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Learning Ally, Recording-for-Blind Nonprofit, Closes Goleta Studio

Formerly called Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, the organization has struggled financially since losing $13 million in federal funding in 2011

An organization that develops audio books and other learning resources for visually impaired individuals has shut down its Goleta recording studio due to financial problems at the national level.

Learning Ally, formerly called Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, closed its recording facility at 5638 Hollister Ave. — and seven others across the country — at the end of January because of funding troubles.

The nonprofit organization develops audiobooks of textbooks and literature, read by community volunteers across the United States.

Learning Ally, which is based in Princeton, N.J., also provides free lesson plans and teaching strategies on listening skills to help K-12 educators.

The organization has been struggling financially since 2011, when it lost about $13 million in federal funding, according to media relations director Doug Sprei.

He added that it has been difficult for the organization to cover overhead costs including rent, utilities, maintenance and staffing for the many studios and offices across the country.

Learning Ally has the largest accessible audio textbook library in the world, and serves about 1,600 students in Central California. According to the nonprofit, 51 local schools and school districts have the recorded books available to students.

Hundreds of people volunteered over the years at the studio in Old Town Goleta, which has hosted 16 annual Record-A-Thons, most recently in 2011.

The weeklong campaigns raised money, had hundreds of volunteers turn up to read books, and reminded the community about Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic’s work helping people with visual impairments or learning disabilities.

Learning Ally President/CEO Andrew Friedman wrote a letter to volunteers that is posted outside the studio at 5638 Hollister Ave. All audiobook recording operations ended at eight studios Jan. 25, and Santa Barbara’s studio has been around for several decades because of ongoing support from the community, he wrote.

“We want you to continue to be part of our future as we deal with the economic and technical realities we face today — including the need to produce books faster, less expensively and the text to meet our member’s needs,” the letter states.

The organization plans to use remote recording tools so volunteers can record or assist in book production from home, which Friedman hopes will help utilize more volunteers, produce books faster and reduce studio costs.

For more information, volunteers can email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Former director Tim Schwartz, director of development for UCSB’s Translational Medical Research Project. was disappointed to hear the news.

The Goleta studio had about 200 volunteers contribute 15,000 hours of recording and quality control checking every year — and that’s a small studio, he said.

“There’s just no possible way you can make that up in home recording at this point,” he said. “I think it’s highly unfortunate that this happened. I think eventually the technology to record these kinds of things was going to move into the home, so maintaining a studio wouldn’t be as necessary, but we’re not there yet.

“I’m not sure how people will get stuff recorded in the quantity they were recording without these studios; that’s my principal concern, for the users.”

The suddenness of the closures concerned him as well.

“I think that Princeton (headquarters) should have anticipated the budget conditions that would have come with the reduction of federal support so they could have adjusted the demands for recording, and the value that comes out of the various studios so they wouldn’t have necessarily had to close them,” Schwartz said.

Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic has focused on volunteer audiobook narration since 1948, but the organization is looking into producing educational materials faster and in more formats, including e-text and synthetic speech, Sprei said.

The organization also is developing new services, beyond audiobooks, for families and schools. He said the organization hopes that volunteers will stay involved, but he didn’t elaborate on how people will be able to contribute their time in the future.

The Santa Barbara County Education Office has facilitated access to Learning Ally’s recorders, download-able books and other curriculum materials through its special education department for years, communications director Wendy Shelton said.

Cathy Breen, assistant superintendent for special education, has linked about 30 teachers with these resources countywide, with each one having a handful of students who needed them, Shelton added.

“Lately there has been little to no interaction with the organization, and currently there is none,” she said.

All the development staff members for Learning Ally in the Southern California area are gone, including area director Mike Davis, who was in charge of the Los Angeles, Orange and Santa Barbara county areas.

The only people left in the field are production staffs for the two studios still open, including the one in West Hollywood, production assistant Jesse Clemens said.  All other employees work out of the New Jersey headquarters.

Each studio had its own set of development staff and local boards, but those went away over the past several months as the studios prepared for closure, he said. The West Hollywood studio is still open, but lost two staff members recently.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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