Radio for the Deaf?

A new technology, developed by NPR, Harris Corporation and Towson University is changing how the deaf and hard-of-hearing "listen" to radio.

Not an oxymoron, radio for the deaf and hard-of-hearing is something the more than 77% of people surveyed would be interested in. Captioned radio, taking advantage of the bandwidth and technology available through HD Radio, creates a text display, with live stenographers that can be displayed in a screen in the home or the car. For in-car use, a dual-view screen is used. The driver would see, perhaps, a navigation screen, while the passenger can read along with the radio broadcast.

I saw and heard this technology in action, at an early demonstration at CES 2008 last January. There was a deaf woman speaking about how isolating it is when she's in the car with her husband. As he's driving, he's laughing at what he's hearing on NPR. She has no idea what she's missing. I had doubts about the screen too, but sure enough, from the driver's position, I could not read the text.

Seven demonstrations were set up across the country during the election coverage last week, and the participants were surveyed: 95% were happy with the level of captioning accuracy, a crucial aspect for readability and comprehension; 77% said they would be interested in purchasing a captioned radio display unit when it becomes available; 86% indicated they'd be interested in purchasing a 'dual-view' screen display for a car (which would enable a deaf passenger to see the captioned radio text while the driver listens to the radio).

Our good friend Mike Starling — chief technology officer and executive director of NPR Labs — had this to say . . .

"This historic broadcast was extremely successful and clearly demonstrated that this important captioning process and the associated technologies are ready for prime time . . . We are also continuing to receive important feedback from many of the people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing who took part in this event, and we intend to use that information to improve future captioned radio broadcasts."

Very, very cool.  Other participants were also vocal. "Being able to read the captions enabled me to stay current on the election results," said Betsy McCarthy, who participated in the demonstration at WGBH in Boston. " I usually tune out the radio when it's on because it is difficult to understand the dialogue with my hearing loss. This technology would allow me instant access to a broadcast as opposed to taking the extra time to obtain a transcript when one is available."

More than just entertainment, this has an important role in emergency situations. According to the survey, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being extremely important, they ranked emergency notifications at 9.6 when asked what types of information would be important to receive through captioned radio broadcasts. General news came in second at 8.0.

The uses of HD Radio are growing and growing. Stations can also provide newspaper readings for the blind on unused channels. The benefits of technology are, and should be reaching out to these often-overlooked sectors. —Leslie Shapiro