The genial hosts begin their evening radio program.
“And hello, everyone. This is Ann and Paul here at the studios of Radio Talking Book in Omaha.”
Ann Pelikan and Paul Stebbins, hosts of “Saturday Night at the Movies,” greet visually impaired listeners in Washington state, Canada, Michigan and Tennessee, many by name.
They transport you to a bygone world of small-town stations — a world in which homespun conversation and serial dramas mix with music hits and advertising jingles.
“Marveline called last week from Missouri,” Ann tells listeners. “Hi to Gary and Harold from Valley, Neb. Harold’s been under the weather, so Paul and I have been praying for him.” She goes on to send birthday wishes and chat about her dog, Fancy.
Soon, the listening audience hears a British voice describing being in the midst of a World War II bombing of London. It’s from a movie soundtrack, but it fits the time-warp ambience of the room.
Radio Talking Book, a reading service that daily gives voice to newspapers, magazines and books for the blind and visually impaired, offers a movie at 6:30 p.m. each Saturday. Ann and Paul’s show began in October 2010 and was an instant hit with the station’s 5,000 or so listeners.
Movies for blind people may sound strange, but the special soundtracks the service uses include commentary describing what’s happening onscreen. It’s an art to fit the description between the movie’s dialogue, and it’s done by professional services in Boston, Hollywood and elsewhere.
On this particular Saturday night, two visually impaired listeners are visiting the RTB headquarters near 72nd Street and Sorenson Parkway. They’re just across the studio wall from Ann and Paul’s control booth. Sherryl Rissi, 60, is one of the show’s faithful listeners. For Kenda Slavin, 74, experiencing a movie on the radio is a first.
That night’s movie is the 2011 movie “The Iron Lady,” for which Meryl Streep won a best-actress Oscar playing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The weekly movies are a varied lot, going back as far as the 1930s. Musicals and westerns are favorites among an audience that is mostly past 50.
“One must be brave if one is to take the wheel,” Thatcher says amid a driving lesson, years before she takes the wheel of Britain’s ship of state. Slavin chuckles at the irony.
These visually impaired ladies have an advantage over cineplex viewers of “The Iron Lady.” The movie starts in the present, when Thatcher is suffering from dementia, but it’s full of flashbacks that cover her personal and political lives.
The descriptive soundtrack clearly states when and to where we’re flashing back, something viewers might get confused about. It also explains that the present-day Thatcher is only imagining the presence of her long-dead husband, Dennis. Following the story is actually easier this way.
Without seeing, you’d swear you were listening to Thatcher herself, so good is Streep at mimicking her voice.
However, when layered sound effects compete with the narrator’s voice, it can be a challenge to make out the words.
“People who use English accents often begin a phrase with a surge of volume that then trails off to a whisper by the end of the sentence,” Slavin said. “I had trouble adjusting, but it got better later.”
She said she also misses the nuances of facial expressions she saw when she was sighted, and it can be hard to keep up with the the action.
Radio Talking Book is Nebraska’s only audio service for the blind and visually impaired, one of about 65 reading services across the nation. You won’t find it on the regular AM-FM radio dial. Subcarrier frequencies provided by KIOS, Nebraska Public Radio and by Nebraska Educational Television carry it statewide.
People whose vision qualifies them can apply to get a special radio from Radio Talking Book. You also can tune in online, at www.rtbs.org, which expands Radio Talking Book’s audience beyond Nebraska and western Iowa.
“When people lose their vision, there’s a tremendous feeling of isolation,” said John Fullerton, executive director of Radio Talking Book for 15 years. “To have those familiar voices coming through, we hear all the time that it’s such a great companion.”
Fullerton said the station’s 300 volunteer readers “make the place go.” Radio Talking Book has just two full-time employees — Stebbins, the station manager, and Fullerton. It’s funded completely by donations.
Pelikan said many visually impaired people are shut-ins who can’t get out because of their health.
“Everyone’s so grateful we’re doing this,” she said.
Stebbins got the idea for the movie feature in San Francisco, where he lived 20 years before moving to Omaha in late 2007. He said movie director Francis Ford Coppola’s brother, August, began an audio description service in the 1980s at San Francisco State University.
“It worked so well, it just sparked an emotion in me,” he said. “Being totally blind from birth, if I don’t get audio description, I’m kind of lost listening to a movie. This really brings movies to life for those who cannot see.”
John and Rita Klingman of Omaha, both 61 and blind nearly from birth, have been fans of “Saturday Night at the Movies” from the start.
“Some are better than others, as far as following the story,” John said. “But they‘re decent stories, and the language is good and wholesome. It’s decent entertainment. We like hearing the newspaper stories, but they say variety is the spice of life. Radio Talking Book has that: old-time radio shows, magazine articles, sports. It’s good stuff.”
The Klingmans can read Braille, but Fullerton said most Radio Talking Book listeners can’t.
“Most are older people who lost their vision later in life — macular degeneration, stroke, diabetes. They always enjoyed reading The World-Herald but can’t anymore. What they tell us most is, ‘I miss driving a car, and I miss reading the paper.’”
Also, evidently, going to the movies. Stebbins said he and Pelikan get about 15 to 20 calls during each of their shows. Most callers make movie requests or express their thanks for movie night.
“This is the only show we do that’s not all reading,” Stebbins said. “It’s different. One lady from Lincoln said it’s the highlight of her week.”
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