Stephen King - Part 1

As of January 1 this year, Stephen King began a four year term as President of the DAISY Consortium. Stephen holds the position of "Group Director: Prevention & International Affairs" for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in the UK and has just stepped down as Chair of the World Blind Union (WBU) Technology Work Group to focus attention on his new responsibilities with DAISY. Busy as he is, Stephen has agreed to write his story for the DAISY Planet. I am very pleased to introduce you to Stephen King, one of the original six founding members of the DAISY Consortium.

(This is the first part of a two-part story)

PART 1: My DAISY Journey – the Early Years

Ramping Up

Photograph of Stephen King taken in the early 1980's at RCA My DAISY journey actually began during the first 10 years of my working life when I was employed at Collins Publishers (now HarperCollins Publishers) and later at Fontana paperbacks as Head of Operations. I learned the 'art and science' of consumer publishing while also doing my MBA part-time at the Scottish Business School. We had great authors such as Michael Bond (Paddington Bear), CS Lewis (Narnia) and of course Agatha Christie and Alistair Maclean, backed up by a fantastic editorial, design, sales and marketing team from whom I learned a huge amount and to whom I owe a massive debt of thanks for my subsequent success.

Whilst at Collins I discovered the potential of computers to revolutionise the speed and cost of publishing. I met strange people who talked about "our PDP11" as if it were some mystical beast. I really did not understand how it worked, but I could see the business potential – I became an evangelist. I even proposed, horror of horrors, that we might give computer word processors to authors to capture text and style details. This was truly revolutionary stuff, as those were the days of CP/M, before the young Bill Gates and Paul Allen had even thought about MS-DOS and the later launch of the IBM PC.

Strategic Use of Technology

Photograph of the cover of the Collins English Dictionary My interests lead me to Collins big secret project: a database of words and phrases. Deep in the bowels of Birmingham University was one of the first Kurzweil Scanners run by Professor John Sinclair who was building what would become the 650 million word COBUILD "Bank of English". Our aim was to create the best, most up-to-date series of English dictionaries, and take over a market previously dominated by Oxford University Press. It was my first experience in the strategic use of technology for "disruptive marketing", and it was an outstanding success. First published in 1979, to this day the Collins English Dictionary series is a huge seller, and the COBUILD database keeps track of the living language of English, earning a substantial return and supporting development of artificial intelligence technologies.

Very early Kurzweil Reading Machine, circa 1978 But the strange thing about this part of my early career is that through this project I encountered RNIB which had the only other Kurzweil Scanner in the UK at that time. In RNIB it was used for the production of braille. And that same scanner was still there when I joined RNIB in 1990, more than 10 years later! Through this I learned about the power of databases to manage and navigate text, and also learned a lot about the potential for speech synthesis and character recognition – technologies at the heart of the DAISY world of the best way to read & publish.

From Books to Video

Stephen King and associates at an RCA presentation in the early 1980s In 1983 after a fantastic time at Collins my interest in disruptive technology marketing took me to RCA/Columbia Pictures as Head of Operations at the beginning of the home video market. We were a strange hybrid partnership between RCA, a hugely successful record distributor, and Columbia Pictures, a venerable film studio, neither of which "got" video. We were the classic "Skunk Works"; hated for killing the traditional market of film, not doing things the record company way, but at the same time making huge profits for everyone. We quickly became the number 2 worldwide distributor of videos. My office throbbed constantly to great music as I was right below the Tamla Motown office. One of my strongest recollections is the amazing "Number 1 party" for Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You". Stevie's success inspired me and made me realize that anything is possible for someone who is blind – something that's stuck with me ever since.

I learned about professional video and audio editing, and how to deal with really difficult people. Above all I learned consumer marketing from the consummate professionals on our team and the great agencies we had access to through Columbia's ultimate owner, Coca Cola. We had one huge failure though, which brings me back to my DAISY story. Video was still a linear experience because it was delivered on tape. RCA had a novel disk-based technology, called SelectaVision, which offered DAISY-like navigation and which could be used for cookery and other non-fiction material. However when investment funding was pulled, it sunk without a trace. Through this I learned that more than great technology is needed for success.

Still on the Move

Timperleys Clock Museum, Essex, UK, 2009 By then I'd left for new pastures, having been headhunted by Athena International as their Director of Operations. It was great to be working for a British company, and the move brought me to our current home in a small Essex village where our children grew up and Cate and I still happily live. Despite amazingly successful images like L'Enfant (the biggest-selling poster in British history) and "Tennis Girl", an outstanding art Director (Paul Rodriguez), and a great sales and marketing team, our ambitious programme of opening a new shop every week somewhere in the world caused huge financing problems, which were further aggravated by a financially troubled parent company. Having moved the operations from a series of ramshackle buildings to a custom built landmark Head Quarters and distribution centre, I moved on to consultancy.

Finding RNIB

RNIB logo My 'trademarks' in consultancy were "Turnaround" and "Making organisations work for their customers". Working on projects for a range of household-name organisations was interesting and lucrative, but I yearned for the responsibility of running a business, rather than just advising. So in 1990 when RNIB needed help with its troubled services I jumped at the opportunity, expecting to be there for a couple of years maximum. Twenty-one years later I'm still there, working with the most amazing people I've ever met.

RNIB's Technical & Consumer Services Division delivered the major national services: Braille and Talking Book publishing, sales & library, assistive product sales, some resource centres, as well as a substantial research and development team. It was chaos! Unfortunately re-location had resulted in loss of the unique design skills needed for successful alternate format publishing. RNIB had gone from being one of the world's leading alternate format publishers to next to no output in a few short months, and what was published was derided by unhappy customers. I spent much of my first few weeks on the radio and telephone, answering hostile questions. There was little money for recovering the necessary skills and training. To make matters worse customer service was almost non-existent.

However there were the most fantastic people – people who cared and knew how it could and should be. There were opportunities to do things differently using technology, with solid support from Ian Bruce, Director General, and the Trustee Board lead by John Wall.

RNIB Helpline, photo of an elderly lady speaking on the telephone Against fierce opposition, John Godber, who was then Marketing Manager (now head of Products and Publications) created "Customer Services" which meant customers had one place to go for all their needs. This paved the way for our RNIB Helpline of today which deals with over 1000 calls daily and is the heart of our customer focus. John also started our Commercial Services which is where Peter Osborne came in to manage a separate customer gateway for business work. Chris Day, who was Head of Operations, set about creating an integrated Publishing Production Team using the most modern ICT available. I still remember being told that there was no way our trusty team of braille volunteers, bashing away at home on their Perkins braillers would or could ever use computers. Well that took about two years, and they soon learned to love their computers.

Digital Talking Books: Still a Dream

Soon, customers learned to love us again, our finances were under control and we started on a period of change and growth that continued for more than 15 years. And that set the scene for DAISY to arrive as RNIB's trustees regained confidence and were prepared to consider the huge investment needed to replace our antiquated Talking Book technology. The research and development had been done. I was shown a working prototype and a flowchart which detailed all the features our members had asked for in a Talking Book player. We knew navigation was possible as Richard Orme had been working on navigating digital newspapers, using speech in a project that delivered newspapers every day via the TV signal. However £30m was the estimated cost for this change – way more than was feasible.

DAISY was Born

Kurt Cylke and Dr. Euclid Herie at the Meeting held in Toronto 1995 Meanwhile I'd been attending IFLA "Section of Libraries for the Blind" (now the Libraries Serving Persons with Print Disabilities Section) meetings for a number of years to benchmark our services and learn good practice. It was apparent to me, and others, that we all shared the same problem and that there were lots of interesting projects going on in different places. In 1992 I had attended a meeting of the English speaking libraries for the blind, convened by Frank Kurt Cylke, then Director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) in the USA. We looked at the options available. NLS had decided that they would not go to a new system until it could be delivered in solid state digital, then estimated (accurately) to be 15 years away. But many other organisations from around the world wanted to move faster and the idea of co-operative development started and took shape at a meeting in Toronto in April 1995. At that meeting, hosted by the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB), convened by NLS, and attended by organisations from many countries and representing many language groups, it was resolved that the next generation of talking books should be developed by international co-operation and that it should take into account the needs of all language groups. The idea of the DAISY Consortium was born.

Part 2 of Stephen King's story will be published in the February issue of the DAISY Planet. Stephen takes us from the past, to the present, and to the dream coming true with DAISY becoming a reality.

Photo sources:
• Kurzweil Reading Machine circa 1978: Kurzweil Technologies website
• Timperleys Clock Museum, Essex, UK, 2009: Colchester Guide Photo Gallery