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Georgia Radio Reading Service: Giving Voice to the Blind & Visually-Impaired Community

The Georgia Radio Reading Service (GaRRS), an Atlanta-based organization producing radio programs for the blind, visually-impaired, and others unable to access the printed word for more than 30 years, records and broadcasts from a corner of the enormous Georgia Public Broadcasting building on 14th Street.

As the State’s only radio service for people with vision loss, GaRRS also works to raise awareness about blindness and other disabilities that keep people from accessing print. In a recent interview with GCN, GaRRS Executive Director Jae Cosby shared insights into their successful broadcast program, amazing volunteer retention rate, and her own passion for the organization’s mission.

GaRRS currently broadcasts its diverse array of programs to more than 17,500 listeners, adding 50-60 new audience members each month. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, however: according to Cosby, there are as many as 800,000 documented cases of blindness and visual impairment in Georgia, and even more who fall into the category of “print-impaired,” due to such conditions as Parkinson’s, stroke, palsy, and dyslexia.

Though they keep content rolling for a full 24 hours, with only a few re-runs, GaRRS’s broadcast day kicks off in earnest at 6:30 a.m. with one of its most popular program blocks, two hours of live reading from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. GaRRS features readings from a range of other news sources throughout the day, including the Christian Science Monitor and two hours of the USA Today; they also read from local papers like the Marietta Daily Journal and magazines ranging from the Atlanta Business Chronicle to Cosmopolitan to Popular Mechanics on a rotating basis (their schedule is posted on the internet and broadcasted on the air, but also available by mail in Braille print-out or on cassette tape).

GaRRS’ other most popular programs are book readings, most of which are selected from The New York Times bestseller list, but which also include self-published authors reading their own work, and volunteer-curated series on themes like the military or classics.

Volunteers and Partners

It’s Cosby’s goal to give “anyone who can serve our audience” a chance to broadcast relevant, helpful, and horizon-expanding information: “We are the gatekeepers of information for people with blindness and other print-impairment issues in Georgia,” said Cosby, and they take that duty seriously, through partnerships with community leaders and organizations that also serve the disabled population, including the Georgia Council of the Blind and Georgia Tech’s cutting-edge Sonification Lab. With the assistance of the Junior League of Atlanta, GaRRS is even able to reach the youngest sight-impaired audiences with Lullaby Hour, a picture-book reading program aimed at 2-6 year olds and their parents, who can read along in Braille editions (titles are announced ahead of time so parents have the chance to prepare). Through this program, copies of the broadcast and the books also make their way to students at the Thika School for the Blind in Kenya.

There are as many as 800,000 documented cases of blindness and visual impairment in Georgia, and even more who fall into the category of “print-impaired,” due to such conditions as stroke, Parkinson’s, palsy, and dyslexia.

GaRRS is also committed to helping the vision loss community find employment through programs like their weekly Career Corner radio show, which highlights job fairs, training opportunities and openings; Cosby asserts that the blind are the least-hired members of the disabled population. But GaRRS also targets veterans and senior citizens looking to improve their job prospects by partnering with Employment Training Programs who assign trainees to GaRRS.

At the heart of this unique radio broadcast,—available to anyone who asks GaRRS for a subchannel radio or access to the online stream—is a dedicated group of 400 mission-driven volunteers, any of whom has the power to pitch and run their own show. Cosby’s simple yet empowering motto is, “If you want to do it, you do it.” Through this repeated mantra, volunteers have been inspired to channel their own interests and strengths into new programs that connect with the audience on a more personal level. One of those programs is the popular audio-tour series Out and About, conceived by a lone volunteer with a passion for travel and a GaRRS-supplied mobile recording deck. That volunteer, Jody Franco, has detailed visits to spots as close by as the Georgia Aquarium and as far away as Radio City Music Hall, Alcatraz, and the La Brea Tar Pits.

GaRRS’ volunteer army is so dedicated, in fact, that the average volunteer has been there an incredible 15 years. Cosby attributes that not just to her volunteers’ passion for helping others but to their passion for reading itself: “They’re not only dedicated to serving their communities, but are also avid readers who, through GaRRS, can share their love of reading with those unable to read themselves.”

A New Approach to Programming.

GaRRS keeps detailed tabs on its audience using a listener survey, conducted at least once every two years. In the last survey, conducted in 2009-2010, 93% of listeners said that GaRRS has improved or greatly improved their quality of life. The GaRRS team still saw room for improvement, adapting to meet the changing needs of their audience with new “Quality of Life” radio shows (including Out and About).  After determining the kinds of shows that would best meet these needs, Cosby and her 8-person part-time staff contacted organizations with expertise in the issues and asked if they would put on the shows. Organizations including the U.S. Veterans Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the Georgia Department of Labor have all joined up. GaRRS has even expanded into original reporting, highlighting events like last year’s Blind Driver Challenge at the Daytona International Speedway (organized by National Federation of the Blind).

At the heart of this unique radio broadcast is a dedicated group of 400 mission-driven volunteers, any of whom has the power to pitch and run their own show.

Cosby is a self-described “news guy” (she still does the news on Saturday at another statewide radio news service) who first got into public service to support her “radio habit.” After 25 years of working in local government, she retired to find work in a more hands-on environment. She said that getting the job at GaRRS was like “winning the lottery”: she recalls thinking, in amazement, “I can help people, and work in radio?”

On top of the radio connection, Cosby experienced a temporary loss of sight herself years ago. Though she recovered, it made her highly aware of and sensitive to the challenges of the visually impaired - most of whom, she noted, are not born blind but acquire it, due to factors that can strike at any point over the course of a lifetime (Jim Cashin, the advertising exec who founded GaRRS in 1980, lost his sight at the age of 40). Cosby has made it her mission to see that “everyone in the position of losing sight knows where to go to get the information and services they need.” She’s also determined to see the whole of Georgia understand the skills and assets that people with blindness add to their community.

Serving as Executive Director of GaRRS has been, in her words, “an honor.” “If anyone has benefited, it’s been me,” she said. “I have been amazed by all that people with blindness can do.” That includes the work of Phil Jones, an award-winning producer who has been blind since birth, and has been working at GaRRS continuously for 28 years. Because she witnesses “amazing strength every day,” Cosby finds herself continuously re-invigorated to keep GaRRS at the forefront of the visually- and print-impaired communities, providing a go-to station for relevant, timely information as well as a hub for bringing together individuals with a multitude of life-improving resources.GaRRS will host its first Annual Picnic Fundraiser on Saturday, June 16 from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at the Covington Lions Club, in association with the East Georgia Chapter of the Georgia Council of the Blind. All are welcome, with a $5.00 donation at the door.

Breauna Hagan is a Communications Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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