Promising medium for the blind: audio over the Internet

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The Internet will revolutionize how radio reading services deliver — and their visually impaired clients receive — information, but providers are just beginning to explore the possibilities. Of the 100 or so radio reading services that belong to the International Association of Audio Information Services, only a handful now have web sites that provide audio streaming.

Theoretically at least, “every radio reading program can be put onto an audio server and listened to by any blind person anywhere, anytime,” as long as he or she has Internet access, Bob Brummond, g.m. of the RAISE Reading Service in Asheville, N.C., told attendees at the IAAIS annual conference last month in Washington, D.C.

The Internet offers a way to leapfrog over many of the problems facing radio reading services. Services typically broadcast over a subcarrier channel of an FM radio station (frequently a public radio station or one associated with a college or library). Listeners must have a special subsidiary communications authorization (SCA) receiver to hear the closed-circuit broadcast. Some services also hitchike with TV, either through broadcast TV’s secondary audio program (SAP) channel or on audio channels of a cable TV system.

“Most of us have one [radio] channel and listeners must tune in or tape at certain times to hear a particular program. We can only provide one program each hour or half-hour. Our coverage area is dependent on our SCA signal strength, and we don’t have a high-quality signal,” said Brummond.

With the Internet, however, clients anywhere in the world can listen to multiple programs at once, choosing from extensive archives of back issues and playing them on demand.

The question is, how web-savvy are the clients? Compared to the general population, many of the visually impaired are less likely to have a computer or subscribe to an Internet service provider.

New Internet devices, however, will bring web audio to people without conventional computers. Reps from two companies, Kerbango and Inhouse Radio Networks, showed off their gizmos at the IAAIS conference. Kerbango’s toaster-size product looks like a radio and connects to the Internet without a computer. The big-buttoned prototype was sexy-looking but so temperamental that it flunked its demo. The real thing is expected to be available in the next few months, retailing for under $300. [Late in June, Kerbango was acquired by 3Com, a major computer connectivity firm, and Thomson Multimedia agreed to distribute an RCA-brand Internet radio using the Kerbango Tuning Service.]

Already on the market is Radio Webcaster from Inhouse Radio Networks, Miami. The $149 device, which does require a Web-connected computer, sends a low-power FM signal to a portable receiver elsewhere in the house. It not only plays Internet radio stations but also plays and records MP3 files.