Radio service for the blind's future in the dark after funding is cut

Radio service for the blind's future in the dark after funding is cut

Three decades ago a legally blind man started a non-profit radio station to help others like himself.

The New Zealand Radio Reading Service was started in 1987 by Allen Little and a small group of volunteers to help people who can't read on their own due to their age or a disability.

For decades, they've recorded and broadcast daily readings of all the local and national newspapers, an assortment of magazines ranging from the New Scientist to the Women's Weekly, and a collection of Kiwi books to make them accessible to the print disabled.

This year, the station's funding has been pulled, just a month after the service's 30th anniversary. It is a victim of changing technologies: volunteers turning the crackly pages of magazines and reading the stories into a microphone to broadcast out on an AM network seems like a comforting relic of another era. It is an anachronism when Siri can read the entire Internet to you and do everything but tie your shoelaces.

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Operating out of a small broadcasting studio, tucked above a travel agent in the heart of Levin, the Radio Reading Service has thrived thanks to the passion and dedication of its 80 regular volunteers and contributors. Some drive in from as far away as Porirua to record readings. One even built his own professional-grade recording studio in Auckland so he could contribute.

Broadcasting to the Horowhenua and Manawatū, from Whanganui down right to Wellington's doorstep, the service helps an estimated 600 listeners a month keep up with the news, science, and culture. And thanks to the support of Access Internet Radio, they've been able to reach hundreds more across the country with their on-demand online broadcast.

The immeasurable benefit the station has brought to its listeners earned it's founder a Queen's Service Medal in 1989.

But New Zealand on Air (NZOA) cut the station's operating grant of $100,000 per year in June.

The service's volunteers are now worried the station will not survive without NZOA's support, but they're determined to ensure their work won't end here.

They say knowledge is power but to Allen Little it's much more fundamental than that – information is opportunity.

Little says access to information is a fundamental human right, like food and shelter. People can't live meaningful lives in modern society without it.

He started the Reading Service to give the "print disabled" the same opportunities as everybody else. It's not just for blind people, but anyone who has an impairment that means they struggle to absorb or follow written information.

Statistics New Zealand counts 168,000 people with print disabilities in New Zealand, and another 10 per cent of Kiwis have dyslexia which isn't officially classified.

"Print disability is a horrible, limiting, problem to live with.

"My desire was to bridge the gap, to help as many as I could be informed so they could make the most of their lives."

Little understands why NZ on Air, which has so many worthy projects to fund, might think a radio service broadcasting newspaper and magazine readings is no longer vital in the 21st century.

There are text-to-speech programmes, apps and audiobooks, and similar reading service stations from around the world are available online.

But what about the older people, who aren't as fluent in technology, or people who can't or won't use computers for whatever reason?

Volunteer Alison Davies is outraged that NZOA has withdrawn their funding after reading last week that NZOA has given $1.1 million for a docu-drama about Peter Plumley-Walker's murder.

"A fully funded, decades old, murder rehash story gets over a million of NZOA money; the lively, vital and current community service to those who have a sight impairment does not," says Davies.

"I know which way I would prefer my taxes to go."

Most of the volunteers have been coming into the Levin studio at least twice a month for more than two decades.

And when they do eventually stop coming in it's only because their health makes it impossible.

Radio Reading Service's production manager Geoff Ritchie, who's run the station for the past two years since Little stepped back, says the volunteers are worried keeping the station going will prove an impossible task.

There's transmitters to maintain and power, studio equipment to service and upgrade, and a wide-range of paper and magazine subscriptions to pay.

"But it won't close. We'll keep it going one way or another."

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