'Radio Talking Book' keeps visually impaired Minnesotans engaged

A woman smiling by a microphone
MPR News host Cathy Wurzer

Back when we were a newspaper-reading country, there was the morning edition paper and the evening edition paper.

The day’s stories were always a big topic of conversation. But if you were blind or visually impaired, newspapers were not immediately accessible — until Radio Talking Book.

Joseph Papke is the supervisor of the organization in St. Paul, and he joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about the birth of the essential service.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Let's begin another edition of our popular history segment Minnesota Now and Then.

REPORTER: You're listening to a demonstration broadcast of the Minnesota State Services for the Blind Radio Talking Book Network, a joint undertaking of St. John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota, the Hamm Foundation, and the State Agency. This system is provided for persons whose visual or physical circumstances prohibit their effective use of printed material.

CATHY WURZER: That is a clip from November the 4th, 1969. Back then, we were a newspaper-reading country. There was the morning newspaper and the evening edition.

The day's stories were always a big topic of conversation. But if you were blind or visually impaired, newspapers were not immediately accessible-- until Radio Talking Book. Here to talk about the birth of this essential service is Joseph Papke. He's the Supervisor of Radio Talking Book in Saint Paul.

Joseph, welcome to the program.

JOSEPH PAPKE: Thank you, Cathy. It's a pleasure to be here.

CATHY WURZER: Now, this was a revolutionary program at the time. Tell me a little bit about it.

JOSEPH PAPKE: It's the very first thing of its kind in the country, as the clip you just played from 1969 demonstrates, the first radio reading service for the blind. We went on air earlier that year, January 2, 1969, so we've just had our 54th anniversary earlier this month. And the purpose was to make current print available-- print materials available to people who would otherwise have some setbacks through either blindness or any other kind of print disability.

So we had the State Services for the Blind in partnership with the Hamm Family Foundation had created what became known later as the Communications Center, a public-private partnership that was putting textbooks into Braille and making certain materials available by audio at that time, sending out little green record disks, basically, as was the-- as was the medium at the time.

But our director during that period, C. Stanley Potter, had the idea of could we put something on the radio to make this as absolutely accessible as possible? And it ended up going forward, going on the air in 1969, as I say, the first of its kind in the country. And it inspired a lot of other radio reading services around the nation to spring up following our example. So we're very proud at Minnesota Radio Talking Book to have been the first.

CATHY WURZER: And we should say-- not to pat ourselves on the back here-- but at Minnesota Public Radio, the deal was to broadcast this on a subchannel of MPR. And I believe the very first broadcast came from St. John's University.

JOSEPH PAPKE: Absolutely. Yes, that's very true before it was called Minnesota Public Radio. But, yes, KSJR-FM up at St. John's, which is classical music and other things like that, which later, in the '70s, became Minnesota Public Radio. So our two institutions, we started out together back in the day, yes.

CATHY WURZER: Let's take another listen to that little demo tape. This is from, again, 1969.

REPORTER: The travel buff isn't neglected by the Radio Talking Book Network. Indeed, five hours a week are devoted to a program World Safari. A recent book read on World Safari was The Blue of Capricorn by Eugene Burdick. Here is Neil Duffy reading a segment of that book.

NEIL DUFFY: The Pacific is enormous, plural, contradictory. One aches for limitations, for boundaries that reduce the sensation of all. For each person, the limits are different. For some people, the Pacific is no larger than a tiny village, a strip of white sand, a reef. For a tiny group, that inquisitive body of oceanographers, the Pacific is inimitable. So great is their curiosity that their Pacific runs from the Bering Strait to the glittering ice cliffs of Antarctica.

CATHY WURZER: Clearly, those who read early on had great radio voices.


CATHY WURZER: What are your most popular programs?

JOSEPH PAPKE: Oh, my goodness. Well, the most popular thing that we do are the live morning papers. Every day from 7:00 to 9:00 AM, we're reading the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press. That gets the most people tuning in and the most downloads. It's a a two-hour live reading back and forth between a staff broadcaster and a volunteer.

Most of our programs here are recorded by volunteers, but we do do the papers live. So that gets the most listeners, as it has sort of day-by-day priority and usefulness. It's that day's paper, of course.

I have to comment that's so great, that clip you just played. World Safari, we still have World Safari. It plays Fridays at 3:00 PM, so we're still reading travel sections and articles from National Geographic and Condé Nast Traveler, all sorts of things like that. Still doing it.

CATHY WURZER: And you, of course, have folks reading books. I did that for a time. I was a volunteer at Radio Talking Book, which I found hard to do. It's hard to read a book to others. Maybe that was just me. How do you choose your books?

JOSEPH PAPKE: It's kind of the favorite part of my job. I read a lot of book reviews, everything in local press and national press. Sometimes, I hear about things listening to MPR, as it happens. I was listening, oh, gosh, maybe last spring or early summer and heard an interview with Heather Havrilesky, her memoir Foreverland, and she sounded so interesting. And so I ordered it for the station.

So I have a list. We do 11 hours of books every day, and it's pretty evenly split between fiction and nonfiction. But we just fill out those categories in terms of popular fiction or thrillers or romance novels. And I go through and read all the reviews and see what's getting good press and what sounds interesting.

We do have a special focus on Minnesota published books and Minnesota authors as well and ideally things that may not be available commercially as audio books. There's a lot of that these days. But we try to get some titles in there that you can't find anywhere else as well.

CATHY WURZER: Now before you go, obviously there's a lot of competition these days, how do you stay relevant?

JOSEPH PAPKE: That's a great question because there's no shortage of ways for people to access, certainly things like live news, through the internet. But the purpose of a radio reading service is very specifically to make printed material available. So things like the daily newspapers, that's a great example of there's not going to be an audiobook of that. There are some papers that have AI voices that you can listen to articles that way.

But we see our job as making what is exactly available in print to anyone else available to someone with blindness or other print disability, could be something like the neurodiversity spectrum or developmental disability or simply not having the ability to hold the book itself. So, yeah, staying relevant by today's paper, I guess, is to my best answer for that.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Well, Joseph, good work. Thank you for all the good work that you and your team have done over the years. And thanks for the conversation.

JOSEPH PAPKE: My pleasure, Cathy. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Joseph Papke is Supervisor of Radio Talking Book in Saint Paul. Now, for more information about State Services for the Blind, including Radio Talking Book, you can visit mnssb.org. By the way, those audio clips we shared, well, they're part of the MPR archive. You can follow the MPR archive on Twitter to hear more timely historical audio clips. That's @MPRarchive.

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