Radio for the deaf gets a tryout

Election night demo offers closed-captioning

November 04, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

New technology that will allow for closed-captioning of radio broadcasts for the deaf and hard-of-hearing will get an election night tryout at Towson University tonight.

About 50 invited guests will be able to read National Public Radio's election-night broadcast during the demonstration, which will take place in a room at Johnny Unitas Stadium on the Towson campus.

Their comments and suggestions will be used to fine-tune the technology, which will allow people with HD Radios to read broadcasts within moments of being aired. Advocates hope to bring the technology to market next year.

"The deaf community has been clamoring for captioned radio for a long time," said Ellen Sheffield, an assistant professor of psychology at Towson and co-director of the International Center for Accessible Radio Technology, which has its headquarters at the university.

Towson is one of only four demonstration sites nationwide, where participants will be asked to evaluate caption formats, colors and other features. Other sites will be in Boston, Denver and Washington. A less-extensive demonstration page, with opportunities for feedback, will be available to the public tonight on npr.org.

Sheffield added that it is not only the deaf community that will benefit from closed-captioning, but also those who have become hard-of-hearing over time, especially older people who have come to depend on radio - a group whose size she estimated at 28 million Americans.

"That is not a small group of people," she said. "They're very accustomed to listening to their radio, they like their radio, and they do not want to lose access to their radio."

Lisa Kornberg, director of the Maryland Governor's Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said she will be at Towson tonight to sample the technology. Her office said there are about 550,000 hearing-impaired people in the state who could benefit from radio closed-captioning.

"The window of opportunity has been opened for this new technology to reach the portion of our population that has, to this point, been excluded from the radio frontier," Kornberg said in a news release.

NPR's election night coverage will be monitored between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. by stenographers at WGBH-FM in Boston.

They, in turn, will transcribe what they hear and send it to the four demonstration sites and the Internet.

Steve Yasko, general manager of Towson radio station WTMD-FM (88.9), said radio closed-captioning is just one example of technological innovations made possible by HD Radio, which increases the quality of the radio signal and allows stations to broadcast on multiple band-widths.

"I'm a real believer in the power of HD Radio, beyond just having a secondary audio stream," he said. "There are limitless opportunities, and I think these are the kind of services radio stations should be looking at."

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