Lenox Learning Ally studio closes


LENOX -- After 56 years as a resource for the visually and reading-impaired public, the local Learning Ally studio -- originally Recordings for the Blind -- is closing today, part of a cost-cutting retrenchment by the national nonprofit based in Princeton, N.J., caused by the slow economy.

About 120 volunteers who record 3,000 hours a year of audio books at the studio in Lenox Commons off Routes 7 & 20 were notified in an email from President and CEO Andrew Friedman a few days ago. The organization has about 5,000 volunteers nationwide; 1,500 volunteers are affected by the closings of the Lenox recording studio and seven others like it across the country. The Lenox recording studio has two paid employees.

"From what I've been told, it's for economic reasons," said Jennifer Golin, who's been the production director at the facility for five years. "They're reshaping the production model to produce more books at a lower cost by using volunteers from home."

She and production assistant Ben Heyman of Lee are seeking new work opportunities.

"It's sad and unfortunate," Golin, an Adams resident, added.

"It's not only sad but a shock for the many volunteers who do such good work here," said Robert Rosen, who put in some time in the studio's recording booth on Thursday morning.

Rosen, a retired trial lawyer from New York City who now lives full-time in Otis, said the volunteer work was meaningful.

"You know what you're doing is worthwhile because it will help somebody, somewhere, down the line," he said. "Someone will listen to a book and get some benefit."

Learning Ally, formerly Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic but renamed in April 2011 in order to include attention-deficit disorder and autistic clients, plans to develop "virtual volunteering" by training participants to work from home using digital recording software.

The company has produced about 75,000 audio books over the years and serves about 300,000 clients, including many students, said Doug Sprei, the national communications director based in Reston, Va.

Friedman, who was in meetings Thursday and not available for comment, told volunteers in his email that "technology advancements, changing member needs and fiscal realities" are behind the decision to close the eight studios while 11 others remain open, including one in Boston.

Urging volunteers to continue "to be part of our future," Friedman described Learning Ally's need "to produce books faster, less expensively and with text in addition to audio narration to meet our members' needs."

He wrote that the costs of "maintaining multiple studio facilities, including rent and overhead, utilities and staffing are just not feasible given the current economy and our funding. With oversight from our national board, we have recognized the need to achieve economies of scale that will enable the organization as a whole to run more efficiently."

Explaining the "virtual volunteer" production model, Friedman cited "the ability to utilize remote recording tools that will allow volunteers to record or assist us in book production from home. This will allow us to utilize more volunteers, produce books faster at lower cost, and reduce our need to support multiple studio locations throughout the country."

According to Friedman, many volunteers have expressed an interest in working from home through technologies that support "efforts for remote recording and other virtual volunteering opportunities, enabling volunteers to contribute their time and talents from almost anywhere, at any time."

He declared that the company will communicate with volunteers "every few weeks via email, hoping that we will have the tools to re-engage with you very quickly."

Although Learning Ally serves clients of all ages who have reading-based disabilities, Sprei explained, membership among students has been growing rapidly through school districts because of earlier diagnoses of learning disorders. He said that 20 percent of the younger clients are blind, visually impaired or live with other physical difficulties, while up to 80 percent rely on the company's audiobooks because of "learning differences."

Besides Lenox, other Learning Ally studios closing on Friday are in King of Prussia, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb; Phoenix, Ariz.; Chicago; Charlottesville, Va; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and two California sites in Santa Barbara and in Upland.

"We will maintain studios in areas with larger networks for philanthropic opportunities," said Sprei, "as well as lower overheads. There's won't be any long-term loss in production capacity. We will maintain a sensible footprint of studios that are operationally cost-effective."

In addition to the Princeton headquarters, locations remaining open include Boston; New York City; Washington, D.C.; Boca Raton, Fla.; Orland Park, Ill.; in the Chicago suburbs; Denver; Austin, Texas; Athens, Ga.; and two California studios, Palo Alto and Hollywood.

"I'm not surprised by the closings," said Steve Moore, a West Stockbridge resident who was executive director of Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic in Lenox from 2001 to 2003. He secured the studio's current location in what was then known as the Lenox Country Shops, with more space than the former cramped quarters on Church Street in the downtown village.

Moore said he had learned that "a large proportion of the studios were operating at a loss" because they had been sustained originally by magnanimous wealthy philanthropists back in the 1950s.

"That idea outlived its day and the operation had to be converted into a ‘profit-making nonprofit,'" he added, asserting that the company had devoted much time and effort to developing technology that quickly became outdated.

"It seemed to me it was sort of doomed," Moore said. "They were reluctant to impose a fee for their services, and that was their downfall. It was a giveaway program with no way to sustain itself."

Current and former volunteers -- including retired attorneys, educators, engineers, teachers, and actors -- will gather for a farewell party at the Lenox site this afternoon from 1 to 4. A satellite operation at the Sweetwood Retirement Living Community in Williamstown also is closing on Friday.

To reach Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 496-1003.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.


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