The Big 50

From the Omaha World Herald:

After 50 years, Nebraska’s Radio Talking Book Service is finding new ways to help blind people
Emily Nitcher May 7, 2024 Updated May 10, 2024

As 11 a.m. approaches, Ryan Osentowski waits for his cue.
He puts on a pair of headphones and gets ready to speak into the microphone in front of him.
Any second now, MeMe Smith and Larry Thornton will finish the first hour of reading that day’s editions of the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star on Radio Talking Book Service.
“It is time for our star across the glass here, Ryan, to take over the mic because we’re going to take a short break …” Thornton says, looking through the studio window at Osentowski.
Osentowski, the station manager, takes it from there.
“Thank you very much, Larry and MeMe …,” Osentowski says before introducing a string of advertisements and public service announcements.
The break will give Smith and Thornton, both volunteers, an opportunity to stretch their legs and rest their voices before jumping back on air to finish reading Nebraska’s two largest newspapers to thousands of listeners from Omaha to Scottsbluff in the Panhandle.
For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Radio Talking Book Service provides programming for listeners who are blind, low vision or print impaired. It broadcasts over the radio and internet on radios and smart speakers given to listeners at no cost.
“We are providing for a group of people that most people don’t care about,” said Osentowski, who is blind.
Smith and Thornton’s broadcast lasts about two hours. Then Osentowski fills the 22 other hours of the day with pre-recorded programming from more than 80 volunteers who provide more than 90 hours of programming a week.
The volunteers also read 21 regional newspapers like the Fremont Tribune, Grand Island Independent and Columbus Telegram. They read the weekly grocery and department store ads so people can plan their shopping trips around what’s on sale. One volunteer reads recipes, making sure her broadcast corresponds with upcoming holidays and events.
The voices on the radio have changed as volunteers come and go, but this year marks 50 years of Radio Talking Book Service being a constant source of news and entertainment for the people who need it.
Osentowski used the recent tornadoes in Nebraska and Iowa as an example.
“What just happened, sure, people can listen to their radio and television, but what about the aftermath?” he said. “Who’s going to tell them about the damage in Elkhorn? Who’s going to read them the newspaper? We do it. We bring information from newspapers, magazines and the otherwise printed word that they can’t read themselves.”
Most of the listeners, 82%, are over the age of 65, said Bekah Jerde, executive director of Radio Talking Book Service. She said many of them have aged into vision loss and want to reconnect to the things they used to enjoy. One woman told Jerde she subscribed to The World-Herald for 50 years and missed it when she could no longer read it herself.
Services for the blind change with the times
While the mission of Radio Talking Book Service has remained the same since Dr. Craig Fullerton founded it in 1974, technology has not. That led to some tough conversations between Jerde and others in 2016.
In 2015, the service had 574 documented listeners. Listenership had plummeted for several reasons, including the 2009 requirement that television stations stop broadcasting analog signals. Suddenly, Jerde said, thousands of listeners could no longer use their TVs to hear Radio Talking Book Service.
“In 2016, you were looking at all of it and you felt that heavy question of relevancy and how can we move forward?” Jerde said.
The answer came in the form of streaming, smart speakers and more intentional programming.
Now, when listeners request access to Radio Talking Book Service they can choose between a radio or a smart speaker making the broadcasts available to anyone with internet service. That includes those in rural areas the FM signal won’t reach.
The service added more newspapers to the lineup going from seven to 21. It added a statewide newscast in Spanish. And launched audio description services for people attending local theater performances, exhibits, parades and more.
It also downsized Radio Talking Book Service’s office at Omaha’s 7101 Newport Ave., near Immanuel Medical Center.
Little by little, Jerde said the numbers have climbed again. In 2024, it had about 12,000 listeners.
“I’m excited for the next 50 years because I think we are relevant in so many ways,” Jerde said.
Radio Talking Book Service does not receive state or federal funding. Jerde said about 60% of the service’s funding comes from private foundations and grants, 18 to 20% from individual donors and 17 to 19% from civic organizations.
Most states have a radio reading service like what is provided by Radio Talking Book Service in Nebraska. They can share programming which Jerde said helps fill gaps if volunteers get sick or can’t make their recording.
‘Blind people are human beings’
Jerde and Osentowski said the service couldn’t exist without the dedication of volunteers who take time to read the material so it can be broadcast throughout the state.
Volunteers find the service through word of mouth. Jerde said one man recruited three people from his spin class. Some volunteers, like teachers, have experience reading out loud, but it’s not required.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be commercial, but it just has to be someone who is vested emotionally in the material,” Osentowski said of the recordings.
Jerde said they ask volunteers to read everything. In the past, volunteers have skipped articles in newspapers or magazines about art exhibits or mushroom foraging because they thought it might make their blind and low-vision listeners feel bad.
Jerde said it’s not the service’s job to limit subjects available to listeners because they are so varied in their interests and capabilities.
Cami Cavanaugh Rawlings, who hosts a program called Community Conversations, once booked a fireworks expert for the show. After initially feeling good about the booking, Cavanaugh Rawlings began to question the choice. Do low vision and blind people go to fireworks shows?
Cavanaugh Rawlings consulted Osentowski. Of course they do, Osentowski said.
Give Osentowski the time, and he could spend all day listing the misconceptions about blind people. No, blind people don’t have super senses because they can’t see, they’re not all musically gifted and they don’t all have guide dogs.
“Blind people are human beings,” Osentowski said. “We’re limited in the fact that we can’t see, but we still have the same gifts and curses that everyone else has got.”
To learn how to get a radio or how to volunteer, visit Radio Talking Book Service’s website at

I hope you enjoyed reading the article as much as we did. Thanks to Emily Nitcher for her wonderful article. Kudos to Nikos Frazier, who was the photographer who took all of the pictures that I removed from this blind-friendly, text-based version. Screen readers don’t dance with pictures. I’m not trying to undercut the Omaha World Herald, who originally published the article, or the Lincoln Journal Star, who just reprinted it. I’m merely pasting this in my scrapbook because I think it’s a milestone for me and for our organization.

The funniest part of this whole business is that I was supposed to be back in Denver long ago. Three months after I came to Omaha, I was dead sure that moving here was a mistake. Yet, here I am six-and-a-half years later, doing a job I love in a city in which I’ve grown comfortable. Yes, the sidewalk situation still sucks and I now travel almost exclusively using ridesharing instead of the bus, but whatever. Omaha is okay for me.

As for RTBS, it’s the best job I’ve ever had, bar none. That is in no small part thanks to Jane Nielsen, Bekah Jerde, MeMe Smith, Cami Rawlings, the artist known as Queenie, the three angels at our front desk, a very supportive board of directors, our faithful listeners, and the dozens of volunteers who color our world with their presence every week.

As I’ve written in other entries here, I understand the employment situation from every angle. I’ve been unemployed, I’ve worked in jobs that were stressful, toxic and soul-crushing, and I’ve held jobs that were just all right, but that didn’t really challenge me. None of them come close to the fulfilment I get every day when I go to work at RTBS. I hear a lot of my blind friends complain about their jobs. Every time they do, I sit back quietly and thank God that I paid my dues long enough to hold a job I love, working with people whom I love and respect. I’m not lauding my situation over anyone else. I’m just counting my blessings.

Sure, the job isn’t perfect. Nothing in life is. But it’s perfect for me at this moment in time. We are lucky and humbled to have made it to 50. That is an amazing accomplishment in the nonprofit world. Here’s to another 50 being Nebraska’s audio companion.

Ryan Osentowski – RTBS Program Director

Bad Seed

I’d like to have a good laugh over the latest lament of the Columbia student protesters. They’ve occupied Hamilton Hall and now they are outraged that no one is bringing them food and water. They think they have a right to burritos, Red Bull and melatonin gummies on…like…humanitarian grounds or whatever. This is the height of white, entitled, western arrogance (everything the students think they are decrying) and they are incapable of absorbing the irony.

Yes, I’d like to laugh, but it’s really not funny. When the University of Florida arrested protesters and released a statement saying, in part, “The University of Florida is not a daycare,” I let out a silent cheer. Hell! Yeah! Bounce these snot-nosed brats out into the street and show them that their actions have consequences.

The sad truth is, while these students must accept responsibility for what they are doing, the adults are the ones who have failed. We have failed the children, we have failed our institutions of higher learning and, in many ways, we are failing society.

About 20 years ago, I was listening to the Sean Hannity Show on radio when a college kid phoned in. He said something like, “I’m a conservative student in college. How do I deal with my professors who are way left?”

Hannity’s response was, “I feel ya, kid. My best advice to you is to just go along, take the good grade and make your way in the real world after you graduate.” I’m pretty sure I heard similar conversations play out on the Rush Limbaugh Show in the ‘90’s.

I think this is what a lot of moms and dads across America have been doing since the 1960’s when widespread campus activism first appeared. They simply looked at Junior’s grades at the end of each semester and said, “Good job, sons and daughters. Keep it up.” They never really bothered to ask what the students were learning. They never pushed back when Junior started spewing nonsense about anti-colonialism, decadent western capitalism, or the theory of intersectionality. Mom and dad would just smile and nod when the grades came home and would happily write another check for the college when the tuition bill came due.

Well, the bill is really coming due now.

The first evidence of it came during the pandemic when students had to learn remotely while schools and campuses were closed and mom and dad started to figure out what their high school and college brats were being fed. Then, they really started to wake up when the race riots broke loose in the summer of 2020. Remember the kerfuffle over Critical Race Theory? It feels like ages ago. Then came the firestorm of trans rights, men on girls’ sports teams and shared bathrooms between all genders. Yeah…the good old days.

Parents started forming committees to protest at schoolboards. Conservatives started trying to make more serious runs for public office in hope of beating back the forces of anti-Americanism. Donors began to hesitate before cutting their university of choice another check. A lot of parents started saying, “Where is my kid and what have you done with him/her/then/it?”

Now, with the explosion of antisemitism and flagrant lawlessness that has erupted at colleges across the country, Mr. and Mrs. Mom and Dad are really awake. But…too little, too late. We’ve now raised a generation of anxiety-ridden children who have been indoctrinated to the idea that traditional learning with an eye toward critical thinking pales in comparison to so-called lived experiences and education through activism; said activism being of the leftist persuasion.

But it’s not just the parents who have failed. Gutless cowards who sit in the administrative offices at these elite colleges have also failed.

I spent some time with a headshrinker about eight years ago. The most important thing she taught me was that personal boundaries matter. If you don’t construct both internal and external boundaries in your life, you will always be adrift in some way. This was one of the most valuable life lessons I ever learned. I wish I’d learned it earlier.

By not demonstrating to these kids that their actions have consequences, these administrators are proving that boundaries don’t matter. This is why the Columbia kids who have now occupied a campus building are demanding amnesty for their actions. They don’t want the evidence of what they’ve done to dog them for the rest of their lives. “But they have a point, squishy adults cry in response. Didn’t we all do dumb things when we were young?” Of course we did, but we didn’t break windows, harass students based on their ethnicity or religion and occupy a building in the name of a conflict happening thousands of miles away.

And who do these students have to look to? Radical professors who have indoctrinated them with a one-sided ideology without the benefit of balance. Administrators who ignore one deadline after another for the sake of supposed empathy. Politicians who will use these protests for their own ends. And, of course, the ultimate failures in adulthood, two presidential candidates, neither of whom are worthy of holding the highest office in the land.

Sidebar: One aspect of the current campus drama that I really love is the cherry picking of constitutional rights. These kids are protesting in the name of their First Amendment rights as guaranteed by a document authored by a bunch of imperialist, slave-owning white men. I believe they are standing on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Yet, when it comes to freedom of the press, they are far less tolerant. Check out all of the videos on YouTube and see what happens to journalists (professional, student and civilian) who try to interview standard protesters or video the activities of the protesters. You will find it very instructive.

I never thought I would live to see the day when the word adult would be used in the noun, adjective and verb form, but here we are. Well, no matter how you implement the word, America has failed the adult test. And who will answer for these failures when Jewish students end up dead? Because that’s where I think this is heading. Who will pay the bill when there’s life blood on the ground?

Finally, on a separate but related note, I mentioned that today’s youth seem incapable of absorbing irony. Well, here’s the ultimate irony in all of this. Every time pro-Hamas students block Jewish students from entering a building in the name of so-called antizionism, they reinforce why Israel must exist. Every time people tear down hostage posters, they remind Jews of why they really aren’t welcome or equal in western society. Every time politicians employ anti-Semitic slogans, or deliberately misuse inflammatory words like, “genocide,” or “apartheid,” they remind Jews that there is only one government in the world that will really defend them. Every time they deny or downplay the mass rape and slaughter of Israeli citizens in the name of so-called, “resistance,” they show their true evil. There will always be Jews who will stand with the anti-Semites, for both good and bad faith reasons, they too will soon learn how things really are.

Will they learn too late? God only knows. But sooner or later, their bill will come due and they will have no choice but to pay it.

This is a very adult concept, isn’t it?

It is 7:48 Pm Central Standard Time as my fingers type these words. I see tweets indicating that the NYPD may be about to raid Columbia. Good luck, kids. You won’t like jail food, but at least you’ll be hydrated and won’t starve to death.

Faugh! Go tell it to Nika Shakarami.