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Charter House residents share big and little news stories with the visually impaired in Rochester

The Charter House — Mayo Clinic Retirement Living residents restarted the program after it was suspended for two years due to COVID-19.

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Lois Kennel, left, and Ceil Lamb take turns reading the news for RTB News for the Visually Impaired in Rochester on Nov. 11, 2022.
Matthew Stolle / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — A radio program that offers blind people local news and information has been relaunched in Rochester after a two-year pandemic-induced suspension.

And its revival is due to a dozen residents at Charter House-Mayo Clinic Retirement Living who are stepping forward to serve as volunteer readers.

The Radio Talking Book News for the Visually Impaired, a service provided by the State Services for the Blind, has been reinvented in Rochester and across the state since it started up.

Where the program once was a radio broadcast, the hour-long local news program is now a podcast.

All the Charter House readers, the oldest of whom is 92, were vetted by State Services for the Blind personnel to become readers. Each had to prove the ability to serve as a news anchor by reading a news article and articulating 100 words.

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Lois Kennel, a one-time English teacher, passed the test after receiving multiple invitations to become a reader.

“As a high school English teacher, I really did enjoy reading to people,” Kennel said. “I have my own eye issues, but if they want me — and I passed the test, which I did with flying colors — I’ll just do it.”

The news and information service is a statewide program. And for more than 25 years, the Rochester area broadcast originated from the Charter House, providing a mix of headline news, editorials, sports and obituaries from the Rochester Post Bulletin and surrounding newspapers.

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Lois Kennel, a Charter House resident, reads news for the Radio Talking Book News for the Visually Impaired in Rochester on Nov. 11, 2022.
Matthew Stolle / Post Bulletin

Marti Riley, a volunteer coordinator for the Rochester service, said people often ask why the visually impaired don’t get their news from local television news stations. One big reason: TV doesn’t do the obituaries.

“The service is to keep people who are visually impaired in touch with what’s going on in the community,” Riley said. “It’s not just the big stories, but the little stories. People want to hear their grandkids’ names. They want to know when this funeral or that funeral is going on.”

When the Rochester area program was in its infancy 25 years ago, most of the readers came from outside Charter House. Many were vocally talented performers from the Rochester Civic Theatre.

But when the pandemic caused nursing homes and senior centers to shut down, outside readers were barred from entering Charter House. The service was consequently suspended for lack of enough readers.

Now, all but one of the dozen or so readers live at Charter House. If there is another disruptive, pandemic-like event, the program won’t have to be suspended.

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The program is offered in other Minnesota regions that are served by regional newspapers. The Rochester service was the last to come online when it started up in September.

With its return as a podcast after a two-year hiatus, the reinvented news service brings certain advantages to listeners.

As a radio program, the program’s aim was to be a daily service. (It depended on having enough readers). It also went live. A collaborative effort with Minnesota Public Radio, the program started at 7 p.m. on the dot.

Headphone-wearing readers at Charter House would wait for a precisely timed “beep” before they began to read. Listeners at the other end received the news through special receivers provided to them.

The revamped Rochester service offers twice-a-week news programming. The readings take place Tuesdays and Saturdays — the days on which the PB comes out with a print product.

As a podcast, audiences have more flexibility and are no longer bound to the 7 p.m. live broadcast format. They now have a four-day window to access the program before a new one is uploaded and the old one is erased.

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Charter House readers share the news for the Radio Talking Book News for the Visually Impaired in Rochester on Nov. 11, 2022. The readers include from left to right, front row: Ray Schmitz, Judy Gunnon, Lois Kennel and Joy Fogarty; and from left to right, back row: Peggy Allen, Marti Riley and Brenda Rosebrough.
Matthew Stolle / Post Bulletin

The readers at Charter House work in two-person teams in a back room of the library, passing the news ball back and forth as they read into a recorder.

The women erupt in a chorus of laughter when asked why the two-person teams are necessary: Old age, the need to cough, the need to take a break.

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“We alternate stories,” said Judy Gunnon, one of the readers, "so you get a little camaraderie.”

All the readers are women except Ray Schmitz, former Olmsted County Attorney whose rich, courtroom voice will be recognizable to many listeners.

“I think they decided it was good to have a male voice occasionally,” Schmitz said.

“It makes a difference when Ray reads the sports,” said Brenda Rosebrough, also a reader.

The program can be accessed online at the Employment and Economic Development State Services for the Blind; via a Minnesota RTB app available for both iPhone and Android smartphones; or as Alexis skill for use on the Echo Dot or other Alexa-compatible devices.

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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