When Stuart Holland stepped down as manager of Minnesota Radio Talking Book Network September 5, he didn’t call it a retirement. “I think more of it as a transition rather than a retirement,” Holland said. He was a state employee since 1975, and with Radio Talking Book since 1986.
“That’s a long time,” he said, “and there are too many things to do that I don’t have time for while I am in this job.”
Holland’s colleagues said he and his countless contributions to Radio Talking Book will be missed. He was saluted for his dedication to make sure everyone has access to printed material. Holland has been a pioneer in providing news and pleasure reading to countless people and has been recognized nationally and internationally for his work.
HOW IT BEGAN
Radio Talking Book predates Holland’s work for the state. The service is available to anyone who cannot read due to disability.
The first program of its kind in the world, it started in 1969 as a reading service for the blind. Volunteers and a few paid staff read newspapers, magazines, and books over the radio.
“Bill Kling had graduated from St. John’s University in 1965, went to grad school and returned. St. John’s wanted him to start a radio station, which he did. The station was originally Minnesota Educational Radio and then became Minnesota Public Radio,” said Holland. “Kling could not sell advertising for public radio, but he thought that maybe Minnesota State Services for the Blind would like a radio station. C. Stanley Potter, the director of that organization and a long-time ham radio operator, had been thinking of how to get such a station. It was a perfect meeting of the minds.”
1968 was spent doing research. The service went on the air in 1969. “Initially, it was on the air in St. Cloud and the Twin Cities and was a little paternalistic,” he said. The station organizers thought they had to “take care of those poor blind people.”
It was soon realized that the blind had the same interests as everyone else. None of the books or articles read are edited in any way. “It is almost impossible to find books without any sex or violence in them today,” he said, “and the visually impaired have the same right of access as everyone else.”
The station opened its doors in a building in downtown St. Paul on Wabasha Street, where the State Services for the Blind was located. It then moved to what had originally been a factory. “That was not a perfect location,” Holland recalled. “There were eight recording booths and a set of steps to get into the building. If we had a volunteer in a wheelchair, tough luck. They would have to record at home.”
In 1992 Radio Talking Book moved to its current location on University Avenue, into one of the best recording facilities in the country. “It’s wonderful, and so acoustically insulated,” he said. “You walk into the recording booth and once the door is shut, you cannot hear a thing, not even a fire alarm. Blinking lights are used for fire alarms.”
The number of volunteers has doubled between 1994 and 2001. “That’s because we started having teams of volunteers across the state who broadcast their local newspapers,” he said. “They would break into our signal once a day and read them. Fergus Falls was the first, in 1994. Then St. Cloud, Duluth, Rochester, Mankato and Grand Rapids.”
RADIO TALKING BOOK TODAY
Volunteers read from across the United States. “We loan them the equipment they need to do the recording. They do the recordings, then send them back to us in the mail. It works quite well,” Holland said.
Volunteers are required to take an oral reading test. “We ask them to get 92 percent of the vocabulary words correct, and we need them to know when they have made a mistake,” noted Holland. “We all make mistakes.”
After reading for a long time, volunteers get very good or become sloppy. Readers are monitored to listen for problems. The recording booths are constantly busy. Volunteers are from all types of backgrounds, from college professors to factory workers.
The station operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Programs are on automation 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., with the rest of the time being staffed. “We work that late because we have volunteers who come in, and we need people who can help with equipment and just be here in case something happens,” Holland said.
Books are aired serially. Monday through Friday, people will hear 11 hours of books, four hours of newspapers, and nine hours of programming taken from around 300 periodicals. Saturdays and Sundays only have four books, which consist of a self-help book, a book of regional interest, a book aimed at children 8 to 15, and a book of contemporary poetry. Remaining weekend programming is reading of periodicals and newspapers.
“We have a very broad cross-section of books,” Holland said, “everything from history, to romance, to political and, controversial materials, mysteries, general fiction and vampire stories. We have something for everybody.”
He doesn’t usually select best sellers for broadcast because the National Library Service covers those. “I check their list to see what is already being covered,” he said. “We have a lot of Minnesota authors who don’t make it to the bestsellers, but are perfectly good authors, and we offer them.”
Holland leaves Radio Talking Book with one more accomplishment to his credit. “In 1969, it was assumed that everyone in Minnesota should know how to speak English.”
After much thought and consultation, Radio Talking Book began offering news programs in Spanish, Hmong, Russian and Somali. Somali and Hmong volunteers are still a need.
“Now people can go to that page and find the latest in news in their language,” Holland said. “I consider that to be my signature accomplishment for my last year.”
During his tenure as manager, Holland has worked under several governors and commissioners. What he will miss most is his connection with the volunteers.
“I tell people when they start that they are joining a large family of volunteers.They don’t all know each other or interact or see each other, but many do. And we try to give them a few opportunities during the year to connect with each other. I have taught master classes for volunteers the past 17 years.”
He now hopes to take that master class and market it as a business, helping others hone their public speaking skills. Holland holds a degree in theater and may also pursue acting roles in the future.
And who knows? Holland is likely to continue as a Radio Talking Book reader and may be reading his own work someday. He is working on a couple of books as an author, one a mystery and one about his collection of German pottery.