“The writer has to write what he has to say, not speak it.”
– Ernest Hemingway

Not one to be accused of keeping Papa Hemingway’s terse, powerful sentences from his fans, Jackie Bullock is happy to work overtime to keep information and entertainment flowing to the blind, sight impaired and those who simply cannot read through WRBH-FM Reading Radio, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We just celebrated our 30th anniversary in New Orleans,” WRBH-FM program director Bullock says. “And that’s a lot of enjoyment and information for a lot of people.”

Bullock is talking about more than 16,000 listeners throughout the week, who otherwise would have a closed door to the outside world. And while other such reading assistance outlets for the print-challenged have sprung up around the United States from time to time, all others have either gone silent or cut their programming back, leaving WRBH as the only round-the calendar and round-the-clock reading programming in the country.

That’s a lot of information going out to a lot of people. And it’s all handled ever so deftly by a rotating cadre of about 150 volunteers and six full-time employees operating on an annual budget of $273,500.

“It gets a little tough at times,” Bullock says. “We’re not a United Way agency and we don’t do on-air fundraisers like public radio.

And we don’t receive ongoing funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” She continues, “We rely on grants and underwriters such as Rouses Markets, Whole Foods and Entergy, and book dealers such as the Maple Street and Garden District bookshops. We’ve been in dire straits a few times, but ‘angels’ and our fundraisers, like our Pat Browne (blind golfer) golf tournament and our gala, which we have about every three years, have pulled us through.”

Bullock has been at the center of activity at WRBH-FM, now located in a former private two-story home on Magazine Street near Louisiana Avenue, for about 18 years.

“Actually (I’ve been) working here for about 14 years,” she says. “But I was a volunteer before that for maybe five or six years. I came here when my middle son, who is now 27, was in the second grade at St. George’s (a private school on nearby Napoleon Avenue). My son’s teacher was a reader here, so she took the kids on a field trip and I happened to chaperone. I didn’t know anything about the station. I had never heard of it at the time.” Bullock continues, “When we came, the kids got a tour of the station and they got to listen to some of the people who were reading. I was blown away by this, because I didn’t know anything about this place, and at the time I was involved in a writing group at the CAC (Contemporary Arts Center) and one of the things we would do was stage readings of people’s work. So I knew I could be a good reader because I had done it so often. So I auditioned and I got to be a reader and it was just the highlight of my week to come into the station. I fell in love with it. And, it’s always been that way because it had always been populated by an interesting cast of characters: the staff, the volunteers …”

As if on cue, a volunteer walks in off Magazine Street and chats up Bullock. He launches into a story about the time he was doing a reading of a book about the mafia.

“We have our standards and the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has certain ‘no-no’ words,” the volunteer says.

“Well, there were a lot of ‘F’ words in that book, as you could imagine, it being about the mafia. Well, when I got to one, I’d change it to ‘friggin’ and when that became somewhat overdone, I’d start using, ‘foot’ – as in ‘Oh foot!’ But I mean, can you just see a big tough mafia guy running around saying, ‘Oh foot!’ all the time. I don’t think so …”

Bullock is smiling and knowingly shaking her head – as she should. She auditions everybody who comes in and wants to volunteer as a reader.

“Reading is not an easy job,” she says. “Some people have a great talent for it, others grow into it. A lot of people think you can walk right in and start reading. But, that’s not the way we do it. You have to be here for about a year before you can begin as a reader. And, I always tell people the way we have to present the information is we say we’re going to act as your eyes, but we’re not your brain. One of the things I make people sign when they fill out the form is that you cannot editorialize … even if you’re reading something that you violently disagree with. You still need to read it in a way that the person cannot tell your own opinion on it. I’m a very liberal person, and there’s a whole lot of very conservative issues that I might not enjoy reading, but I have to read it as though I believe it.

“Watch those inflections,” Bullock says. “It’s very difficult to get fired from here once you become a volunteer, but a sneer, or if I can tell you’re putting your own spin on something, well … Can you imagine if you were watching the news and Angela Hill sneered when she read something? That would just be awful. I’ll give you an example: We had one girl who had to read an article about Master P (a hip-hop musician). And evidently, she couldn’t stand Master P. She starts reading, ‘Master P, otherwise known as Percy Miller … what a stupid name! She actually said this, ‘What a stupid name!’ When she came out I said, ‘Sorry, we no longer need you.’ And she got defensive. She said, ‘Well, he is an idiot!’ Well, I tried to explain to her that the article was not about him being an idiot. It was an article about him as a man and somebody out there is interested in hearing that. And you don’t put your own spin on it. That will get you fired quicker than anything.”

Nor should anybody coming through the doors for an audition come in expecting to be the next Brian Williams, Bullock says.

“The vast majority of people come in and they understand,” she says. “We have very few divas, very few high-maintenance people. Most people understand that this is an altruistic thing. They realize it’s not their time to shine and be the radio star. They know they’re reading something that someone out there is very interested in hearing and it’s up to them to impart that information on them. And that without them, without their voice, the person on the other end will never know.”

And so it goes. Readers will read and listeners will listen: The Times-Picayune (yes even The Times-Picayune, culled these days from various sources), The Wall Street Journal, Healthways, New Horizons, Dollars and Sense, Parenting, Military History, Soap Opera Digest, and so it goes.

Apologies aside to Ernest Hemingway.

For more information on WRBH Reading Radio, visit their website, wrbh.org or call 899-1144.