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Reading service still talking, and even more people are listening

Here’s a service whose customer base has not declined because the pandemic is keeping people at home. The Talking Information Center, headquartered in Marshfield, is a nonprofit radio reading service broadcasting 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to thousands of visually impaired and otherwise print-impaired listeners.

And since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, “our service has been needed now more than ever,” said the center’s executive director, Anna Dunbar. “Our listenership has tripled over the past six months, proving just how essential our service is.”

Founded in 1978, the center has become “the front-runner in turning print into sound,” staffer Elizabeth VandenBergh said. People rely on the service for daily news and other information. They listen to volunteers read the entire contents of The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and other daily newspapers. They also listen to books, magazines, radio plays, and concerts by regional orchestras.

To help keep the free service run at full speed, the center is holding a fund-raising raffle. Purchase of a $50 ticket gives the buyer a chance to win $5,000 in the Oct. 2 drawing. You can buy tickets though Oct. 1 at ticnetwork.org.

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New England comedian John Turco will perform as part of the Talking Information Center's virtual fund-raising event on Oct. 2.
New England comedian John Turco will perform as part of the Talking Information Center's virtual fund-raising event on Oct. 2.Talking Information Center

More people staying home more of the time, while experiencing an increased need to stay current with both the disease’s progress and the regulatory environment, appears to have generated an increased reliance on the reading service’s programs.

According to a chart provided by the center, the number of its unique listeners has increased from approximately 800 a year ago to more than 2,000 in the period of March to July this year. “Total hours listened” have increased even more sharply, from more than 1,000 last year to more than 5,000 this year.

Another cause for the rise may be the increasing availability of “smart speakers” to the service’s vision-impaired users.

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“The programs have always been available through a free radio that receives only the TIC signal,” VandenBergh said, using the center’s initials. “And now it is also accessible to people everywhere through the TIC website, call-in line, and smart speakers such as Alexa and Google Echo.”

At the same time, the pandemic has made life harder for some of the service’s volunteers.

Following Governor Charlie Baker’s advisories in March, the center closed its physical broadcast studios and borrowed programming from other reading services to make up for the loss of a number of volunteers who were unable to read from home, VandenBergh said. Currently, some 75 volunteers are actively reading. Eight of these read on a daily basis. Some volunteers who formerly read from the center’s studios are not currently participating because of social distancing rules and the risks of travel.

Candy O'Terry, co-founder of Boston Women in Media & Entertainment, will take part in the  fund-raising event for the Talking Information Center on Oct. 2.
Candy O'Terry, co-founder of Boston Women in Media & Entertainment, will take part in the fund-raising event for the Talking Information Center on Oct. 2.Kerry Brett

The center has noted a few recent trends among listeners, VandenBergh said, including “more interest in our radio plays and local specific content. Listeners want a balance between what is most relevant to them as well as entertainment. ... The news can be overwhelming sometimes, which is why we have kept up with the readings of magazines, recreational hobby reading, fiction and non-fiction book readings.”

Daily local news programs have proved the service’s most popular offerings, indicating a strong interest in “community-specific information.” At the same time, VandenBergh acknowledged, “We have stopped reading the weekly community newspapers only during the pandemic” because of the decreased availability of volunteer readers.

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The center’s full 24-hour programming schedule now offers more than 300 locally produced programs every week, including radio theater and poetry. That figure is up from 75 programs a week only three years ago.

The fund-raising raffle will culminate in what the center is calling its virtual “Triple Crown Celebration,” featuring comedian John Turco and musician Abigail Vail in conjunction with the live drawing on Friday, Oct. 2, from 6:15 to 8 p.m. Listeners can tune into the show in a variety of ways: Click the TIC logo below the “Listen Now” button on ticnetwork.org. Listen on WATD 95.9 FM radio. Or watch the broadcast on Marshfield Cable Television.

For that show to go on, the fund-raiser must sell $12,000 worth of raffle tickets. If the sum is not reached, the deal is off, and ticket purchasers will get their money back.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.