CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB)–The Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service has been an invaluable companion to thousands of Western New Yorkers who are unable to read due to blindness, impaired vision, or their physical inability to turn pages, since 1987.

But the reading service, located in a small office building in Cheektowaga, has physical and logistical limitations, such as an inconsistent radio signal, which can only be picked up on a special radio receiver.

The NFRRS has about 300 volunteers who read more than 100 different publications, such as USA Today, The Buffalo News, and New York Times from end to end. They also read magazines and best-selling books for Western New Yorkers’ enjoyment 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year.

But listeners need a special radio that only gets one channel–or a newer model with an FM dial–to receive the broadcast.

NFRRS Executive Director Michael Benzin said that is about to change, “People that have to have a special radio receiver, it eliminates that restriction. So any listener who is blind or has low vision and has access to the Internet will be able to listen to us from anywhere.”

The Radio Reading Service is getting a $25,000 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project which will enable the broadcast to go digital, and Benzin said that means anyone with a connected device can listen in.

“Basically listeners will be able to access us through a live feed over the Internet, or over their smartphone, or smart speaker, but also listen to older programs on podcasts.”

Even though the radios are free to use, Benzin said their audience is only at about 500 listeners, which they hope to grow to 5,000 within two years.

Program Manager Nick Aldrich said they are assessing the equipment and personnel upgrades that will be necessary, “We are still in the beginning phases, I have not had a chance to look at the new setup–how to upload the files and whatnot–it might entail a little bit more than I usually do.”

Benzin’s optimism is growing, “Hopefully with that extra exposure we will get some additional funding from sponsors, underwriters, donors, to kind of cover our costs.”

While the radios are free to use, they cost NFRRS $130 each, which does put a strain on the donations the reading service receives from other sources.

Mike Benzin estimates NFRRS has a potential audience in Western New York of 20,000 people who are blind or visually impaired, and another 40,000 Western New Yorkers with disabilities that could take advantage of the new digital upgrade.

For more information about the NFRRS, click here, and The Facebook Journalism Project here.  The Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service is hoping to complete the digital conversion within a couple of months.