October 9, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Paul Stebbins has a smooth, pleasant voice with articulate delivery. As the station manager for the nonprofit Radio Talking Book Service, his knowledge of the technical side of radio production and programming
is impressive.

His extensive background in broadcasting and engineering is obvious by his professional demeanor. Not so apparent is what he shares with listeners: “I’ve been a user of services like ours for over 40 years. I’ve been blind since birth.”

Stebbins, now in his mid-60s, was born 14 weeks premature at a time when hospitals used excessively high levels of oxygen in incubators. The practice saved lives but was a risk factor for retinal damage in babies and contributed to Stebbins’ permanent vision loss.

Stebbins, a Chicago native, credits his parents with fostering his independence. His mother introduced him to a career in radio in 1961 when she founded a station “from the ground up,” an endeavor which lasted for a decade.

“For a blind person, radio was such a natural medium because it’s all sound-oriented; it’s all audio,” Stebbins says. Although he was a natural on the air, he was more interested in the technical side of things. So, after attending technical college, he worked for stations in various markets including Denver and San Francisco. He even did a brief stint in television.

“I worked for a year in game shows…I wanted to do news and sports,” he says, wryly. “I even did Wheel of Fortune for a while, and that was fun. In fact, the director said he didn’t know for three days that I was blind.”

In 2007, a contact in Albuquerque told him about a position open at the well-regarded RTBS, one of the oldest services of its kind in the country. It only took one visit and a near-immediate offer to convince Stebbins to relocate to Nebraska, and now he is on hand to celebrate the station’s 42nd year.

RTBS uses radio as the main platform for its two primary services, The Radio Talking Book Network and Listening Link. Visually impaired listeners in Nebraska and southwest Iowa are entitled to a special receiver that allows them to access programming, which is also available online. It’s difficult to estimate listenership, Stebbins says, because RTBS has placed receivers in facilities like retirement centers where multiple users have access. The organization’s leaders know they are not reaching everyone who could benefit from the service and continually look for ways to increase awareness.

“We try to bring a variety of things, and our programming runs the gamut. It’s not like a usual radio station,” Stebbins explains. “We really try to enhance the lives of our listeners. We like to inform and entertain.”

Traditional radio stations generally focus on news-talk or music programming, so RTBN provides other material that wouldn’t typically be accessible to visually impaired individuals. Its human-voiced programming includes daily current events content from larger Nebraska community newspapers and magazines (including this one), grocery and retail ads, special interest shows from health and sports to cooking and gardening, and entertainment including nostalgic dramas from the golden age of radio, and audio from movies with special narration describing visual elements. RTBN also carries some National Public Radio programs like Morning Edition and Weekend Edition and exchanges programs with other reading services throughout the country.

RTBS’s Listening Link program provides educational content for post-secondary students.

Many volunteer opportunities are available at RTBS, volunteer coordinator Sybil Mahan says, and close to 100 volunteers provide reading services. Potential readers have to go through an audition process because “It is a talent to read out loud,” she explains. Some RTBS readers do professional voice talent gigs and have in-home studio space, but to maintain high audio quality, most readers report to the RTBS studios in the organization’s offices at 7101 Newport Ave. near CHI Health Immanuel Medical Center.

Volunteers tend to stick around, Mahan adds. “We have had people here for 26 to 30 years and that’s pretty wonderful to have.”

“It’s a good service and people here are just so good to work with,” Stebbins says.

RTBN strives to meet the needs of listeners who not only share the common trait of visual impairment but represent all ages and countless interests, Stebbins says. So, they broadcast a wide variety of programs with very little replay 24 hours a day. Because RTBN doesn’t use ratings research services like Nielsen Audio (formerly Arbitron), direct listener feedback helps shape content decisions.

Naomi Marion, a listener and RTBS board member, began listening to RTBN after losing her vision eight years ago.

“It’s valuable to me because I can’t read the newspaper, and it’s nice to know what’s going on in the world,” she says. “I think my radio stays on 24/7.”

Visit rtbs.org or call 402-572-3003 or 800-729-7826 for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha.

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