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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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click to enlarge 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.

click to enlarge 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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