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

Author: Ryan Osentowski

My name is Ryan Osentowski. I am a conservative blind guy going through life using the structured discovery method. I currently work as the Station Manager at a radio reading service for the blind. My passions include politics, writing, cigars, old-time radio, quality TV shows and movies, food, music, reading, clocks, swimming and tbd. I hope you will enjoy what you find here. If you don't...try it with a strong dose of alcohol.