Hansen: Volunteers lend eyes, voice to read to listeners who can't - Omaha.com
Published Monday, September 23, 2013 at 1:30 am / Updated at 8:56 pm
Hansen: Volunteers lend eyes, voice to read to listeners who can't

The carpet is threadbare, the walls are mostly blank and the cramped room is no bigger than a walk-in closet.

This tiny studio, hidden deep within the antiseptic hallways of a northwest Omaha medical building, seems an odd place to restore your faith in humanity.

And it is, until Jessica clears her throat.

“Let's see what advice Annie's Mailbox has in store for us,” she says as she leans into a microphone that's connected to a closed-circuit radio frequency that can be heard on about 5,000 special radios arrayed across the state.

She stares at a digital copy of the Omaha World-Herald on her monitor and reads Annie's advice about a creepy father-in-law and a disobedient service dog into her microphone.

Then she looks over at Mike and nods slightly.

Mike leans into his mike and reads a Lincoln Journal Star story about the so-called “Freshman 15” being a myth. He taps his hand on the studio's table to signal he is finished.

Jessica reads a World-Herald business story. Slight nod. Mike reads a Journal Star column on Husker football. Slight tap.

They read on — nod and tap, nod and tap — maybe two dozen stories in all, until the gigantic digital clock on the table says it's noon.

“And it looks to me like we are out of time this morning,” Mike says. Thanks for listening, he says.

He and Jessica have just finished another two-hour shift for the Radio Talking Book Service. They have just finished reading the bulk of the state's two biggest newspapers to people who cannot read a newspaper themselves. They have done this for free: No pay. No glory. They don't even know any of the people they are reading for.

“I just can't imagine what it would be like if I were blind and couldn't read the paper,” says Jessica Nitsch, a 49-year-old self-employed saleswoman who has juggled her schedule to sub for Mike's regular reading partner this morning.

Mike Gaherty, a 73-year-old who once taught journalism at Omaha Central High School, nods his head in agreement. He's been doing this every Monday morning for seven years.

“I just hope somebody is out there listening,” he says.

This reading service, which started in Omaha in 1974 and went statewide years later, seems a throwback to a time before screen readers, computers that can talk, smartphones and Siri.

But the service is also a lifeline for people who are both unable to see and unable to adapt to the Internet Era.

The station's typical listener is a woman in her 80s who has been able to see her whole life, until she loses her sight to macular degeneration, says John Fullerton, the service's executive director for the past 17 years.

His father, Craig Fullerton, actually helped to found the Radio Talking Book Service after he helped start KIOS, Omaha's public radio station.

“They miss reading a paper and driving a car,” Fullerton says of the station's listeners. “Think of the isolation, the depression.

“We can't drive a car for them, but we can read the paper.”

So read they do. They read The World-Herald, live, twice a day. They read magazine stories and grocery store ads. They read concert reviews and murder mysteries.

Sometimes they even “read” movies — describing the action over the radio as Clint Eastwood's Joe goes after Ramón in “A Fistful of Dollars.”

Out of all that reading, John Fullerton, bless his heart, says he considers the reading of newspapers most important.

“How else do people get local information in depth? Where else are they going to get it?”

So 250 Omahans volunteer to read for the Radio Talking Book Service. They fill up 16 hours of airtime with original programming each weekday and most of the hours on weekends, too.

They read to visually impaired people across Nebraska who have filled out a form and received, for free, their special radio, already tuned to the correct closed-circuit frequency. They read to people who listen online at www.rtbs.org. They read to people who are shut-ins and lots of people who live in nursing homes.

They read even though Jessica says she's never met a single listener. In seven years, Mike has met one.

“Sometimes I want to ask them, 'Are we reading what you want us to read?' ” Mike says.

Which is why I'm dialing the number for John and Rita Klingman.

Rita is 63 and lost her sight to cancer at the age of 3. She remembers what a little red package of raisins looks like. She has used the Radio Talking Book Service since it was founded 39 years ago.

John is 62 and lost his sight when his incubator malfunctioned in the hospital. He doesn't remember seeing anything. He has used the Radio Talking Book Service since he met Rita.

They've been married seven years. They live in a town house in southwest Omaha. In the family room, a special radio the size of a toaster sits on a side table. Another is in the basement, next to a television they never turn on. They listen to the basement radio while they exercise.

Most mornings they listen as strangers read them magazines. They listen to the murder mysteries. They listen to the movies.

“The reality is that without Radio Talking Book, you are kind of shot out of the saddle,” John says. “You can't get this stuff from the library, you can't get the movies like this. ... There's just a lot of good entertainment here. I dunno. What do you say, Reet?”

“Same thing you said,” Rita says.

They listen so much that they have favorites: Rita Kuenning is a good reader, and so is Michaela Wolf, they say. John Bourke is a good reader, and so is a guy named Mike Gaherty.

“He is good. He used to teach English at one of the high schools, I think,” John Klingman says of Gaherty.

They listen to everything. Everything except the Omaha World-Herald.

“We used to, but we quit listening to the paper,” John says. “Everything is so negative. We didn't want to hear any more negative.”

I got news for you, John. I made sure this column would run on a Monday, during Mike's reading shift. And I made John Fullerton promise to call you to make sure you and Rita would be listening to it right now.

I did that because I wanted you to hear a positive story about strangers sitting in a cramped studio and reading into a microphone.

And I did it because I wanted Mike to be able to read to you. I wanted him to know that you are listening.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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