A Trip to WRBH: America’s Only Full Time Reading Radio Station for the Blind

On April 19th, 2017, I visited WRBH with my media analysis communication class at Tulane University. There we learned about the history of the station, their goals and challenges, and were able to experience what it would be like to be a visually impaired listener, and a WRBH audition evaluator.

WRBH (88.3 FM) was the first 24-hour reading radio station in the United States for the blind, created by Dr. Robert McClean, a blind math professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Dr. McClean wanted to create a reading radio station that would improve the lives of the blind and visually impaired persons by sharing strong and current content. Located on Magazine Street, WRBH remains the only full-time FM reading radio service in the United States, and is one of only three such stations in the world.

Radio broadcasting staff, whether at WRBH, or any radio station across the U.S. have important ethics and responsibilities to follow when speaking on the air both to their target audience and other possible publics. WRBH, for example, has 150 volunteer readers, who each had to audition before getting the job. For the audition process, WRBH has each person read a series of articles and a pronunciation list while being recorded. When a WRBH staff member is reviewing a person’s audition they look for consistency, fluidity, clearness, distinctness, expression (not too exaggerated, not too boring), a nice tone, interest in the reading, and the pace of the reading (not too quick or slow). They are also looking for people who have a certain professionalism and are team players. After a volunteer passes the audition, they have to complete a 3-month training program where they can still be removed from the airwaves. Along with selecting the right people to be a part of their staff, WRBH also has to follow federal regulations, for example, not saying the F-word; they also self-censor based on the audience.

After my experience as a WRBH audition evaluator, I learned that a person can be a really good reader but can also be really boring, and someone you wouldn’t want to listen to. In the case of the reader we evaluated, like Natalia Gonzalez, who is WRBH’s Executive Director, we did not pass the reader because she was uninterested, though Natalia did tell this woman to come audition again after improving, because she was a great reader.

According to the article “Listening Overlooked” by Kate Lacey, a professor of Media History and Theory at the University of Sussex, an important responsibility for radio broadcasting staff is resonating with the listener. Lacey states, “Resonance is about responsiveness, but it need not be responsiveness in kind. A speech can resonate with a listener without the listener responding in speech. Moreover, resonance can generate a great deal of acoustic energy from a small sound event so, to continue the analogy, a speech act is effective to the extent that it resonates with those listening who may well, in terms of broadcasting, for example, number in the millions.” I personally think resonating with the listener is more important for WRBH then other radio stations because of the demographic WRBH is trying to reach. Though, I also think WRBH is an easy station to resonate with because you are going there to listen to the news or a book, or one of their original programs. Their listeners are listening to them for a reason, which is why there should be more stations like WRBH, but unfortunately there aren’t.

If you are interested in volunteering, please contact WRBH at listen@wrbh.org or (504) 889-1144.

If you would like to make a donation, please visit www.wrbh.org.