Tune into 88.3 FM and you'll hear the city's — and the country's — only full-time FM dial reading radio. Twice daily, volunteer readers read from The Times-Picayune. But WRBH-FM, known as "Radio for the Blind and Print Handicapped," is preparing to adjust its programming when The Times-Picayune moves to a three-days-a-week publishing schedule. WRBH currently reads to more than 11,600 listeners on weekdays, when two volunteer readers read, live on the air, select headlines and stories from the daily paper.
The station, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, provides blind and visually impaired listeners of all ages with access to 'round-the-clock content, from national publications (monthly and weekly magazines) and best-selling nonfiction and fiction to local news provided by The Times-Picayune, read daily from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on weekends, with repeats at 6 p.m. (weekdays) and 1 a.m. (weekends). More than 1,000 listeners tune in on Saturdays, and 4,000 tune in on Sundays. It also streams its content online.
"There's a lot of 'scissor work' involved. It's our only live program," said executive director Natalia Gonzalez. "We do headline news, local news, sports, and entertainment and columns. It's our intention to attempt the same format, but a lot of that depends exactly on what NOLA.com will give us."
The station recently received a Selley Foundation grant, and station readers will begin reading from iPads loaded with Times-Picayune or NOLA.com content on the four days without a printed paper. Currently, station programmers assemble clips and stories gathered from the daily paper, and then two readers take turns reading each story from those selected clips.
With the newly designed NOLA.com serving as The Times-Picayune's main source of content, "This could mean big trouble for us," Gonzalez said. "So much our of listenership is devoted to the reading of The Times-Picayune. ... People have come to depend on us when we're commuting to work or coming home. ... We do want to assure everyone we are going to fight through this and make it happen."
The radio station also serves as a true reading radio for listeners across the country (author Dave Eggers is a fan) and a go-to service for literacy challenged and homebound and elderly listeners without access to printed materials or the Internet. (The New Orleans metro areas suffers from a lack of broadband access in many of its neighborhoods.)
"This to me is a blow. ... We are a reading radio service — not only are we providing current information to the visually impaired, but to those who aren't functionally literate, as well as the elderly population who may have weakening vision or they're in another way impaired," Gonzalez said. "My immediate thought was, 'I have an 85-year-old mother who doesn't have a computer. How is she going to get the news now?' That to me is a huge concern, for the elderly population. ... I know firsthand from visiting with people who are blind, or shut-in, what we provide them enriches their lives and makes them feel less marginalized. ... You know how difficult it is to have people come and read to you?"
The nonprofit station relies on grants and donations and the help of its more than 150 volunteers. It'll prepare for the fall publishing changes this summer with some iPad "test runs." The iPad purchases weren't a response to The Times-Picayune's announcement but a coincidence — Gonzalez wants to get its volunteer readers and the station up to speed with technology, which, she says, we often take for granted.
"We have information at our fingertips all the time," Gonzalez said. "If you can't read, whether it's physical or socioeconomic, whatever the reason might be, think how paralyzing that might be."