Gatewave: Reinventing a Radio Service for the Blind
His voice is rich, friendly, and familiar. He’s
been the voice of Macy’s and announcer for the Oscars, and
every morning he opens NBC’s Today Show. Each Thursday
afternoon he goes into his home studio for another important vocal
assignment, as a volunteer for a nonprofit audio service called
“This is ‘About Your Health.’ I’m
Les Marshak. Welcome aboard.” For the next hour, Marshak
records articles about health news that will be heard by thousands of
people who are blind or visually impaired, in New York City and
around the country.
One devoted listener is Mary Najdek of Queens, New
York. She used to drive a limousine before a rare genetic condition
robbed her of her central vision. She finds Gatewave indispensable.
“It’s definitely an education.” If the service were
to disappear, she says, “It would be like shutting down the New
York Times. I would have to depend on television, and that’s
horrible.” Najdek knows that more technically savvy people can
access information through screen readers and other devices. But
she’s studied such tools and, at age 67, concedes that she’ll
probably never master them.
Gatewave is on a mission: to make the service
available to as many listeners as possible and to provide listeners
with relevant information they’d find it hard to get elsewhere.
The service is available 24 hours a day through more
than 3000 special radios in the New York area, in local hospitals and
nursing homes, through a dozen other reading services in other parts
of the country, and through the mobile app iBlink Radio. Visually
impaired persons can apply for internet access through gatewave.org.
And as of December, Gatewave can be heard nationwide by subscribers
to the National Federation of the Blind’s NFB Newsline
“Within the year, we hope to have digital
television distribution as well,” says executive director
Gordon Rothman. “It’s important that we have multiple
ways of getting our programs to listeners. That’s because New
York skyscrapers make the radios hard to hear in some places, and
many visually impaired people don’t have internet access.”
The growth of Gatewave reached an important milestone
with the election in September of John F. Robinson as president of
its board of directors. Twenty-one years ago, when Robinson was
already CEO and President of the National Minority Business Council,
he lost his eyesight to a detached retina. He received a radio that
picked up “In Touch,” the predecessor to Gatewave.
“Right from the beginning,” says Robinson, “it was
imperative for me to read the paper daily.” Ever since, the 7
am broadcast of The New York Times and the 8 am broadcast of The Wall
Street Journal have been an essential part of his daily routine.
When he became a Gatewave officer, Robinson told the
board that he looked forward to “giving back” for the
value he’s received from the service over the years. Serving
with Robinson on the board are Marshak, Gatewave’s former
president and executive director Gail Starkey, college disabilities
counselor Karen Perlman, attorney Mark Manewitz, broadcast engineer
John Lyons, and golf executive Joseph Bellantoni.
Though Gatewave is only five years old, its roots go
back to 1978, when Jim Jones, a Wall Street investor with failing
eyesight, created “In Touch” so he could stay informed,
with in-depth coverage, without needing people to read to him. It
became part of the Jewish Guild for the Blind in the 1990s.
Starkey, station manager at In Touch for 15 years,
was struck by the connections made between readers and listeners.
“Over the years,” she recalls, “I spoke to people
who would say to me that it’s not only the information they
receive or get from the service but it’s the feeling that
somebody is on their side.” Recognizing the value of that
connection, Starkey was shaken to learn that in the midst of the
national financial meltdown, JGB planned to shut down the service in
Along with veteran engineer Richard Koziol, Starkey
embarked on the reinvention of the service as a standalone system.
Once In Touch left the air, they launched an independent 501(c)(3)
nonprofit charity, arranging to deliver the new service to as many
previous listeners as possible. But with the studios at Jewish Guild
shut down, they needed a brand-new system for creating programs.
With internet connections as the backbone, they
leveraged the power of volunteer talent and in-kind contributions
from small businesses. Emax Computer Systems in Ottawa, Canada, was
recruited to maintain Gatewave’s website and server. Scheid
Technologies of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, agreed to manage the program
sequencer, which puts each broadcast on the air at the right time,
then sends it to the New York transmitter, the web, and affiliates.
Lucky Duck Productions, owned by journalist Linda
Ellerbee, donated studio time. Audio production house Mixopolis
chipped in with editing and recording help. But most of the work is
done by volunteers recording and editing in their own homes. And not
just in New York. Readers contribute programs from as far as Buffalo,
Dallas, and Ashland, Oregon.
Together, volunteers create six new hours of
programming a day, from daily newspapers to news magazines such as The
Economist and Time, to health, science, sports, and celebrity news.
For executive director Rothman, one critical goal for
the coming year is beefing up the content. “Historically, we’ve
focused on content that would interest both blind and sighted people.
Now we’re adding more material that addresses the specific
interests of our audience.” To that end, Rothman is drawing on
experience and contacts from 30 years as a producer at CBS News.
He’s recruited veteran writers, researchers, and voice talent
to build a unit that’s gathering news about blindness and
disabilities for a long-running weekly series “Our World.”
With the help of the Catholic Guild for the Blind,
Gatewave is employing an assistant to gather information about local
events and resources, to be broadcast at the end of its programs.
“You’re a lifeline to us,” says
listener Dorothy Ambrose. “Gatewave makes it comfortable for me
to keep up with current news and the announcements are clear and
informative. It is a wonderful way to start my day.” Ambrose, a
visually impaired resident of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, hears the
service over the Keystone Radio Network, one of Gatewave’s
Each affiliate pays a fee to Gatewave or provides
in-kind services. In addition to Lancaster, this arrangement makes
the programming available throughout New Jersey, Mississippi, and
Alabama, and in parts of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Florida, and
In addition to affiliate fees, Gatewave’s main
financial source is individual contributions. In 2015, the
organization plans to solicit corporations to underwrite programs, in
the style of public broadcasters, and to apply for government support
and foundation grants.
According to one recent
statistic cited by the American Foundation for the Blind, there are
four million blind or partially blind adults in America, of whom 75%
are not in the labor force. AFB President and CEO Carl Augusto, in a
letter of support for Gatewave, noted the importance of the radio
service to these people. “There is simply no other source of
that information for a large segment of the population with vision
loss … It deserves the support of the community and the
financial support of corporations, foundations, and individuals
interested in ensuring people with vision loss are not shut off from
From the Winter 2015 edition of NMBC Better Business
Magazine, published by the National Minority Business Council