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NPR Plans Election Night Radio Captioning

'The first ever live, captioned radio broadcast' is part of effort to make radio accessible to the deaf.

In what it calls a historic event, NPR plans to provide captioning data of its election night audio coverage to benefit deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers.

Several member stations will transmit the “captions” via HD Radio; NPR also will feed captions to online users. NPR is calling this the “first ever live captioned radio broadcast” and said that potentially millions of listeners could benefit, though mostly online, since the number of possible users via radio receivers on election night will be limited to a few demo audiences to prove the concept.

The technology uses HD Radio’s data capacity to carry text data to be shown live on a screen on future versions of HD Radio receivers.

In an exclusive demo yesterday, I was able to see captioned text of CNN programming coming off a Web feed from WGBH in Boston to NPR and displayed on an iBiquity Digital reference receiver — the same type of unit that public radio stations in Boston, Baltimore and Denver will use in demos on election night as part of the captioned radio project.

The election broadcast will be shown at private demos at NPR in Washington and WTMD in Baltimore, WGBH in Boston and KCFR in Denver, where those stations will air the data on their HD Radio signals. The demo at NPR will use WAMU’s HD Radio transmission of the captioned coverage. The broadcast also will be carried online.

Here’s how the setup works: On election night, NPR will send WGBH an audio feed to transcribe NPR’s election coverage. WGBH will have “stenocaptioners” listening with headphones to transcribe the feed; it will send the transcription back to NPR, which will then uplink the feed to participating stations via the Public Radio Satellite System. The transcription also goes into a Web server for Internet distribution.

Online, listeners can answer survey questions about the display. Listeners can also answer questions about the captioned audio display at the stations participating in the private demos.

The project is an effort involving NPR, Harris and Towson University under the auspices of the International Center for Accessible Radio Technology, located at Towson, just outside Baltimore. NPR, Harris and Towson founded ICART in January. Towson houses the administrative and academic research office. NPR Labs provides tech R&D and software development, Harris supplies transmission and research support. A Harris official said HD Radio lets broadcasters provide captioned radio content: “We hope this soon will become as commonplace as the closed-captioned content that is available to virtually any television viewer in America.”

NPR’s accessible radio project is backed by a grant from the National Institute on Disability Rehabilitation and Research under the Department of Education.