In Their Words: Valley Eye Radio

It’s 8 a.m. on Monday morning in the Valley Eye Radio studios at WGBY in Springfield. The Springfield Republican, and other local newspapers that we read live every morning have not yet arrived. There’s breaking news on MassLive that must be printed. One of our volunteer readers has just called to say she is ill and can’t read live at 9 a.m. To make matters worse, there is a storm brewing that could affect our operations for the rest of the day.

Like most newsrooms, deadlines and challenges are part of our daily existence. We thrive on it. We know that the news must go on the air somehow, someway! The difference for Valley Eye Radio, broadcasting throughout our Valley on the sidebands of NEPR, WTCC, WHAI, and WJDF is that it is even more critical for our listeners that we stay on the air. Why? They rely solely on us to bring them their local news in many accessible ways due to their reading challenges. Our listeners are dealing with macular degeneration, suffer from Parkinson’s, or the after effects of strokes and brain injuries, among other disabilities.

Without us, our listeners—many of whom are seniors and veterans—would be at risk for social isolation and decreasing quality of life and health. We must stay on the air to keep them informed and connected to their communities and the world around them.  Many start their day at the breakfast table listening to our broadcast of the Springfield Republican at 9 a.m. on Valley Eye Radio’s special radios. Our radios are special for several reasons, including that they are easy to use—the have on, off and volume buttons only—and they are specially programed for listeners’ locations.

The “awesome threesome” of Tom, Mary, and Bill reading local news on Tuesday mornings.

How are we able to do what we do with a small budget and limited resources? After many years in the human services field, my role as director of this organization has brought me the closest to what Margaret Mead expressed years ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

And, in fact, that is what happened here in our Valley about 40 years. Valley Eye Radio began when a local group of individuals realized that people suffering from vision loss needed accessible ways to get their local news and information because they could not read on their own. Local news is a crucial way to stay connected. Since then, our job has been to keep anyone in the Valley unable to read independently on equal footing with everyone else, helping them navigate an increasingly complex 21st century world by providing them with up-to date, detailed local news and information.

In addition to reading and broadcasting the local newspapers, we also produce and broadcast our own local programming in addition to information specifically geared to their needs that may not be available from the mainstream media. For instance, we have a Senior Center program called “I Remember When” where people can talk about their memories. We also conduct interviews with local professionals and legislators. From a small group dedicated to providing the only service of its kind in our area, we have grown to over 50 dedicated volunteers and three paid staff members.

Volunteer Diane Hirtle reads the news live on air.

On Mondays we feature long time readers John and Marilyn; on Tuesdays the trio of Tom, Mary and Bill provide the local news and a lot of laughs. On Wednesdays, Pat and Maria make sure everyone gets the latest on Cookie the Shih Tzu from Garry Brown’s column “Hitting to All Fields.” Upbeat Sue and Mary keep everyone in the loop on Thursdays, and Chicopee cousins Jeanne and John are at the news desk on Fridays with their familiar banter. In fact, our listeners tell us that these familiar human voices that they rely on every day make a big difference in their lives. We are clearly more than just a non-profit broadcasting service to many!

In addition to reading, our volunteers also deliver radios to our newest listeners. Here is what one volunteer had to say recently:

“I just wanted to let you know that I delivered a radio to our newest listener in Agawam.  I was able to go right over to bring the radio. I spent two hours talking to her.  She was pleased with the reception and the ease of use of the radio. Barbara, I think this visit, and I am sure all our radio delivery visits, shows how important our service is to help form a connection to the listener with their community. Loneliness is truly an issue. Thanks to everyone who helped to make Ann’s life more full!”

It’s not just our volunteers who see the impact. A friend of a longtime listener, after she passed away, said of Valley Eye Radio: “In loving memory of a wonderful friend. Thank you for making her life so much better with your programming.”

Those grateful words clearly tell us all in the Valley why our Valley Eye Radio organization will, despite a small budget and staff, and the many constraints and challenges we face everyday, continue to carry on and live the words and legacy of Margaret Mead, and that small local group almost 40 years ago.

Barbara Loh, MSW, has acted as Executive Director of Valley Eye Radio for five years after many years in non-profit management and journalism locally. Valley Eye Radio has benefited from several CFWM grants over the years, including a 2018 Capital Grant to upgrade hardware and broadcasting software to reach more listeners in a variety of residential settings. Valley Eye Radio’s mission is to bring local news and information to Pioneer Valley residents who can no longer read independently using both special radios and, if available, other technologies. Visit us at valleyeyeradio.org or contact at (413)747-7337 if you or someone you know is interested in our services, our radios, or volunteering. Photos courtesy of Valley Eye Radio staff.