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For 48 years Talking Book Network has been serving the visually impaired

Posted on 11 September 2017 by Calvin

The first program of its kind in the world, Minnesota Radio Talking Book Network (RTB) went on air in 1969. The program, in which volunteers and a few paid staff read newspapers, magazines, and books to the visually impaired over the radio, will for the first time in many years be operating without its manager, Stuart Holland.

Holland (photo right by Jan Willms) has just stepped down from his position at RTB, which has its studio at 2200 University Ave., after first joining the network in 1986. He has been an employee of the state, which funds the network, since 1975.

“That’s a long time,” Holland noted, “and there are too many things to do that I don’t have time for while I am in this job. So I am thinking of it as more of a transition than a retirement.”

The service is available to the blind, or someone who is dyslexic, suffered a stroke, or as the result of an illness or condition is unable to read.

“Bill Kling had graduated from St. John’s University in 1965, went to grad school and returned. St. John’s wanted him to start a radio station, which he did. The station was originally Minnesota Educational Radio and then became Minnesota Public Radio,” recalled Holland. “Kling could not sell advertising for public radio, but he thought that maybe Minnesota State Services for the Blind would like a radio station. C. Stanley Potter, the director of that organization and a longtime ham radio operator, had been thinking of how to get such a station. It was a perfect meeting of the minds.”

Holland said they spent 1968 doing contracts, research and having discussions, and the program went on air in 1969. “Initially, it was on the air in St. Cloud and the Twin Cities and was a little paternalistic,” he said. The station organizers thought they had to “take care of those poor blind people.”

Holland said it was soon realized that the blind had the same interests as everyone else, and none of the books or articles read are edited in any way. “It is almost impossible to find books without any sex or violence in them today,” he said, “and the visually impaired have the same right of access as everyone else.”

The station operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Programs are on automation from 10pm to 5:30am, with the rest of the time being staffed. “We work that late because we have volunteers who come in, and we need people who can help with equipment and just be here in case something happens,” Holland explained.

The station first opened its doors in a downtown St. Paul building, where the State Services for the Blind was located. It then moved to 1745 University, into what had originally been a factory. “That was not a perfect location,” Holland recalled. “There were eight recording booths and a set of steps to get into the building. If we had a volunteer in a wheelchair, it was tough luck. They would have to record at home.”

In 1992 RTB moved to its present location, with 20 recording booths designed by the person who was the recording engineer at the time. It is one of the largest recording facilities in the country, according to Holland. “It’s wonderful, and so acoustically insulated,” he added. “”You walk into the recording booth, and once the door is shut, you cannot hear a thing, not even a fire alarm. Blinking lights are used for fire alarms.”

Holland said the number of volunteers for RTB doubled between 1994 and 2001. “That’s because we started having teams of volunteers across the state who broadcast their local newspapers,” he explained. “They would break into our signal once a day and read them. Fergus Falls was the first, in 1994. Then St. Cloud, Duluth, Rochester, Mankato and Grand Rapids.”

Currently, there are volunteers who read from across the United States. “We loan them the equipment they need to do the recording. They do the recordings, then send them back to us in the mail. It works quite well,” Holland said.

Volunteers are required to take an oral reading test. “We ask them to get 92% of the vocabulary words correct, and we need them to know when they have made a mistake,” noted Holland. “We all make mistakes.”

He said that after reading for a long time, volunteers get very good or may get sloppy. “We have an ongoing quality control person who listens to people recording to see if they are getting sloppy.”

With recordings coming in from all across the United States, many local volunteers use the studio, and the recording booths are usually full. “We have people from all different backgrounds who volunteer,” Holland said. “we have college professors, current or past; dermatologists, heart surgeons, homemakers, and factory workers.”

Books are aired serially, one hour per day, on RTB. Monday through Friday, people will hear eleven hours of books, four hours of today’s newspapers, and nine hours of programming taken from around 300 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.

“We have a very broad cross-section of books,” Holland said, “everything from history to romance to political and controversial materials, mysteries, general fiction and vampire stories. We have something for everybody.”

He doesn’t usually select best sellers for broadcast because the National Library Service covers those. “I check their list to see what is already being covered,” he said. “We have a lot of Minnesota authors who don’t make it to the bestsellers, but are perfectly good authors, and we offer them.”

Holland cited a brand new option for listeners that he is very pleased with. “In 1969, it was assumed that everyone in Minnesota should know how to speak English,” he said. “There are some who still have that belief, but we know it’s not a reality. People with disabilities get them across ethnic groups and languages. We also have people who move into Minnesota who don’t yet have the language.”

Holland said he had been thinking about this for a long time, and last February he started talking with engineers. He said there is an archive page on the network’s website with extra space, and it occurred to him that readings in other languages could be put on that page. “We now have volunteers recording in Spanish, Hmong, Russian and Somali,” he stated. He does not yet have Somali and Hmong volunteers but is working on it.

“Now people can go to that page and find the latest news in their language,” Holland added. “I consider that to be my signature accomplishment for my last year.”

He has seen many changes and developments since he started, when the AP ticker tape would print out the latest news. “Once the machine started ticking, people would run over to the machine to check out what was happening. Then we got computers,” he smiled.

During his tenure as manager, he has worked under several governors and commissioners. He said what he will miss most from this job is his connection with the volunteers.” I tell people when they start that they are joining a large family of volunteers. They don’t all know each other or interact or see each other, but many do. And we try to give them a few opportunities during the year to connect with each other. I have taught master classes for volunteers the past 17 years.

When he leaves, he hopes to take that master class and market it as a business. ”There are many people who need to do speaking as part of their jobs, but they may not do it well. I help them do it well,” he commented. He is also at work on a couple of books, one a mystery and one about his collection of German pottery. And he may make more use of his theater degree and do more acting roles once he has stepped down from his manager position.