Radio service for the future of the blind in the dark after funding cut


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A Levin radio station that has been reading newspapers for the blind and hard of hearing for 30 years has seen its funding cut by New Zealand on Air.  From left to right: Steve Jepson, Geoff Ritchie and Kathryn Taylor.

DAVID UNWIN / STUFF

A Levin radio station that has been reading newspapers for the blind and hard of hearing for 30 years has seen its funding cut by New Zealand on Air. From left to right: Steve Jepson, Geoff Ritchie and Kathryn Taylor.

Three decades ago, a legally blind man started a nonprofit radio station to help others like him.

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

For decades they have recorded and broadcast daily readings of all local and national newspapers, an assortment of magazines ranging from New Scientist to the Women’s weekly, and a collection of Kiwi books to make them accessible to people with reduced mobility.

The future of the resort is in trouble after NZ on Air withdrew its funding earlier this year.

DAVID UNWIN / STUFF

The future of the resort is in trouble after NZ on Air withdrew its funding earlier this year.

This year, the station’s funding was withdrawn, just a month after the service’s 30th anniversary. He’s a victim of changing technology: volunteers turning the cracked pages of magazines and reading the stories into a microphone to broadcast over an AM network seem like a heartwarming relic from another era. It’s an anachronism when Siri can read the whole internet to you and do everything but tie your shoelaces.

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

Volunteers from as far away as Porirua travel to Levin station to record daily and magazine readings.

DAVID UNWIN / STUFF

Volunteers from as far away as Porirua travel to Levin station to record daily and magazine readings.

Broadcast on Horowhenua and Manawatū, from Whanganui to the gates of Wellington, the service helps around 600 listeners per month keep up to date with current events, science and culture. And thanks to the support of Access Internet Radio, they have been able to reach hundreds more across the country with their on-demand online broadcast.

The immeasurable benefits the station has brought to its listeners earned its founder a Queen’s Service Medal in 1989.

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

Volunteers in the service now fear that the station will not survive without the support of the NZOA, but they are determined to ensure that their work does not end there.

They say knowledge is power, but for Allen Little it is much more fundamental than that – information is an opportunity.

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

He started the reading service to give “incompetent print” the same opportunities as everyone else. This is not just for people who are blind, but for anyone with a disability which means they have trouble absorbing or keeping up with written information.

Statistics New Zealand has 168,000 people unable to read print in New Zealand, and 10 percent of Kiwis have dyslexia that is not officially classified.

“Printing disability is a horrible, limiting problem to live with.

“My desire was to bridge the gap, to help as much as I could know so they could get the most out of their lives.”

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

There are text-to-speech programs, apps, and audiobooks, and similar playback service stations around the world are available online.

But what about the elderly, who aren’t as tech-savvy, or people who can’t or won’t use computers for some reason?

Volunteer Alison Davies is outraged that the NZOA withdrew its funding after reading last week that the NZOA donated $ 1.1 million for a docu-fiction on the murder of Peter Plumley-Walker.

“Fully-funded, decades-old repeat murder story receives over 1 million NZOA dollars; living, vital and current community service for those with visual impairments does not,” says Davies .

“I know which way I would prefer my taxes to go.”

Most volunteers have been coming to Levin Studio at least twice a month for over two decades.

And when they do eventually stop coming, it’s only because their condition makes it impossible.

Radio Reading Service production manager Geoff Ritchie, who has run the station for two years since Little took a step back, said volunteers fear that maintaining the station will prove to be an impossible task.

There are transmitters to maintain and power, studio equipment to maintain and upgrade, and a wide variety of newspaper and magazine subscriptions to pay for.

“But it won’t close. We’ll hold it down one way or another.”

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