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Out of money, reading service for blind ends on Pittsburgh radio

| Friday, Aug. 7, 2009

The Radio Information Service, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that provides reading service for the blind, is out of money and will go inactive next Friday.

"The money is gone -- more than gone," said Scott Hanley, the general manager of public radio station WDUQ, which took over production of the service from the independent nonprofit in 2005.

The service allows people who are blind or visually impaired to listen to volunteers read daily and weekly newspapers and shopper's guides, along with original programming. Listeners can call a telephone number or connect to the service through special broadcast receivers or the Internet.

The nonprofit was founded in 1976. The reading service is used by 1,000 to 2,000 listeners across Southwest Pennsylvania, Hanley said.

While WDUQ is laying off the four staffers who have been responsible for the program, Hanley said, the radio station would continue broadcasting the service with the help of volunteers, and that some local programming would still be available.

"It's too valuable a service to let it go away," Hanley said. "We want to keep whatever we can going."

Andy Ai, president of the service's board of directors, said the service's 200 volunteers were notified by e-mail on Monday that the nonprofit would cease operation. Listeners learned the news over the air on Sunday.

Sue Etters of Sewickley is visually impaired and has been using the service for more than 30 years.

"I really like it," she said. "A lot of blind people use it."

Etters, 57, said she had noticed cutbacks in the amount of programming over the past few years.

"I think it is waning because of the Internet," she said. "A lot of blind people can get the newspapers online now."

Reading services across the country are struggling, especially since losing government funding within the past decade, Hanley said.

Hanley said the budget for the reading service had been about $300,000 earlier this decade, but it was cut to about $200,000 last year, an amount that revenue failed to cover. The service had been funded primarily by foundations, which he said were "strapped" by the economic crisis.

"It is a difficult time," Ai said, "but we're trying to keep the service up and running as much as possible."

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