by Richard Porter
The master tape is recorded on a Friday evening, or midweek in the case of the magazine, and left with one of our engineers who is in charge of the copying and distribution. This is done at our "copying centre" which is in fact little more than a cupboard equipped with a bank of Sony tape replicators and a table. The tapes and postal wallets have already been prepared by the Thursday Team.
The whole process takes little more than an hour and can be done by one or at most two volunteers. The tapes are separated into those that are fully rewound and those left in the middle of the tape so that those that need rewinding can be done together, and are lined up on the desk ready for loading. We have not experienced any problems with bad erasure so we do not bulk erase the tapes before use.
We have one master copier and three slave units which can copy 15 tapes in one pass, at eight times the normal speed and both sides at once. This means that the actual copying takes 1/240 the time it would take to copy one tape at a time in real time.
After loading the master and copy tapes the process is initiated by pressing one button. The copiers rewind the cassettes if necessary, erase and record the copy tapes and wind all the tapes back to the beginning. If any tape stops before the end of the programme a "short tape" led comes on to indicate which tape caused the problem. These tapes are put on one side for checking. It may simply be that the tape has stuck for some reason and a smart tap on the table will cure it. Persistent offenders and damaged cassettes are discarded.
All tapes from the first run are checked for quality on a portable cassette deck, and to make sure that all the slave positions are working correctly. A few tapes are kept for spares and as a backup in case there is a problem with the master tape. On subsequent runs one tape is checked, and this should be from a different bay each time.
The copied tapes are inserted into the wallets, making sure that the cassette is always oriented the same way so that the blind listener knows which way to insert it into his or her player. In any case there is a label on side 1 which can easily be felt. We have recently changed from the ubiquitous yellow postal wallets to a more unusual colour - purple for the Royal Borough - so that the Royal Mail can easily recognise ours. The magazine tapes go out in red wallets.
If a listener has failed to return our tapes then there will be a yellow reminder slip with the wallet and this is secured to the cassette with an elastic band. We hope that this will alert the listener to the problem and if necessary he or she will get a sighted person to read the note. No further tapes will then be sent unless the missing ones are returned but a further check will be made by personal contact.
The wallets are placed into a mail bag for delivery to the Royal Mail delivery office. The Thursday Team will have separated out the wallets which go outside the town, and these are banded and placed on top of the sack. These wallets need to be sent to the main sorting office, but the bulk of the tapes can be delivered locally.
After use the master cassettes are archived. It is important to retain recordings for a number of years in case there is any dispute such as an allegation of libel. Of course the Association is insured against such eventualities.
Regular cleaning of the copiers is essential to maintain the their peroformance, and this carried out between copying sessions.
A new feature in 2006 was the online digital version of the tape which is accessible via the Listen Online page. An MP3 transcription of the newstape is made and uploaded to a special area on the Maidenhead Advertiser web site. This is a single file containing both sides of the tape including all the introductions and turn-over instructions. A corresponding MP3 URL (M3U) file is created on this site and links to both files are added to the Listen Online page. A link to the MP3 file is created automatically on the Advertiser site. The transcription may be streamed in real time or downloaded as a podcast and listened to offline using a PC or MP3 player.
Processing the Returned Tapes
The returned wallets are delivered to us by the Royal Mail and both tapes and wallets are made ready for the next copying session by the Thursday Team. This is a team of two people working on a roster.
The wallets are emptied and any enclosed notes are read. These may contain comments on the tapes or may report damaged or unplayable tapes. Suspect tapes are put on one side for investigation and the good tapes are put in a box for reuse.
The address labels are turned over to show the listener's address, and the tape can then be logged in the register. This is a manual process but the register forms are produced by computer. Each listener has a set of four labels. If after logging all the returned tapes the register shows that a tape is outstanding another label is inserted into a new wallet. If this is the last label for the listener a yellow reminder card is placed in the wallet. This will be attached to the cassette with an elastic band to remind the listener that he or she will not receive any more tapes until some are returned.
We may have been notified that a listener no longer requires the service or has moved away or died. This will be noted on the register and the labels withdrawn.
The labelled wallets are placed in a box ready to be used by the Saturday team.
Open the link on each image to see a larger version. (Photos: R. Porter)
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Last updated 10th November, 2006