- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Donors have temporarily saved the cash-strapped, closed-circuit radio service that gets newspapers, magazines, books and even the latest grocery ads read to the thousands of blind people statewide.

The 18-year-old Pennsylvania-based Radio Information Service charges subscribers $20 a year. The service, with about 250 volunteers, nearly closed last month after its funding almost dried up.

Thanks to several donors, the Pittsburgh service now has enough money until the end of January, Executive Director Laurie Anderson said. But the group is looking to form a long-term partnership with a university or other group to offset costs, including the space it rents.

With government cash becoming more difficult to obtain, nonprofit radio reading groups across the nation are finding they need to be creative to stay on the air.

“It got harder for all nonprofits. It’s really forcing us into looking at what we do,” Miss Anderson said. “In some ways, I think this is a good thing. We were hoping to do a long-range planning process and this has really accelerated things.”

Radio reading services typically are staffed by volunteers and broadcast on a subcarrier channel of an FM radio station. Listeners must have a special, pre-tuned radio receiver to pick up the broadcast.

According to the International Association of Audio Information Services — a group of independently operated reading services — more than 1 million Americans older than 40 are blind and 2.4 million are visually impaired. Dozens of other health and cognitive conditions, from dyslexia to macular degeneration to Parkinson’s disease, affect a person’s ability to read.

Some of the material can be recorded on tape. But there is little value in listening to a tape of a newspaper a day or two after it is published, listeners say.

To cope with a cash crunch in Arizona, several regional reading services across the state combined to form Sun Sounds of Arizona, hoping to garner more recognition — and contributions — for their work.

“Because we’re a statewide presence, we all use the same name. People are more likely to hear about us, even granters or foundations,” said Bill Pasco, the group’s executive director, who is blind.

Though the four Sun Sounds offices in Arizona raise their own money locally, the group brought in a professional fund-raiser because it is competing with many larger and more well-known groups for money.

In Pittsburgh, Joyce Driben has been listening to a radio reading service since 1990. Blind since birth, the 63-year-old former social worker said the reading of the local newspapers, including the grocery store ads, are especially helpful.

“As a blind person, when I go into the store and I need assistance, they’re not going to have time to go up and down every aisle and tell me what they’ve got,” Mrs. Driben said. “It allows me to be far more independent. I like the idea of being able to do what I want, when I want.”

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