, gradually began to lose his sight. Finally in the late 70’s his sight went completely and he became registered blind. There are many hardships to be faced living with blindness but one he didn’t reckon on was not being able to pick up the Ely Standard, and read it. Tony could keep up with national news on radio and tv, but the local news had to be read to him by his wife Carol. As he sat listening one day, he had his eureka moment.

Ely and Village news on tape so that he and others could listen to it at their leisure. He also wanted the news to be entirely free.

Tony had always been technically minded – to the end of his life, he relied heavily on his computer and the internet. Sadly he died later, but left a lasting legacy. Talking News as they became called were in their infancy at this time and Tony had arrived at the idea quite independently.

Nowadays, nearly every community has its own Talking News Service, and we have a national charity organisation, The Talking News Federation, to which nearly all TN’s are affiliated and which provide much information and advice on setting up, technical help and so on. Back then Tony was on his own. Tony and Carol could not afford to start the service themselves – so he enlisted the help of local organisations, shops, public houses and the press. Wherever he felt money could be raised, bottles appeared on counters everywhere in the district. The first bottle filled, and then broken was on the bar of Tony’s local the Red Lion at Stretham. The District Manager of Watneys officiated and with the contents of the bottle and donations received during the evening raised £203 enough to buy several tape recorders and tapes.

Volunteers from Campaign Amateur Theatre In Ely were recruited and at Christmas 1978 the very first tape went out to a dozen registered blind. The tape started with a message from the Mayor followed by excerpts from the news, read by founder members of Fenprobe all sounding very professional.

In the early days the tape came out monthly and contained a mixture of news, general interest items and interviews. After a year or two, Fenprobe went over to tapes consisting entirely of news, not just snippets, but full items from the Ely Standard. The Ely Standard had yet to come on the scene. This was recorded fortnightly, plus a magazine tape of local interest every month.

However Tony May’s ambition was for his listeners to enjoy a full 60 minute news tape every week, and in the early 90’s we finally realised this goal.

Since then Fenprobe has produced a 60-minute news tape 51 out of 52 weeks each year. We charitably give our volunteers Christmas week off!

36 years after the first pub bottle was opened in Stretham, Fenprobe, a registered charity, sends a weekly news recording to around 50 people who are blind and partially sighted, living mostly in Ely and surrounding villages. I say mostly because when our listeners move out of the district, they quite often ask for the tapes to be sent to their new address. Some of our tapes have even gone to the USA!

We have 6 teams who record in rotation. Prior to 2010 five teams recorded on a Thursday afternoon and the 6th team recorded on a Friday night by volunteers who are at work during the week but still like to be the part of the service.

We all read in the evening now which will be explained later. On Thursday morning, the Group Editor buys 2 copies each of the Ely Standard and Ely Weekly. He or she then cuts out news items and re-arranges them on A4 paper to make it easier to read and gets rid of the problem of paper rustling! Some items are re-edited to make them shorter, but if a court case is reported, then it has to be read in its entirety for legal reasons. We must not forget to put in all the gory and sensational bits either! In the early day editors tended to leave those bits out, as if blind people needed to be sheltered – they soon put us right. Mostly it all goes smoothly, but I well remember a couple of times when the edited news did not arrive and two of us were cutting and pasting as the readers read. Don’t panic! Don’t panic! Time is of the essence you see. Thursday evening at 5 pm sharp, the crew assembles, usually 3 or 4 readers and a recording technician. Reading the news takes about 1½ hours and then the memory master stick has to be copied. In the old cassette days, the whole process took at least 2 ½ hours.

The team works as a production line. The memory sticks are quickly tested on a player and put into wallets, into postal sacks and finally taken to the post office for next day posting.

For many years each of our teams recorded in their own homes, so we had to have 7 sets of recording equipment one for each team and one for the Magazine Editor. This meant we could not afford to invest in the quality equipment our service deserved.

Copying was done in volunteers houses and for many years my husband and I had to put up with a row of fast copiers and piles of cassettes on our top landing (see photo) But in our 20 years we made the transition to a well-designed studio, were able to invest in one high quality set of equipment for the production and processing of our news tapes. The Cambridge Housing Society made premises at Bedford House, St Mary’s Street, Ely, available at a small rent.

Brian Gowler who was registered blind and his wife Annie were the essential back room staff in the studio, sorting the wallets and maintaining the listener register, and making a clean set of cassettes and wallets ready for the next week’s production. Sadly Brian has now died, and we cannot thank him and his wife enough for all the work they did for so many years.

All this is a far cry from the birth of Fenprobe. Money was very hard to come by, and when Janet Smith our Secretary and I joined in 1981 we were very often down to small change, even on one day a match box.

The Treasurer for many years was Henry Howell and we used to joke about his stinginess, but he always remembered the day of the match box and made sure Fenprobe became financially secure.

We are also very thankful to our past President Maurice Hobbs who during his term as Mayor, made us his charity, which gave us financial stability, and raised our profile immeasurably. His son Richard Hobbs is now our President.

Donations from Ely Lions, Ely and Littleport Rotary Clubs, Soham Pumpkin Fair, Radio Cambridgeshire, The Outlaws and many other organisations, as well as the ECDC, City of Ely Council and many personal donations have helped to keep this free service going for almost 40 years.

Perhaps the most creative and rewarding feature Fenprobe produces is the magazine tape. We have had many talented editors over the years, then a period without one.

Four years ago, Linda Franklin, our listener representative on the committee, who is herself registered blind, started to make a magazine. She, and Peter Wilkinson, produced a bi-monthly magazine of interview and travel features which has revived interest.

Reporting for the magazine is like radio reporting, description is all. Our listeners cannot see, and we are their eyes. You cannot say, “Here is a wonderful float” you need to say why it appears wonderful.

Switching on the Christmas lights. My husband Harry and Janet recorded with rain pouring down their arms and necks on one occasion. They were real drowned rats. Then they had to spruce up and get to the Beet Club to receive a donation!

Ely Hospital Sunday Parade was a real favourite and Mary Howell, our first chairperson reported with enthusiasm.

Maundy Thursday 1987 was recorded by Ron Barber. Many of you will remember Ron, he was the voice of the Littleport Show, and a wonderful commentator.

Many of our listeners particularly enjoyed nature talks. One of our founder members Harold Coleman lived in Littleport. Although blind, he made many bird song tapes and enjoyed doing interviews for the magazine.

Who are our listeners, and how do we get them? Some come when they are first registered as blind. We used to receive regular information from the Visual Impairment Team in Cambridge, who work alongside Camsite, The Cambridge TN. However, thanks to the data protection act, this information is not freely available, so a good proportion came from other listeners or chance meeting with sighted people who know of our service e.g. hospital drivers, vigilant and informed carers, nurses or relatives who have seen leaflets in the library or doctor’s surgery. Contact the Fenprobe Secretary: 01353 861153

One of the most repeated compliments we get is “Fenprobe is my lifeline, I look forward to it every week”. We used to say, “We speak to them at their fireside from ours”. This is not strictly true now we have a studio, but we hope the atmosphere remains the same. The dedication of our volunteers certainly does.

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