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WRBH-FM Turns 30

Alex Woodward on the nation's only 24-hour reading radio for the blind

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WRBH's Magazine Street location opened in 1990. More than 150 volunteers read to thousands of listeners on the FM station and online. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • WRBH's Magazine Street location opened in 1990. More than 150 volunteers read to thousands of listeners on the FM station and online.

This is, essentially, broadcast news — except there are no reporters, no news director, no producer. Instead, Tim Vogel, wearing thin black-framed glasses, a slight beard and sneakers, stretches out over a small conference room table with this morning's Times-Picayune and a pair of scissors.

  "I've just got to go make coffee," he says. Vogel is way more awake than anyone should be at 6 a.m., when, in the middle of the summer, the sun has barely come out. He started putting together today's news yesterday.

  Since 1982, WRBH-FM has produced a live broadcast of selected articles from The Times-Picayune every morning from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. The readers sit inside the soundproof studios and speak into the mic, reaching more than 16,000 listeners throughout the week (4,000 listeners on Sunday alone). The station doesn't just read the paper; its 24-hour schedule includes fiction best-sellers, selections from weekly glossy magazines, children's books and young adult novels, mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, nonfiction, shows in Spanish and Vietnamese, and in-house talk shows, among other program blocks. Supplementing the reading material are Mary Sonnier's The Chef Show and a local author-centric Writer's Forum (both of which also are available as podcasts). The New York Metropolitan Opera also broadcasts on the station.

  WRBH — the last 24-hour reading radio station for the blind in the United States — anchors the left of the FM dial at 88.3 from its Magazine Street studio, a high-ceilinged home built in the 1890s. This morning, like most mornings, the first-floor studio space is empty except for Vogel, who preps the recording booth for the Newspaper of the Air broadcast. The station has thousands of listeners, whether they dial in or stream from the website, www.wrbh.org. In 2000, the station took the broadcast online — including the live daily reading of The Times-Picayune.

  "I don't pretend to be the editor or the guy who gets to choose that stuff," Vogel says. "It's all chopped up, organized and paper-clipped."

  At Vogel's desk, a wall of screens displays recording software, and when it's time to record, he gives the volunteer readers a hand signal, the station ID jingle kicks in and the readers get to work.

In 1975, Robert McClean, a blind Loyola University mathematician, wanted to provide blind and visually impaired people with news on current events — so he leased airtime from WWNO-FM and dedicated it to reading the news. McClean's program didn't require blind listeners to use special equipment to tune in, and the broadcast aired on a standard FM bandwidth. The only other station of its kind, in Memphis, Tenn., went off the air in 2004. While other stations around the country dedicate time or airspace to blind listeners, none are 24 hours, and most operate outside standard radio frequencies.

  Eventually McClean bought the 88.3 signal, and on Sept. 12, 1982, the station began its first official broadcast with a 24-hour schedule.

  Donald Banning, a retired Jefferson Parish special education teacher, has served on WRBH's board since its early days. He is also blind.

  "When we first started out, it was like anything starting out," he says. "We'd scratch and dig. ... We're still here. We're still reading."

Studio engineer Tim Vogel prepares Times-Picayune articles for volunteer readers. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  The station's first home was on the second floor of the Lighthouse for the Blind building, and a $900,000 grant from the state lasted through 1990 before the station moved to its current location on Magazine Street. The nonprofit station relies on grants and donations. Lack of funding almost forced WRBH to close its doors in 1996, but a last-minute $64,000 donation from the Metairie Rotary Club kept the station running, as did its flagship fundraising events: an annual gala (the late Snooks Eaglin headlined the first one at Tipitina's in 1991) and the Pat Brown Golf Tournament, named after the blind golf champion and WRBH supporter.

  Another budget shortfall occurred in 2009, when the station faced major repairs — but WRBH's biggest hurdle followed Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, when the station went silent for seven weeks.

  Natalia Gonzalez became executive director Aug. 30, 2005, the day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

  "We were gone. We were all gone," Gonzalez says. "I knew Magazine Street was going to be OK. Our transmitter site was in Chalmette. I knew that was not all right."

  The transmitter was underwater, so even if the station had the staff for a broadcast, nobody could hear it. When Gonzalez sneaked back into the city and visited the station, she found the door covered in notes from listeners.

  "All of the notes were, 'We're here.' 'How can we help?' 'Let's get WRBH back on the air,'" she says.

  A $20,000 emergency grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped the station purchase a small, one-kilowatt transmitter so it could broadcast from the studio itself. Its range was only a few miles, but it was a start. Seven weeks after the city emptied, WRBH was back on the air, letting people know which grocery stores, gas stations and drugstores were open, and, of course, reading the headlines. Gonzalez drove to newsstands in Metairie to pick up national papers to get enough material each week.

  "I would get these wonderful phone calls from people saying, 'You have no idea how good it feels to get on the radio and have someone read to me,'" she says. "It was like mental health."

  Meanwhile, lifelong New Orleans resident and retired schoolteacher Verna Arroyo and her family were in Virginia, where they remained for three years after losing their homes to the levee failures. Arroyo missed WRBH the whole time.

  "Without it, I was going crazy," says Arroyo, who, at 80 years old, has lost most of her eyesight from macular degeneration.

  Arroyo sits inside her Lakeview home, where two bedside radios play WRBH at low volume. Her radios are always on and always tuned to WRBH — "morning, noon and night," she says. "Whoever comes over has to put up with my radio — it's going to be on."

  "I used to read all the time," she says. "I loved to read my magazines at night. I'd get in a tub of hot water, let it get really nice and hot, put some bubbles in it and put my magazines there and start reading. All my kids would be in bed and I'd be up all night."

Richard Friedman in the recording booth. The station has broadcast around the clock since 1982 and is the last remaining 24-hour reading radio for the blind and visually impaired on the FM dial in the U.S. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Richard Friedman in the recording booth. The station has broadcast around the clock since 1982 and is the last remaining 24-hour reading radio for the blind and visually impaired on the FM dial in the U.S.

  Now, she says, "I can't live without radio. I can't. You can put the TV on and I'll listen to it, but it's not the same."

The station has made some changes over the years. The TV listings are no longer read, and Soap Opera Digest will soon get bumped to make room for a possible talk show. But the cuts at The Times-Picayune, which include reducing its publishing schedule to three days a week, has meant big changes at the station — and big changes for blind New Orleanians who depend on WRBH to read the newspaper to them.

  "Since we are so small with a small budget and a small staff — I don't have a sales staff, or a marketing budget, we kind of all trade hats — we were thinking that we're going to continue reading the newspaper. That's important to everyone who works here," Gonzalez says. "That's part of our mission, to keep the population informed on current events. ... A lot of New Orleanians do not have access to the Internet, but almost everybody has a radio. On those days there isn't a print edition, we will be reading them exactly as we've been doing for 30 years. We're not going to change the format."

  "Once the paper will go out of print, I probably won't be using the scissors at all," Vogel says. "I'll be hopping on the Internet, finding articles and building it as best as I can. It's a fairly big change. I have to do more hunting."

  On days New Orleans won't have a physical paper, WRBH will make one — or two — to be read by volunteer readers from iPads. The station already has started to put the paper's content on iPads via a Kindle app.

  Unlike other nonprofit stations, WRBH doesn't do on-air donation drives — Gonzalez says the schedule can't be interrupted. Instead, it relies on grant funding and underwriters, which include Rouses Markets, Maple Street Book Shop, Garden District Book Shop, Whole Foods Markets, Entergy New Orleans and several others. It doesn't receive ongoing funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

  "A lot of sighted people listen to WRBH, or people who are homebound, or have suffered some sort of traumatic injury, or people who are losing their vision," Gonzalez says. "These are people. They have the same likes and dislikes that we have. And we don't want to lose focus on that. ... They want to know about music, what's going on in town."

Sighted listeners — that is, people who are not visually impaired — can enjoy the uniquely New Orleans moments captured on the air. Following the hour-long fiction best-seller block, the station broadcasts that week's grocery ads, often with readers' asides. A special on fish? "I'mma have to pull out the fryer and cook me up some." A markdown on eggplant? "I've had a varmint in my eggplants. ... I shined a light on him and there was a big ol' varmint" who is now in "rat heaven."

  At 6:30 p.m. on Sundays, comic strips are read, detailed and explained. Following The Times-Picayune are death notices, read dryly and with deliberate pauses between first name-initial-last name and the next person. (Arroyo says she makes sure to listen to that broadcast. "I got to see if anyone I know passed," she says. "I always hope I don't know anybody.")

  Of the more than 150 volunteer readers who set aside 30 minutes to an hour to read in one of the four booths inside the station, many have a following — whether it's Jane Sumner, who has read at the station for 24 years, or Constance McEnaney, who has read at the station for 30 years and whose instantly recognizable theatrical English accent lights up the airwaves. Familiar personalities like Ronnie Virgets, Angela Hill and actress Lyla Hay Owen also are volunteer readers at WRBH. And you never know who will be reading when you dial in.

Volunteer Shawn Holahans reads from selected Times-Picayune articles during the 7 a.m. live broadcast. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Volunteer Shawn Holahans reads from selected Times-Picayune articles during the 7 a.m. live broadcast.

  The station also gives birth to blossoming radio stars like Cameron Gamble, who has practiced law since 1963. At WRBH, he found a fan base devoted to his soft Southern drawl. "People will come up to me — like the guy who used to cut my hair," Gamble says. "I saw him at an art gallery, and he came over with his wife and started talking about how much he loved a book I read."

  Gamble reads at the station for an hour during lunch. He just finished Stephen King's 11/22/63 and Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying. He currently is reading Richard Ford's Canada. "Doing those kinds of things not only gets me to read things maybe I haven't read, or have read but didn't appreciate," he says, "It's also fun to try and get into them, read them like you might think the author might read them."

  As an experiment, program director Jackie Bullock assigned Gamble to read He's Just Not That Into You, comedian Greg Behrendt's 2004 book of advice to single women. "I did a lot of it, or tried to, in a female voice," Gamble says. "I read Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory one year, and I remember crying at the end of that while I was reading. I've always found that it kind of reminds me I'm involved, and enjoying, if it moves me to cry, or to laugh, while doing it."

  Bernadette D'Souza, who serves as New Orleans' first family court judge at Civil District Court, is WRBH's board president. She started reading The Times-Picayune and medical and health articles at the station in 1990 while she was in law school, lending her distinct eloquent accent to the airwaves. (D'Souza originally is from the Indian state Goa.) "I realized there was such a need, particularly for the print handicapped," she says. "It's providing such a service."

  "Everybody has fond memories of being read to, or reading to their kids," Gonzalez says. "It's a nonthreatening way to volunteer. You don't have to wield a hammer. It's meditative, cerebral, to sit in the booth. It's alone time."

  Arroyo says she doesn't know what she'd do without WRBH's readers.

  "The readers go in rain, sleet or snow. No matter what, they show up, and they're reading to people," she says.

"Newspaper of the Air"

88.3 WRBH-FM www.wrbh.org

7 a.m. to 9 a.m. (repeats 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.) Monday-Friday

9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

(repeats 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.) Saturday-Sunday

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