The Illinois Radio Reader Program serves the visually and print impaired

For 35 years, volunteer readers in Champaign-Urbana have been lending their voices to the local visually and print-impaired community. The Illinois Radio Reader program provides a 24-hour stream of read-aloud local publications, as well as special radios for these individuals to listen through at no charge.

“The Radio Reader program is a statewide organization,” said Deane Geiken, director of the IRR, a service of Illinois Public Media. “We provide the reading of local newspapers, books, magazines, periodicals, things of interest that would be of either interest or help to what we call the ‘print impaired’ listening audience.”

People who are print impaired could be blind, partially blind or in a condition where they cannot easily read, gain access to a newspaper or leave their house to do so.

“The majority of our listeners are probably 55 and older because they have developed vision loss due to age-related issues: macular degeneration, diabetes, things like that,” Geiken said.

Listeners can receive this free broadcast via three different mediums: radio, Internet and mobile phone. If they call the IRR, the program will deliver free radios that are specially tuned to the Radio Reader’s transmission. If the listener is technologically savvy, he or she can access the stream online via the IRR website or on their mobile phone through the iBlink Radio app for Apple or Android phones.

So far, the IRR has more than 70 volunteers, and it broadcasts to about 600 people. The broadcast spans 12 to 15 counties (or portions of them), and includes cities in Illinois like Bloomington, Decatur, Vermillion and Mattoon.

The volunteers range from retirees to University students. Each volunteer comes to IRR’s Campbell Hall location and records their reading a couple of hours before airtime. The average volunteer reads for a half hour or an hour, while others can read for longer if they choose.

Ruth McCauley, a retired University employee, has been contributing her time and voice to the IRR’s listeners for about 15 years.

“Where I had been in Texas, I was reading to a visually impaired woman, just directly in her home,” McCauley said. “I’d go to her home once a week and read for four hours … so when I got here (to Illinois), I wanted to do the same thing. I couldn’t find a way to get hooked up one-on-one with a person, but I heard about Radio Reader, and this is a way to help people read a variety of things.”

McCauley began reading once a week at the IRR, but increased her time to twice a week after she retired. She reads newspapers like the Decatur Herald & Review and the News-Gazette, and she also reads books.

The IRR also provides the readings of the Bloomington Pantagraph, the Danville Commercial-News and other periodicals, such as magazines.

“We also take cues from listeners,” Geiken said. “One of the most listened parts of the programming, and I know it sounds odd, are the grocery store ads. Whether you’re blind or not, you still need to be able to save money.”

The IRR broadcasts up to 17 scheduled hours of local readings in one day, and fills up the other seven hours with another network feed. In the early morning and through the night, the program borrows from the Talking Information Center, based in Marshfield, Mass. This service, like the IRR, provides the reading of publications to the print impaired — but from national papers, such as USA Today, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Cedric Richardson grew up in a family dedicated to volunteering, so contributing to the community is an ordinary thing for him. He has been reading for the IRR for four years now.

“I previously did pretty much the same thing in New York, in Buffalo, for the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service,” he said. “I didn’t know it was a big network … where you can pretty much find it wherever you live.”

There are more than 100 similar radio reading services throughout the country, with 11 in Illinois, Geiken said. Each one is staffed by volunteers like McCauley and Richardson.

“I always fancied myself as sort of a news reporter type guy,” Richardson said. “That would have been my nice dream to take journalism — be a world correspondent.”

World correspondent or not, he still takes great pleasure in reading for the IRR here in town.

Before the IRR moved to its current location within Campbell Hall this June, it occupied an old building at 59 E. Armory St. in Champaign for decades. This location was getting old and run-down, and the city would have demolished it if the historical preservationist community had not stepped in. The small house on Armory has gained recent media attention, and this issue is being resolved.

In contrast, IRR’s space at Campbell Hall is devoid of peeling paint, and it is much more high-tech. After Geiken’s 20 years of directing and McCauley’s 15 years of volunteering — mostly in the old building — the new space “is like the Taj Majal compared to where we were before,” McCauley laughed.

To raise money for their services, Geiken, Richardson and other volunteers have an annual Vintage Vinyl Sale in May, collecting and selling the community’s old records. Last year, Geiken said, they raised $16,000.

“The virtue of the program speaks for itself,” McCauley said. “It’s such a good work for the number of people who (listen to) it.”

Overall, the IRR is the only program in town that provides a reading service for the print impaired, and more listeners are encouraged to utilize it, Geiken said. In addition, it’s just as rewarding for the volunteers who contribute to it.

“There’s always something new to learn,” Richardson said. “So it’s a win-win, helping other people and learning at the same time.”

Reema can be reached at [email protected]