Network brings local news to the visually impaired

On a sunny Thursday evening in late July, Linda and Ray Schwenzfeier sat in a  small radio studio at KVSC in the basement of Stewart Hall on the campus of St. Cloud State University. Both wore headsets with an attached microphone and they held in their hands pages from that day’s St. Cloud Times newspaper. At exactly 6 p.m., Linda began reading from her script, “Good evening…This is the Central Minnesota Audio Newspapers, part of the Minnesota Radio Talking Book Network, broadcasting for the blind and print-disabled from the studios of KVSC.” She continued by telling listeners that during the next two hours they would be reading articles from the St. Cloud Times, the Cold Spring Record, the Sauk Centre Herald and the Mille Lacs County Times. Across town on that same Thursday evening, Marvin Zastrow, who is completely blind, sat in his home and listened as the Schwenzfeiers read stories about a proposed housing facility for homeless veterans and the Stearns County Fair schedule which included favorite attractions like the demolition derby and a tractor -pulling contest.  Zastrow is no longer able to read the local newspaper and he relies on the reading service provided by Minnesota Radio Talking Book (RTB) and the volunteer readers from Central Minnesota Audio Newspapers (CMNAN).  Zastrow was an English teacher in Little Falls for 34 years. He was diagnosed with glaucoma at age 33 and since his retirement in 1990, he’s had 22 eye surgeries. “I’m completely blind now,” he said. He used to be able to see a little and read with the use of a magnifying glass but that all changed last January when his optic nerve was severed. Zastrow is a huge fan of RTB. “A lot of people could benefit from this service,”  he said. “I’ve told lots of people. They don’t realize how much it would help them.” Back at the campus studio, the Schwenzfeiers took turns reading articles from the Times including the main headlines, local news, opinion page pieces and local sports. The first hour ended with Dear Abby. During the second hour of the broadcast, the Schwenzfeiers began by reading the Tributes and Services and the birth announcements from the St. Cloud Times and they followed that by reading articles from weekly newspapers in Cold Spring, Sauk Centre and Milaca. Different newspapers from the area are read each evening. The Schwenzfeiers are volunteer readers with CMNAN, which relies on approximately 60 volunteers to provide the local broadcast each evening. They break into scheduled programming from 6-8 p.m. Sunday through Friday and from 6-7 p.m. on Saturday in order to read the area newspapers. Linda is also the volunteer coordinator for the organization and she helps recruit and train the volunteer readers. As a reader, Ray said his biggest challenge is pronouncing foreign names and he added that he uses his forefinger to track the story when reading so he doesn’t get lost. He and his wife usually read once or twice a month. Linda is the producer of the show and chooses the stories to be read. She also sorts through the stack of area newspapers to find the correct ones to be read that evening.  Ray’s job is to bring supper which they try to sneak bites of before the broadcast begins. The KVSC listening area extends from Glenwood to Princeton and from Long Prairie to Willmar. Some of the cities in this area include Buffalo, Little Falls, St. Cloud, Sauk Centre, Elk River, Litchfield and Annandale. Other broadcast studios in Minnesota are located in Fergus Falls, Grand Rapids, Duluth, Mankato and Rochester. The RTB Network is a free, closed-circuit news and information service broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week to thousands of subscribers throughout Minnesota and the United States.  Daily newspapers, magazine articles, best-selling books and other printed materials are read aloud and are broadcast to people who are blind, visually impaired or have other disabilities that make it difficult to read. Some of the newspapers and magazines read on the broadcast include The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, The Christian Science Monitor and  Consumer Reports.  Best-selling books which have been read recently include Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, House Rules by Jodi Picoult and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Steig Larsson. The RTB programming is not available to the general public. The broadcast signal can be received only with a special radio which is loaned to eligible listeners or through the Internet using a special password. Minnesota State Services for the Blind provides this free service and the radio receivers for visually impaired listeners. The broadcast is distributed by Minnesota Public Radio stations.  Marvin Zastrow said he is on his third or fourth radio since he first began receiving RTB services approximately 15 years ago. “The first radios just had one knob and I used it so often that the switch would wear out,” he said. He now has a digital radio. Zastrow knows the daily program schedule almost by heart. He begins the day by listening to live broadcasts of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press each morning from 7-9. “I especially like the editorials and the sports and the entertainment. They even read the comics like Crankshaft and Pickles. It goes very well. They set the scene and it is very well-described,” he said. Weekdays, after listening to the news,  Zastrow enjoys the Past is Prologue program where they read books about historical events or people in the past. He said he was listening to We’re Gonna Win, Twins!, a nonfiction book written by Doug Grow and published in 2010. It is a collection of stories about the Minnesota Twins which is read over ten broadcasts. Zastrow said that he listens to Twins games during baseball season. “But in the winter, I like to listen to Night Journeys in the evening. They read mysteries.” Books recently read during Night Journeys are Nicola Upson’s Angel with Two Faces, and The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths. Another favorite of Zastrow’s is a Saturday morning program called Extra Innings which allows him to keep up with all of the sports news. There are interviews with sports personalities and articles from Sports Illustrated, Viking Update and the sports sections of The New York Times and USA Today. RTB has a large variety of programming. If a listener wants medical news, there is the program Apple a Day. Bookcase has book reviews from The New York Times. Nutrition, dieting and exercise advice is shared on Nutrition and Health and on Money Matters, the listener gets personal financial management tips. For more information on all of the programs, you can check out the website www.positivelyminnesota.com. The RTB service helps its listeners to remain independent by keeping them informed, entertained and connected to their communities.  Zastrow was disappointed to miss all of his programs during Minnesota’s three-week government shutdown in July. Persons who are visually impaired or who have other disabilities which make it difficult to read, can apply for RTB services by calling 651-642-0885 or 800-652-9000 at Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic  Development. If anyone is interested in becoming a volunteer reader for Central Minnesota Audio Newspapers, they can contact Linda Schwenzfeier at 320-656-3672.

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