Tuning In-The Mission of WRBH Radio
In New Orleans, along the narrow and busy corridor of Magazine Street, you may have noticed a vibrant sign behind an oak tree that reads ‘WRBH 88.3 FM’. If you happen to notice it and take the time to examine it a little closer, it reveals - ‘WRBH Radio for the Blind 88.3 FM’. New Orleans is a city of many historical ‘firsts’ and can proudly add WRBH as the only radio station in America that programs content for the blind and print handicapped. This radio station is the legacy of local mathematician, Professor and Doctor- Robert McClean, who was blind and wanted programming with stimulating content for people like him. He wanted people in a similar situation to feel involved and informed about the community in which they live. Forty-one years after its creation, this vibrant and relevant radio station is still adhering to its original mission in an inspirational way despite the challenges most non-profit organization’s face.
WRBH’s mission “is to turn the printed word into the spoken word so that the blind and print handicapped can receive the same ease of access to current information as their sighted peers.” Current Executive Director, Natalia Gonzalez, believes that this organization is still honoring the vision that Dr. McClean had in mind all those many years ago and is using new technologies to better connect with the communities they are trying to reach. For example, Studio Engineer David Benedetto, creates podcasts for WRBH’s original content on SoundCloud and iTunes so that their audience can always access the information they’re seeking at their leisure.
The mission of the station has grown over the years to include programming for the Vietnamese and Latino community and according to Ms. Gonzalez, these communities are grateful to have a platform where they can connect and be heard.
To volunteer for WRBH is serious business. A would be volunteer has to go through a competency and pronunciation evaluation test. This process insures that the audience can understand a reader's words clearly and precisely. Ms. Gonzalez says that a reader has to have versatility as they could be scheduled to read The New York Times and then The Wall Street Journal in any given day. If the volunteer has a strong command of the language then the audience will have a better grasp of the information being dispensed.
The people who volunteer at WRBH range from University students, local voice over actors and people who have or who have had someone in their personal life that are print handicapped or blind. The bond between reader and listener is strong as some volunteers have been there for over 20 years and one can happily boast about volunteering here for 30 years. The story of one volunteer gave us a glimpse into the soul of this station when Ms. Gonzalez fondly reflected on how a reader was so glad she passed the audition because she had overcome eye cancer and really wanted to read to others. Other volunteers, also share personal reasons about how this station helped their family members and they in turn want to help others in a similar situation. It is clear and heartwarming to see that volunteering at this radio station is a labor of love for the people trying to give back to their community and a testament to its longevity.
With the advent of digital radio stations like iHeart and Sirius, Ms. Gonzalez fears that local radio stations are becoming obsolete. Sensing this, many have solicited to purchase this station because “WRBH’s terrestrial broadcasting power is 25,000 watts, making the station’s FM signal available across a 90-mile radius”. Ms. Gonzalez feels that these people don’t have the interest of the community at heart, they’re just interested in the radius the station reaches and vows to keep the station from the reach of corporations and groups who will not adhere to the mission that Dr. McClean had set in motion.
This non-profit radio station is governed by a board who hires the personnel and creates and schedules programming for their audience. The funding for this station comes from fundraisers, sponsorships and individual donations. Their most successful fundraising endeavors is called the ‘Blindfold Dinner’. Ms. Gonzalez says that the money raised from this event really aids in keeping the radio station going and that the restaurant, La Petite Grocery, has been very gracious in hosting this annual event.
The vision and mission of Dr. McClean’s goal for creating a radio station for turning the printed word to the spoken word for the print handicapped and blind community is safe and secure. With people like Natalia Gonzalez leading the path for WRBH’s future, the 150 volunteers and an active board engaged in providing the best programming for their community - this radio station is still doing tremendous work for its community. WRBH is an institution that should be emulated throughout the United States. Since this is the first and only radio station in the United States that caters to the needs of the print handicapped and blind community, it should hold a special place in our hearts and in the community because everyone needs to be informed, entertained and to hear a familiar voice gently giving comfort, reassuring their listeners that they are not alone.