Audio service for the blind going digital

Posted Nov. 21, 2008, at 8:26 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:16 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — At 90, Leona Maddan is a creature of habit, and something of a news junkie.

“In the morning, I come out in the kitchen and get my coffee ready,” she said. “Then I sit down and listen to the Bangor Daily News. It starts at 8 and goes to 9.”

Maddan, like too many older Americans, has lost her eyesight to age-related macular degeneration. She counts on the daily broadcast of a service called Maine AIRS to keep her up to date on local news and events from the area where she has lived all her long life.

“The obituaries are important to me,” the former Cardville postmaster confided in a recent interview in her Boyd Place apartment. “The other residents here don’t know all the people I know.”

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The statewide Maine AIRS program is a free service of the nonprofit Iris Network for the visually impaired, based in Portland. Maine AIRS is broadcast both on the Internet and over a special audio-only television channel on the airwaves of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. But in February, when public television switches its signal from analog to digital, Maine AIRS will transfer to a new radio frequency.

Listeners who, like Maddan, now listen on the MPBN signal, either through their television sets or with an auxiliary analog receiver, will need a different receiver to hear the programs they enjoy. Those who listen to the programming on their computers do not need to make any changes.

The new receivers — called SCA receivers, for Subsidiary Communications Authorization — are available free of charge, although the Iris Network will accept donations from those who are able to contribute. The suggested donation is $50.

One upside of the change, according to Les Myers, director of the Maine AIRS service, is that the new radio signal will reach more households than the television signal does now. In addition, he said in an interview this week at the Maine AIRS studio in Brewer, live and recorded programming will be expanded to 24 hours a day, presenting listeners with a broader menu of news, information and entertainment.

Since April 2000, the volunteer readers on Maine AIRS have read through thousands of local new stories, wedding announcements, death notices, and other material unlikely to be covered on conventional television or radio news broadcasts. Information and commentaries from daily and weekly papers from around the state, public meal menus, weather forecasts, television schedules, grocery items on sale, magazine stories and an evening reading from a current book round out the programming.

“I figure our listeners appreciate hearing that kind of stuff,” Myers said. There’s no way to know how many people tune in on a regular basis, he said. But with an estimated 35,000 visually impaired people in Maine, he estimates several thousand may be listening at any given moment. Many segments are recorded and available for downloading as well.

More volunteer readers will be needed to help fill the expanded schedule, Myers added.

For Leona Maddan, Maine AIRS provides a vital connection to the world of information and ideas.

“I always had the Bangor Daily News when I could see,” she said. “I hated to give it up, but I had to.” Now that she can barely make out any text, even with the help of her big, lighted magnifying glass, she listens to Maine AIRS on and off all day. She already has reserved a new SCA receiver in her name.

Maddan was sorry to come to the end of the memoir “Three Weeks with My Brother” by Nicholas and Micah Sparks, which was read in 20 daily installments and wrapped up earlier this week.

“That was a wonderful story,” she said, sighing. The next selection on the afternoon Maine Reader program is “Bottlemania” by journalist Elizabeth Royte, an analysis of the bottled-water phenomenon. Maddan is skeptical.

“I’ll start it, and if I don’t like it, I’ll stop,” she said. “I never bought a bottle of water in my life.”

For more about Maine AIRS, including information on volunteering and a link to the Internet broadcast, visit For information about obtaining a new SCA receiver, call the Iris Network at 800-715-0097.

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