KPBS shutters local paper reading

Goodbye Union-Tribune, Reader and North County Times for those who can't turn pages

Last week, San Diego State University's KPBS broadcasting operation quietly put an end to providing local content on its Radio Reading Service, a special radio subchannel featuring volunteers reading newspaper and periodical content for those who can't read.

"People think of us as a service for the blind," explained Amy Bosler, a longtime volunteer for the service who served as programming coordinator from 2015 to 2017. "But a lot of listeners are elderly people who just can't read the small print in a newspaper, or they might be amputees who have difficulty turning pages."

While the station will continue to carry readings of national interest from sources such as the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, the station's roughly 100 volunteer readers were told last month that their services would no longer be needed after June 29.

"It was a very impersonal email that basically stated that because KPBS listeners are turning more toward internet and digital devices for listening that it seemed there wasn't a need for live readings any more," Bosler recounts. "They did say they appreciated our service, but I've been doing this for 25 years and there are people who have been involved longer than I have. Volunteers have been reading material to the community for over 40 years, because they felt like they were filling a need. And the cost to KPBS was really minimal – all they had to cover was parking for the volunteers while they were on site at SDSU reading."

Over the years, Bosler says KPBS has allowed the service to shrink through attrition, eliminating or simply not filling open staff positions until a single part-time staffer, released at the end of June, was left coordinating local content.

"You can listen to newscasts on radio or TV, but you're not getting the in-depth coverage that you'd get from reading a paper," she says in defense of the service. "We'd read the Union-Tribune, selections from the Reader and North County Times, Voice of San Diego, a broad range. Around election time we'd try to read the election pamphlets."

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Remembering that KPBS is run by, and belongs to, SDSU, is this sort of thing a harbinger of what we may expect from the brand-new president of the school?

Looks like KPBS is taking the "public service" out of public service broadcasting. Given the competing media alternatives they use to justify this cut, it actually makes it more likely that a significant portion of their 1.1 million monthly audience is comprised of the 657,500+ seniors and persons with disabilities under age 65 who cannot afford internet or cable access. And as noted, this was all content provided freely to the station. So it will be interesting to see what programming they think is more valuable to fill the time.

In case you haven't heard, humans are becoming redundant. In this case, the blind can very well get their news from the internet. It happens that a professor at SDSU is blind and manages very well with the internet. In addition to audiobooks, anyone can listen to books as text via any personal computer with text-to-voice software (all computers made in this century). Those who can't afford a computer may go to the public library for these services.

One small step for technology, a giant leap backward for mankind.

Text-to-speech is called Narrator in Windows. You turn it on, then select the text.

How did this program work? One reader to one listener in person?A special channel?

It's KPBS loyal volunteers who are complaining, I gather, and who were unceremoniously dropped by KPBS management. Harsh all around. It reminds me of when they moved Terry Gross' "Fresh Air" from day to night, and then claimed she just wasn't that popular. (Recently I read that Terry Gross' interviews with authors and musicians is the number one-ranked program on NPR.)

Dumping KPBS service to the blind and hearing-impaired kind of gives the lie to all that sob-sister stuff from general manager Tom Karlo who cloyingly claims during fund-raising drives to be "honored" to be part of this San Diego community. And then there is KPBS "producers' club" hooey that calls for big cash gifts in return for donors gaining access to party down with staff.

Well, I don't have to worry about the halt and lame or getting an inside track: I can read and hear and have an "honorary" KPBS membership. That's the kind you don't pay a cent for, but they get to count you as a subscriber anyway.

It's unpleasant how the abled are commenting on the many options available to those who can't afford them. I know from the internet-only bills I've seen that even low-income qualifiers have to pay at least $40 a month, which is too often the difference between choosing food, medicine, utilities, or not. Radio and TV are free to all; and until one can say the same for online accessibility, these comments sound equivalent to "let them eat cake."

RE: "...even low-income qualifiers have to pay at least $40 a month"
AT&T advertises regularly on TV, offering Internet access to low-income individuals for $10 a month (not $40).

That's great! You're volunteering to pay for a few dozen people for whom even $10 a month is more than they have to spare! ;-)

So glad you've decided to do something rather than whine or snark about it. Even if the minimal service you describe isn't true broadband and subject to data caps as to be almost useless.

I offered the information; I didn't volunteer to pay for it. Anyone can afford $10 a month.

I was a Radio Reading Service (RRS) volunteer for several years starting in the 1990s. Back then we read live on the air, recorded for later rebroadcast. Shifts were 1-2 hours long 1-3 times per week with a partner volunteer, where we'd take turns reading 3-5 minute story segments from our assigned publication, which we had prepped with highlighters for at least 30 minutes prior to our shift.

Being live meant we had to meet FCC regulations, which at the time included an FCC-certified technician "working the boards", with another full-time staffer dedicated to RRS volunteer recruitment, training and scheduling. With an intern added now and then.

We volunteers were also trained as editors, selecting which stories and articles to read from our assigned publication, and how many paragraphs of each to read. We each developed a list of favorite local writers whose work was so well written that it was both easy to read and densely informative.

Some of us were mentioned in notes from listeners. I remember well my first such mention, regarding some improvements in my story selection and reading style I had been working hard to accomplish. That one sentence in a longer letter made my day, week and month.

Talking to a microphone is a fairly sterile activity: Having a reading partner and a technician there helps, but audience feedback matters far more, even if only a single sentence.

Other demands on my time eventually made it difficult for me to meet the RSS availability and consistency requirements, and I slowly faded from the schedule. This happened to others, and was one of several reasons the RRS eventually dropped its live component, to provide schedule flexibility for experienced volunteers and fewer demands on staff.

All volunteering at KPBS has diminished over the decades. Much due to advancements in technology, some due to support staff and funding reductions, and still more due to privacy concerns.

I loved the many hundreds of hours I've volunteered for KPBS over the past 35 years. The elimination of the local part of RRS is unfortunate, but it does not mean that KPBS listeners in need are being left unserved. Many local media outlets offer podcasts of their content, and TTS (Text-To-Speech) tools are getting extremely good.

Quite frankly, volunteering at KPBS is a somewhat "elite" form of volunteering. There are so many vital and unmet needs for local volunteers in so many areas that taking KPBS off the plate may free up volunteer resources to help meet even greater needs elsewhere.

That's been my experience. I can't thank KPBS enough for the volunteer opportunities it has provided me over the decades. I learned much there that I've used in all my other volunteer efforts since.

Good for Dave Rice for reporting this story. It's been an education about an area of need and provision of service about which I was completely ignorant. I appreciate the lesson and regret that Radio Reading Service has been shut down at KPBS. Surely there could have been some adaptation of technology to allow this service to visually impaired folks to continue, piercing their isolation.

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