A timeline of audio description
The 1920s in the US
In 1929 The New York Times reported the screening of ‘the first talking picture ever shown especially for the blind’ where:
An interlocutor explained the visual sequences for the blind when the dialogue was momentarily halted. Those without eyesight seemed to enjoy the performance, especially the humorous parts, and there was prolonged applause at the end of the film (New York Times, 1929, p. 28)
Full details of this article can be found here. By comparison, Australia began offering Audio description on 12 cinema screens throughout regional Australia 70 years later in 2009.
The 1940s in Spain
During the 1940s in Spain, Gerardo Esteban, a radio presenter, began narrating films on Spain’s national radio station Radio Nacional de España. The service which ran until the 1950s was described as offering ‘an important space in prime-time radio programming […] until the birth of television’ (Orero, 2007, p. 112). While it was targeted specifically towards blind and vision impaired audiences, film studios were charged a fee for the description as the radio station considered it a form of free advertising. As discussed earlier, a radio facilitated audio description service did not appear in Australia until the 1980s and 1990s and by the end of the century was no longer available.
1960s in the US
Communities of Star Trek fans began to share AD versions of the original television show on cassette tape.
1970s- 1980s in the US
Academic Gregory Frazier began working on the concept of AD theatre. He founded AudioVision in 1972 to explore making media and live performances more accessible to people who are blind and vision impaired (DCMP, 2017). His 1975 Master’s thesis, The autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman: An all-audio adaptation of the teleplay for the blind and visually handicapped, was an AD adaptation of the television–film drama The autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman.
Margaret Pfanstiehl worked with both theatre and public television officials to develop technology to facilitate the provision of AD to audiences who were blind or vision impaired. Just as Gerardo Esteban had in 1940s Spain, Pfanstiehl utilised a cross-technology AD simulcast using radio, albeit this time pared with television rather than cinema, of the PBS show American playhouse (Lewis, 2017). This radio–television simulcast arrangement was also used in Europe throughout the 1990s. Pfanstiehl was awarded an Emmy in 1990 for her work with the Metropolitan Washington Ear Reading Service to bring AD to television
1990s in the US
Margaret Pfanstiehl’s The Metropolitan Washington Ear Reading Service, Gregory Frazier’s AudioVision Institute, James Stovall’s Narrative Television Network and Barry Cronin and Laurie Everett from PBS/WGBH each received Emmys for their work in the areas of audio description on television.
Throughout the 1990s, they continued to develop initiatives, conferences and best practice guidelines for the provision of AD while offering AD movies, television shows and theatre performances.
These guidelines and policy changes are now advancing the provision of AD in many countries.
There are historical examples of community led audio description television services simulcast with radio during the 1980s and 1990s in Australia.
In 1983 the community radio station 3RPH in Melbourne offered audio description of the international tennis competition Wimbledon as an extension to the television coverage. Then during the 1990s 3RPH provided descriptions of the popular Australian television dramas Water Rats, The Man From Snowy River and Law of the Lands (Simpson, 1999, p. 38). However, the service was viewed as being ‘at the expense of other content’ (Simpson, 1999, p. 5) and was limited to Melbourne audiences.