Letter to the editor: Reading services provide a lifeline to public radio’s most vulnerable listeners

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Current’s recent article on KPBS’ decision to reduce its reading service for blind and visually impaired listeners stopped short of reporting the whole story. By claiming that visually disabled seniors are now able to use digital technologies, KPBS’s John Decker perpetuates the myth that radio-delivered reading services are no longer needed.

The Pew Research Center has reported that seniors who have a disability “are less likely than those who do not to utilize a variety of digital assets — from the internet in general, to devices such as smartphones or tablet computers.” Further, people with disabilities find using the newer digital technology difficult and cost-prohibitive.

An earlier Pew report on internet usage among disabled populations found that “disabled Americans are about three times as likely as those without a disability to say they never go online.”

This research has been overlooked by public radio managers who do not know or understand the audience their volunteers were reading to. They hear nothing from these listeners and take their silence as indifference. This leads them to believe the service is no longer valued. Instead of investing time to learn what the audience thinks of the reading service, they presume that their needs are met by today’s technological advancements.

I can see the attraction of this idea. It means that the subcarrier authorization system can be shut down. The staff salary — usually a part-time person and a crew of volunteers — can be eliminated or re-assigned. The inventory of special radios can be disposed of.  Cutting the costs of an annual salary of about $10,000, up to two hours of engineering work per month and the reduced SCA radio inventory may add up to a savings of as much as $20,000 in the first year following the closing. On the other side of the radio however, it’s a different story.

My 30-plus years of experience as a reading service marketer, development officer and executive director has taught me that elimination of reading services is a great loss for those who depend on them. Almost every eligible person who has learned about the reading service is happy to receive it. They tell us in annual telephone surveys that the reading service is their lifeline to the world. Most of them don’t have an internet service provider. They don’t want to spend money on it and don’t want to learn a new technology. Many refuse internet services when their adult children offer to pay for them.

The audience for radio reading services is predominantly older and complacent. They do not complain when reading services are withdrawn or reduced. They are of a generation that is used to going without and resign themselves to the loss of services. When this happens, they become more isolated and retreat from community life. And, their life experiences are no longer available to the community.

I was most alarmed that the article reported that KPBS is following a trend to reduce radio-based reading services. Public stations that have done this almost invariably cite a trend toward more internet technology and its adoption by blind people. The Pew studies I’ve referenced show that these statements are based on faulty assumptions, especially regarding seniors who are disabled.

For the foreseeable future, radio-based reading services will remain essential to the most vulnerable public radio listeners. In time, younger, more technically proficient people will age into the “visually impaired population.” They won’t need a low-tech solution to hear about deals in the weekly grocery flyer or news from the local newspaper. Until that time, reading services on radio are the best way to provide this community service. Who better than community-supported public broadcasters can do that job?

David Noble is founder of Synapse Consulting, LLC, in Xenia, Ohio.

2 thoughts on “Letter to the editor: Reading services provide a lifeline to public radio’s most vulnerable listeners

  1. I think it is very easy for most people to forget that a device like an iPhone, which has almost zero tactile feedback, can be of near-zero utility for a person with no eyesight.

    And this concept has been badly eroded by the fact that technology has made incredible inroads in serving people of limited eyesight in the last 10 or 15 years. But while technology has helped the haves, it has (to date) left the have-nots behind.

    That means there’s a smaller and smaller population that still relies on these “old school” services like Radio Reading subcarriers. And it’s understandable that stations are questioning the need to continue to provide (often expensive) legacy services to an ever-shrinking population.

    But unlike many situations where a service provider can force this shrinking population to “upgrade” to a new service by discontinuing the old one…in this case if the RRS is discontinued, that population is just left in the lurch.

    So yes. Crunch the numbers and make the budgetary decisions you have to. But as David says: no station should pretend that any remaining listeners to your subcarrier will just “make the switch” to a webcast if you shut the RRS subcarrier off. Those that CAN make the switch probably already have; those who are left are depending on you…and you’ll be abandoning them.

  2. How timely! Our reading service, which uses our subcarrier free of charge, decided they would move to web streaming and not use our subcarrier any longer. Guess what, they abandoned that idea when they found very few if anyone listening to the web stream. They have since gone back to using the sub-carrier. Our local reading service is run by a younger, visually impaired IT person who thought streaming might be the answer. I am happy he experimented, and also happy he quickly back-peddled when his listeners were not being served. In the end, it is all about the listener!

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