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Radio Reading Service That's a Lifeline for the Blind Could Fall Silent

By Leslie Albrecht | September 21, 2011 6:55am

UPPER WEST SIDE — Since losing most of her eyesight to macular degeneration, Barbara Ackerman's life has been filled with hurdles.

The 81-year-old has suffered minor inconveniences, like being unable to eat salad in restaurants because she's never sure she's managed to get the lettuce on her fork, and life threatening experiences crossing roads.

But the retired teacher says those are minor headaches compared to the loss of her ability to read, once the love of her life.

Ackerman once devoured novels in English, Italian and French, and loved to read The Atlantic Monthly. Before her eyes went, she wouldn't start her day without reading the New York Times. It's been seven or eight years since she's been able to read a book, she said.

That's why when she discovered the now threatened Gatewave radio service, she felt like she'd "struck gold."

The New York-based service broadcasts readings from newspapers and magazines to a national audience of the blind and visually impaired.

"Without [Gatewave] I would be lost," said Ackerman, who lives on the Upper East Side. "I would not know what's going on in the world. I'm accustomed to a lot of intellectual stimulation, and when you can't read, you don't get any."

The service, formerly known as InTouch Networks, Inc., was created in the early 1970s by James R. Jones, a systems analyst in the financial services industry who was losing his eyesight.

For nearly 40 years, it's been a lifeline for the blind and visually impaired who say hearing newspaper and magazine stories makes them feel less cut off from the sighted world. Listeners like Ackerman can turn on the television or radio to hear news, but Gatewave is the only service that provides access to content such as print newspapers and magazines.

"It's very importanat because it makes [visually impaired people] feel like they're in the same league as people who are sighted, that they're not being left out," said Barbara Cantor, a 73-year-old Upper West Sider who's losing her sight to macular degeneration and likes to listen to the New York Times Book Review on Gatewave. "This way, I'm up on things when I go out with people."

Unfortunately for listeners like Ackerman and Cantor, Gatewave is in danger of disappearing. The service was housed at the Jewish Guild for the Blind on West 65th Street until 2009, when the agency cut the program. Since then, a group of volunteers has kept it going with elbow grease and a $250,000 donation from financier philanthropist George Soros, whose mother has macular degeneration.

But that money is about to run out and, if Gatewave can't find more funding, the service will fall silent, said Gail Starkey, the former station manager for InTouch Networks, which was renamed Gatewave when it left the Jewish Guild for the Blind.

Starkey and another former InTouch employee run the service together with help from more than 100 volunteer readers. Together they broadcast fresh content for six hours a day. The broadcasts run on repeat 24 hours a day so there's never dead air.

Readings include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, as well as magazines like Oprah, People and the New Yorker.

Starkey said it would take about $1 million a year to keep the service thriving and expand its programming — she'd like to develop a podcast — but Gatewave could squeak by on $250,000 a year, which would cover basic bills such as satellite fees.

Local listeners hear Gatewave on special radios that pick up what's called a sub-carrier signal from Columbia University's FM station, KCRW. The radios, which cost about $80, are provided free to local listeners, who must be visually impaired to qualify for the program.

When it was housed at the Jewish Guild for the Blind, the radio service had a full recording studio with five sound-proof booths and a digital audio console that could record and feed programming directly onto the air, said Richard Koziol, a radio professional who worked for InTouch and now volunteers for Gatewave.

Back then the service also employed two sound engineers and a secretary, and could draw on the Guild's fundraising and public relations resources.

Since leaving the Guild's building, Koziol and Starkey have cobbled together a "virtual facility" in various locations, Koziol said. They record some programming at Lucky Duck Productions in the West Village, and some volunteers who are professional actors use recording facilities in their apartments. A few readers have rigged up makeshift home studios, reading in closets soundproofed with towels, Starkey said.

Starkey and Koziol, neither of whom have sight problems, felt so strongly about Gatewave that they formed a board of directors and incorporated as a nonprofit so they can raise money to keep the service going.

"I do it because I think it's a valuable service," Koziol said. "To lose the ability to have access to periodicals, it can be devastating, especially for the current generation of aging baby boomers who are used to information.

"Imagine someone who can’t read, who’s used to reading People magazine every week. How do they get access to People magazine? You lose the abilty to talk to people about current events."

Gatewave is one of about 85 such radio services nationwide. They are a vital way of getting information for older and low-income visually impaired people who don't have access to new  — and expensive — devices that read text from the Internet, said Lori Kesinger of the International Association of Audio Information Services.

"They're already becoming disenfranchised," Kesinger said. "They can't drive, they're not able to go to church or to the Saturday morning group that meets at the coffee shop. Gatewave is their link to the outside world and if it goes away, there goes another connection."

In addition to its local audience, Gatewave's programming is rebroadcast by affiliate stations in 23 states, and about 60 hospitals use the service. But it's difficult to count exactly how many listeners Gatewave has altogether, which is why the Jewish Guild dropped the service, said Guild spokesman Pete Williamson.

He said the service suffered a blow after 9/11, when its antenna atop the World Trade Center was destroyed. It took about three years to get the signal back up to full strength, and by then many longtime local listeners had given up after hearing years of static, Williamson said.

"We kept trying to identify where our listeners were, and who they were, and we weren't coming up with numbers big enough to justify the cost," Williamson said. "It's a vital service for anybody that wants to stay up on the news. We believe in it, it's just you have to draw the line sometimes on what you can afford to do."

Gatewave's affiliate stations estimated listenership at about 450,000 people a week nationwide a few years ago, Koziol said.

In New York, that includes isteners like 91-year-old Abe Leisner, an economist and statistician who lives on West 81st Street.

Before losing his eyesight, he was a regular reader of The New York Times, the Daily News and Scientific American. He says he likes to stay up-to-date on the news because he's working on a piece of writing about the current "stupid" economy, he said.

"I really enjoy it very much," Leisner said. "I used to read a lot of magazines on economics and things of that sort. I like (Gatewave) because they read articles from very good magazines that I can't read, like The Economist."

Nancy Piracci, a 64-year-old Chelsea resident who's been blind since birth, has been listening to Gatewave since 1978. She tunes in about four hours a day to hear selections from Business Week and an original content program called "Our World" about issues affecting blind people.

Piracci says she's a "newshound" who's always been fascinated by current events and politics. She worked when she was younger, but is now pretty much homebound, leaving her house about once a week, she said.

"I would be lost without (Gatewave)," Piracci said. "I'd like to see it get even more listeners. It makes us feel like we have our own community."

Ackerman, who moved alone to Italy when she was 45 to teach English and French for 15 years, is still adjusting to losing her eyesight, which started to fail about 10 years ago. She was such an avid reader that she started a book club for the blind that's now defunct.

These days when she's outside in sunlight, she can sometimes see up to two feet in front of her, but her vision is very foggy and blurry. Finding printed words on a page is now impossible. Macular degeneration eats away at the field of vision from the inside out, leaving sufferers with only peripheral vision.

"Books were my best friend," Ackerman said. "(Gatewave) rounded out a lot of emptiness for me, a lot of losses that couldn’t be made up for otherwise."

If the service were to disappear, "It would be a great loss," Ackerman said. "That’s all I can say. It would be yet another loss."