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The World’s First Radio Reading Service for the Blind

Nearsighted welcomes Stuart Holland, station manager of the Minnesota Radio Talking Book Network. 

The Minnesota Radio Talking Book Network (RTB) was the world’s first radio reading service for the blind when it was established in 1969. At that time, there was no access to newspapers, many magazines, and many books for people who were unable to read print. Although it was part of Minnesota’s State Services for the Blind, the radio has always included a wide variety of people with print disabilities among its customers — people with dyslexia, traumatic brain injury, and any physical disability that does not allow a person to hold a book or turn the pages.

From the very beginning, the station was recording books, even though the National Library Service (NLS) was also recording books, because it was obvious that there were many books they were not recording. For many years, those books were only available to residents of Minnesota, on vinyl disc or on cassette. About ten years ago, we established a tighter relationship with the Minnesota Braille and Talking Book Library, which is Minnesota’s Regional Library Service for the NLS, and, at that time, we established that people could request books recorded by the RTB by requesting an interlibrary loan from their own regional library connected to the NLS.

The airing of books, which are aired serially, one hour per day, is only part of what the RTB offers. Monday through Friday, people will hear eleven hours of books, four hours of today’s newspapers, and nine hours of programming taken from around three hundred periodicals. Saturdays and Sundays only have four books, which consist of a self-help book, a book of regional interest, a book aimed at children 8 to 15, and a book of contemporary poetry; the rest of the weekend programming is periodicals and newspapers.

The signal is available to people in Minnesota via a closed circuit digital radio, but it is available to people outside of Minnesota as one of the stations on iBlink, or by accessing the stream on the Internet at www.mnssb.org/rtb and using the password “rtb”. Articles from the RTB are also available as podcasts on the AudioBoom podcast site — look for RadioTalkingBook.

I have been the manager of the station since 2000, and have been working at the station since 1986.

We are always looking for additional ways of making our products available to a wider audience. Last summer, we began exploring ways of adding our books to BARD. Since BARD is run by the NLS, they are very particular about not only what they allow on BARD, but about the quality of the materials that are put into the system. Our first book to be on the BARD system was put up there in January of 2015. It is a book entitled Sky Tinged Red: A Chronicle of Two and a Half Years in Auschwitz, written by Isaia Eiger, and translated by his daughter, Dora Eiger Zaidenweber. Though the NLS was most interested in us having BARD books that were of particular interest to people of Minnesota, that is not a necessity. This book, however, does have a Minnesota connection because the daughter who translated it lives in Minnesota.

The RTB records our books in a DAISY format and our volunteers, around 500, are all over Minnesota and outside of Minnesota as well. We have volunteers in New York state, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, and more. The volunteers who do not come into our offices have equipment that we loan them on which to record the books. They burn their recordings onto CDs, send them to us, and then we compile the recordings here in St. Paul, making any adjustments we need to for volume, etc. before they go onto the radio or get put into a format for distribution.

Our readers take a fairly stringent Oral Reading Test. They come from many walks of life, though some of them are experienced in theater, radio, or television. We also have people who are dermatologists, lawyers, teachers, real estate agents, artists, and musicians. What they have in common is that they enjoy reading and they passed our Oral Reading Test. One of the very important rules for our readers is that if they are not absolutely certain of a pronunciation of a word, they need to stop their recording and find out how to pronounce it. One might think this doesn’t happen often, but it does. Most people are not aware that the average speaking vocabulary is only one-third the size of the average reading vocabulary. We see words all the time in print that we don’t use in conversation, so much of the time we are not certain of the pronunciations. We have a huge English language vocabulary — over five times the size of the next smaller language (German) — so it is impossible that any one person will know the pronunciations of all the words. Our attention to that detail is one of the elements that convinced the NLS to allow us to put our books on BARD.

Our recording studios in St. Paul are some of the largest in the United States. We have twenty recording booths. When you add the numbers of people we have recording in their homes, that adds up to a great deal of recording happening at any one time. At this time, our recording system is a custom-designed DAISY system, which is integrated with our library, volunteer management, and billing systems. When we started recording in DAISY, we were the only ones in the U.S. to be doing that, so we had to design our own system. Now there are a number of systems available and we are in the process of evaluating them to see which might suit our needs if we move to an off-the-shelf product.

So, how would one find out what books the Minnesota Radio Talking Book Network has put up on BARD? As far as I know, BARD does not have a way of searching for what organization has produced the books. The RTB does have a Facebook page, and the books that will be airing each month are listed there. It is listed as Minnesota Radio Talking Book Network. One can also see this month’s books listed on the department’s website at www.mnssb.org.

At this time, the books we have posted on BARD are the following: Sky Tinged Red: A Chronicle of Two and a Half Years in Auschwitz, by Isaia Eiger; The Keillor Reader, by Garrison Keillor; Evergreen, by Rebecca Rasmussen; Augie’s Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip, by Neal Karlen; The Heart of All that Is: Reflections on Home, by various authors; The High Divide, by Lin Enger; Into the Paradox: Conservative Spirit, Feminist Politics, by Toni A. H. McNaron; Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota, by Stewart Van Cleve; The Last Kind Word: A McKenzie Novel, by David Housewright; We’ll be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Rachael Hanel; The Unseen Trail: The Story of a Blind Hiker’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail, by Michael O. Hanson; Vikings Across the Atlantic: Emigration and the Building of a Greater Norway, 1860-1945, by Daron W. Olson; and Your Legacy Matters: Harvesting the Love and Lessons of Your Life: a Multi-generational Guide for Writing Your Ethical Will, by Rachael Freed.

To learn more about the Minnesota Radio Talking Book Network, visit their website at www.mnssb.org and connect with them on Facebook.

Photo Courtesy of the Minnesota Radio Talking Book Network. Photo shows one of our volunteers wearing a recording head-set. Judy McGuigan was a wonderful volunteer who passed on some years ago, but she left us a great image of what a volunteer should be.

Belo Cipriani View more

Belo Cipriani is the award-winning author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams. He is a disability advocate, a spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and is currently the national spokesman for 100 Percent Wine -- a premium winery that donates 100 percent of proceeds to nonprofits that help people with disabilities find work.