Donna Walker

Secretary for the Board of the Friends of Arkansas Information Reading Service (FAIRS), Donna Walker, spoke at the Malvern Lions Club meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 18.

The Malvern Lions Club welcomed Donna Walker to their Oct. 18 luncheon meeting to speak in her capacity as Secretary for the Board of the Friends of Arkansas Information Reading Service (FAIRS). Walker’s visit was of important substance and in keeping with the theme of Lions Club International, who are a global advocate for the blind and visually impaired.

FAIRS seeks “to facilitate access to current print material for people with reading disabilities.” They support the Arkansas Information Reading Services for the Blind (AIRS), which is a free streaming service through the Division of Services for the Blind, in cooperation with Arkansas PBS (Public Broadcast System). AIRS broadcasts cater to the blind or sight-impaired listener.

AIRS broadcasts an array of programs 24/7 on a secondary audio channel of AETN, which attracts listeners across Arkansas and surrounding states. AIRS programming can also be enjoyed by a worldwide audience via the Internet.

“The program actually started in 1981,” Walker said of the visually-impaired radio service. “They started in the Arkansas School for the Blind in the vocation building, they had a little studio.”

AIRS began its broadcasting on a sub-carrier of KLRE radio out of Little Rock, and only listeners with a special radio could tune in. The service was restricted to Pulaski County at that time, but Walker said the new service was a big deal when it first began because the earliest broadcasts shared daily news with people, who otherwise did not have a reliable avenue for such information.

“They played it about four times a day, which was really kind of cool because before that, if you were blind and you wanted to read the paper, if you had friends and family, you know how when people read you things, they want to read you the part they’re interested in,” Walker said. The AIRS programming gave listeners an open door to all aspects of the news, not just what others chose to share.

Starting with the Arkansas Gazette,  AIRS programming soon added Arkansas magazines, grocery ads from local stores, and eventually moved to broadcasting on a sub-carrier of Arkansas Educational Television Network in Conway, which allowed them to reach a much wider audience.

“And then we came up with digital, and that just sort of blew the whole thing apart because people had to get either cable, which wouldn’t carry it because they get any money, or DISH and DIRECT [TV satellite companies] which have never carried it because they don’t get any money out of it,” Walker said.

Walker said the good news for people who have internet access is that they can now search www.airs.aetn.org on their smart phone, tablet, or mobile device and gain instant access to the broadcasting.

“And as of about two months ago, you can now say to an Amazon smart speaker, ‘Open AIRS  Radio’ and it will pull it up, and you can ask to listen,” Walker said.

Read the full story in Thursday's Oct. 27 newspaper edition.

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