Ireland's first radio station for blind and vision-impaired listeners has launched this week - finally addressing a gap in broadcasting services that's stood for over a century.
NCBI Live is now broadcasting 24/7 from the National Council for the Blind of Ireland's website, where content from the NCBI's archive of podcasts, discussions and monologues is currently on a three-hour, rolling news-style loop, addressing all aspects of sight loss, from healthcare and advocacy to assistive technologies.
David Redmond, a broadcaster and radio industry writer from Cork, is one of the service's co-founders. The team behind the station saw the NCBI's archive as an opportunity to finally address a longstanding gap:
"NCBI has a massive catalogue of audio content, and has been increasing that production especially through the Covid pandemic. There was another blind gentleman on the Radio Broadcasting course that I did in [the former Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa], and we came up with the concept of, well, if all of this content exists already in audio form, how difficult could it be to translate it into a live setup?
"From there, NCBI Live started to come together. So we pitched the idea, got it in front of the right people, and started working on the concept for the last couple of months now, it's actually been nearly a year in the works."
Being an online service, NCBI Live has circumvented the need for broadcasting towers, space on the FM dial and other such concerns, preferring to organise the station in cloud-based playout software, and adapt to now-established home technologies like Amazon's Alexa voice-recognition system.
"The advantage for us when we have so few resources and so little space, is that the entire thing is managed in the cloud, so we log in through a dashboard, and upload and schedule audio files, much like one might upload a YouTube video, for example. So what we get out of that, then, is just the raw audio stream.
"That integrates with a play button on our website through the ncbi.ie/live page. NCBI had already developed a smart-speaker skill for some of their services in the past, so we worked with the developers of that skill to integrate the live stream into that, so that people could also listen on their Alexas and their Google Homes and all their various smart speakers.
"It was like any radio project, it was difficult to get the scheduling right and get everything functioning just smoothly. You would think that trying to just get a loop of content to play might be simple, but trying to get it to keep to time and things like that proved a little difficult, but we worked it out."
NCBI Live has overcome the early jitters, and will be rolling out blocks of shows and podcasts that will be updated with new and archival content regularly, but of course, Redmond and company have no intention of stopping there.
"The possibilities are truly endless. When we made the pitch ages ago, we were quite conscious of some of the stuff that had been done in the UK, our counterparts in RNIB have had a station, fully staffed now, for many years. They're at the top of their game, everything from like fashion-related shows, talk shows, a general breakfast show, but they've used it in so many different ways, and it's created not just a service for visually impaired people, but people listen to it like they might listen to any other station, really.
"We're absolutely starting small, our only real costs at the moment are just to support the cloud-based system that we're paying for. But outside of that, we don't have any staff dedicated, I'm working as a volunteer on the project, Patrick is a volunteer on the project, and then the rest are just people that we've pulled in from the tech team or from the communications team. There is endless potential. If we could work out a sustainable funding model for it down the road, there's no reason why it couldn't be used to have live talk shows and so on.
"Even to use it as a training ground where, for a lot of people who are visually impaired, radio is a very accessible medium, because it's audio-based. There is no reason why we couldn't potentially use it as a training facility or something like that down the road to help people learn effective communication skills, and so on. We're working with it slowly, slowly growing it over time, walking before we can run, and who knows what the future will bring."
- Tune in to NCBI Live through the NCBI website, or through the NCBI Smart Hub, which is activated using a smart speaker such as Alexa or Google Home.