June 22, 2018
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News reading service for visually impaired going on hiatus to update technology, build audience

By Dawn Gagnon, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — A news reading service that has been serving blind and otherwise print-impaired Mainers since April 2000 is suspending operations later this month as it focuses on upgrading its technology and finding ways to grow its listening audience.

The Maine Audio Information Reading Service, or Maine AIRS, is a service of the Iris Network, a statewide organization that helps people who are visually impaired or blind maintain their independence and keep involved in their communities. Maine AIRS volunteers read news stories and other items of interest from 30 to 35 Maine daily and weekly newspapers, including the Bangor Daily News.

Much of the service’s focus has been on local information, such as obituaries, wedding and birth announcements, local sports, job listings, police logs, editorials and local news.

From studios in Brewer and Portland and sometimes from home, the volunteers also read short stories and provide other useful information, such as what’s on sale at the local supermarket.

John Steadman of Orono is an avid Maine AIRS listener who will miss the service. Steadman, a former small-engine mechanic who is visually impaired, said the service has been a big part of his Saturday and Sunday mornings and afternoons, as well as his source of information on weekdays.

“That’s been my entertainment in the house all day because I got all the information about what was going on,” he said. “They read the whole thing right out to you. They read all the stuff that is important.”

While area radio stations provide some news, Steadman said, “it’s a bunch of songs, a 10-second splat of news and another bunch of songs. It’s OK, but [Maine AIRS] is pretty much news and information — and some classical music on Sundays.”

Steadman, who delivered the BDN from the age of 9 to 16 as a boy living Down East, still subscribes to the daily newspaper, which he can — with some difficulty — read through a special magnifier.

“It’s very hard to to. You’ve got to have a lot of patience to do it,” he said.

“I think it’s gonna be a big loss,” he said of Maine AIRS’ imminent suspension. “I believe, myself, that it’s gonna be missed more than the Legislature and those guys think.”

“I don’t think they are seeing the big picture,” he said. “That’s going to leave a lot of people lost.”

Sept. 26 is the tentative date for Maine AIRS’ last live broadcast, Michael Barndollar, The Iris Network’s development and communications director, said Tuesday.

If all goes to plan, the service will be back on the air within a year or two, Barndollar said. In the interim, listeners will have access to archived programming through The Iris Network’s website at www.theiris.org.

“We look at this as just a temporary setback. We’re using the temporary suspension to explore some of the latest technology and to expand our potential listening audience,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday night.

“It’ll be the phoenix. It will rise from the ashes again,” he said.

In an email Tuesday afternoon to The IRIS Network’s 110 or so volunteer readers, Michael Phipps, the network’s executive director, noted that the decision to suspend operations was not an easy one to make.

“No one here at The Iris Network takes this decision lightly. Over the years, many visually impaired or blind people have benefited from this program, which is a tribute to your tremendous volunteer commitment,” he wrote. “We thank you for so generously giving your time.”

The recommendation to suspend operations was made by the finance committee of the network’s board of directors, Phipps said. The full board is expected to approve the recommendation during a meeting Sept. 18 as a way of helping The Iris Network balance its 2013 budget.

In the email, Phipps cited several factors in the decision to go on hiatus.

“The reality is that with the loss of access to television in 2009 due to television’s digital conversion, the Maine AIRS audience has declined by as much as 90 percent,” he wrote. “Despite this significant loss of listeners, the cost of keeping Maine AIRS operational actually increased due mainly to the increased cost of doing business and the fact that The Iris Network is now providing special radio receivers to many of the listeners.”

Barndollar said that before the conversion, Maine AIRS had about 3,000 listeners. Largely due to changing technology, the audience has dropped to about 200, he said.

Before the conversion, the service was made available through a partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. through its SAP, or Secondary Audio Program, channels. It also could be accessed through cable channels in some parts of the state as well as with special receivers that were made available to listeners by The Iris Network.

The drop in listeners hurt the organization’s ability to raise funds to supplement the support it receives from state government, Barndollar said, adding that the service’s annual operating budget typically runs from $120,000 to $130,000 a year and that state dollars cover about 30 percent of the cost.

On top of that, the less than rosy economy has made raising funds more difficult, Barndollar said.

Continuing to run without retooling would have meant broadcasting at the expense of programs critical to The Iris Network’s core mission, such as rehabilitation services that enable the blind and visually impaired to remain in their homes and maintain careers, he said.

“The plan to re-establish the program depends on our ability to significantly increase the audience, improve and expand the program’s technology and space needs and generate far more underwriting and philanthropic support,” Phipps wrote.

To that end, network officials plan to work toward getting the Maine AIRS signal back on television, both cable and over-the-air transmissions.

“The technology exists, it is inexpensive and requires some infrastructure updating on our part,” Phipps said.

They also plan to expand the potential listening audience to all print-disabled individuals, regardless of the reason for their inability to read, Phipps said. That likely will involve teaming up with organizations that serve people with print disabilities — such as Literacy Volunteers, the MS Society and Parkinson’s disease support groups — to raise awareness about Maine AIRS.

And with many changes in communications technology, there now are other options for print-disabled individuals to get news, he noted. “Maine AIRS must find its niche among all these technologies to ensure we are operating a uniquely needed program worthy of public support.”

Once those things have been accomplished, Maine AIRS will be far better positioned to raise operating funds and justify continued state support, Phipps said, adding, “Implementing this plan will take time and effort, yet the reward is a far more robust Maine AIRS that reaches a far greater audience.”

Bangor Daily News Editor-in-Chief Michael J. Dowd is a volunteer reader for Maine AIRS.

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