Tuesday, September 14, 2010

WRBH-FM serves more than blind

       At times I have trouble sleeping. I’ve listened to audio books and read meditation books. Then a friend suggested I listen to WRBH-FM where short stories, magazine articles and newspaper stories are read aloud 24/7.
         WRBH 88.3 Reading Radio for the Blind and Print Handicapped is unique in the United States, the only station serving the blind on the FM dial. With almost 200 volunteer readers, the station is a beehive of activity all day long, reading and recording programming content.
         One night, I recognized the voice of the accompanist who’s played piano for the musicals I’ve performed in the past couple of summers. His pre-recorded reading of a scientific article about mitochondria aired at 2 a.m.
         Another time, I recognized the voice of Donald who attends my same church discussion group. He’s got a wonderful, deep voice and is a member of an African-American acting ensemble. Another of Donald’s volunteer gigs is reading the WWOZ Live Wire music calendar listings on Tuesdays. His voice is easy to recognize.
         A small volunteer army visits the studios regularly to read current local and financial news, weekly and monthly magazines, fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, as well as a host cooking show, writers’ forum, and public affairs show. The two newest programs are “Going Green” and “Make it Work.” The station has partnered with the French, Vietnamese, and the growing Spanish-speaking communities as well as local schools to provide those populations with quality programming.
“We are pretty amazing,” Executive Director Natalia Gonzalez said of seven staff members and board of directors. “Our budget is pretty small and we still manage to do what we do.”
The station serves a wider swath of the population than might be assumed. Many listeners are elderly, homebound, illiterate or insomniac (!) Between 24-32 percent of New Orleans’ residents, 16 years and older, can’t read.
         WRBH is popular among sighted listeners, too. Many commuters enjoy hearing the Times-Picayune read aloud on their way to work. The station can even be heard worldwide via audio streaming on the Internet.
         The station was founded in 1975 by a Loyola University mathematics professor, Dr. Robert McClean, to give blind and visually impaired people useful, current information to improve their daily lives.  McClean became blind later in life, after his education. Ellie Champagne, one of his student assistants at Loyola, said: “He was an amazing man. He could do arithmetic in Base 14 in his head.”
The blind want all the same information as the rest of the population, Gonzalez said. Though books may be available in Braille, there is a need for information about events, movies, local news, politics – even the horoscope, she said. Grocery ads are one of our most popular programs, she said.
Regular readers can become minor celebrities among the loyal listening audience. Constance McEnaney, 80, who grew up in Lowestoft, England, reads aloud with an easily recognized British accent. “I will go places and, all of a sudden, somebody will say, I know you! I listen to you on WRBH,” she said.
         The octogenarian drives across the Crescent City Connection three times a week from her home in Algiers to pre-record books three hours at a stretch and read the newspaper live. She has been a volunteer 25 years and always finds it rewarding. “You become part of the words you’re reading,” McEnaney said.
Program Director Jackie Bullock chooses the books and magazines with listeners’ needs in mind. “We do try to be fair and not slanted according to our personal political beliefs,” Bullock said. 
“When a volunteer becomes a reader for us, they sign a waiver stating that even if they are assigned an article or magazine that conflicts with their personal beliefs, they must read it without showing their bias.  Sometimes that's hard to do, but it's very important that the volunteers accept the premise that they are acting as the eyes for the listener, not the brain.

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