Wondering about those voices you’re hearing as you check out the TV listings on cable channel 2?
It’s Central Kentucky Radio Eye, a nonprofit organization that broadcasts the reading of newspapers, magazines, books, Sunday sale ads, newsletters – even an exercise program – all day, every day for the blind and disabled.
The Lexington-based service made its way to Frankfort earlier this year on Frankfort Plant Board cable. The 24/7 audio programming now plays as the TV listings scroll on the screen.
Until now, Frankfort residents in need of the service had to sign up for special radios or go online.
“I’ve noticed for some of our listeners in Frankfort, in some areas, the radio reception can be spotty,” said Amy Hatter, executive director of the 22-year-old organization.
“So having it be available on the television like that, it comes through very clear, and there’s no signal issues or anything like that.”
In addition to special radios, CKRE broadcasts on cable TV in Lexington. It’s also in hospitals in Lexington, Louisville, Mount Sterling, Richmond and Georgetown, online and on smart phones through the iBlink Radio app.
Hatter estimates that CKRE reached 6,000 people last year.
The organization also recently partnered with the National Federation of the Blind to join Newsline, a telephone news service that has about 2,000 subscribers in Kentucky.
Hatter started working at CKRE as an AmeriCorps VISTA, planning to stay there for a year and then start graduate school. But she loved it so much that she stayed.
“For me, it’s very rewarding, where we are so heavily volunteer based, everyone’s here because they want to be,” she said, sitting in her office a few weeks ago.
“There’s no paycheck riding on it. It’s great when we get to talk to our listeners, and whenever I get to hear how much we’ve helped them.”
One listener told her that he became depressed when he lost his sight later in life. He said just hearing the voices of CKRE readers helped pull him through it.
Another listener was born blind and with other disabilities, Hatter said. She lives at home with her parents and loves listening to the grocery store ads to pick out what she wants to eat for the week.
CKRE has broadcast 24 hours a day of local programming since 2009, when the syndicated service in New York that provided 16 hours of content a day went out of business.
Now the goal is to have a local focus, Hatter said. National publications like USA Today and People Magazine are part of the lineup, but Kentucky news dominates the schedule.
In addition to the Lexington Herald-Leader and Louisville Courier-Journal live every morning, volunteers record articles from a bevy of small dailies and weeklies in Central Kentucky, including The State Journal.
They also read from Kentucky magazines, alternative weeklies and neighborhood publications.
CKRE listeners can hear job listings and sale ads from Sunday’s newspaper. There are two interview programs and a book series broadcast for an hour each day.
There are two general health programs, along with shows about diabetes and disabilities and the People’s Pharmacy, a popular syndicated program about medicines and treatments.
There’s “Hope and Inspiration,” an hour long nondenominational program for people who are homebound and can’t get to church on Sunday mornings, a show about pets and another about cooking.
The station even runs a 30-minute exercise program five days a week, designed for people who are wheelchair-bound or otherwise disabled.
Frankfort Plant Board Cable Superintendent John Higginbotham said customers have asked for the service for several years.
The stars aligned this spring when Plant Board officials made plans to move several channels around. The TV guide channel moved to 2, and the CKRE service was introduced.
Higginbotham said he hopes the service helps not only the visually impaired, but people who are illiterate or just don’t have time to read the news. The informal agreement is at “no cost and no risk” to the Plant Board, he said.
“We thought we could hit different types of customers,” he said. “We decided to try it and see how it goes.”
Higginbotham said he doesn’t have statistics on how many people watch channel 2, but the Plant Board has 17,000 cable customers.
So far, he says most of the feedback from customers has been along the lines of, “What the heck is that on channel 2?”
“Once you explain it to them, they have a better appreciation and understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said.
“It’s probably a finite group of customers that benefits from it, but it’s something that’s out of the ordinary and provides an opportunity to listen to newspapers and magazines that they normally wouldn’t have access to.”
Higginbotham said the Plant Board relies on its customers to share feedback and ideas for programming. He welcomed input about CKRE or any other services.
“That’s the luxury of having a locally owned cable system,” he said.
“We’re always interested in listening to our customers, and the people who make the decisions are right here in Frankfort.”
With just four staff members, the organization depends heavily on volunteers.
More than 200 lend their services to CKRE each year, reading news articles on the air, running soundboards, answering phones and serving on committees.
Most are retired, but others work from home or struggle with unemployment. Hatter estimates that the average volunteer is between 45 and 60, but some are in their 70s and 80s.
The founder, Dr. Alfred Crabb, is in his 90s and still comes in to volunteer sometimes, Hatter said.
“We’ve had some people volunteer until their sight got so bad they became listeners,” Hatter said.
The organization is always looking for more help. There’s a new volunteer orientation twice a month. Experience isn’t required, but volunteers must pass an audition and have some basic computer knowledge.
The studio is located in a special wing of the Northside Branch of the Lexington Public Library.
Frieda Vinegar, a local actress and state worker, has been a CKRE volunteer for 20 years. She started just two years after Crabb founded the organization in 1990.
She heard about the program and gave her phone number to Crabb, who asked her to come to the studio – then located on the University of Kentucky campus – for an audition.
“He gave me a portion of the Courier-Journal and a cassette tape, and he showed me around the library and the recording booth,” she said.
Much to Vinegar’s surprise, Crabb played her demo tape on the air that day. She’s stayed with the organization ever since, except for a brief hiatus when her husband died.
Her job now is reading the Herald-Leader live each Sunday morning, but she’s done a little bit of everything over the years, from operating the control board to delivering radios. She has a soft spot for reading book excerpts and sentimental texts.
“It’s going to sound crazy, but I love to read, and God has given me a gift of sight, so I figure that I can put those gifts together and share them with others,” she said.
“That’s my way of giving back to the community.”
CKRE volunteers are “doing this from the heart,” she said.
“They come in during the snow, the ice, the rain – once there was a tornado warning, and we were in there in the station providing the service to those who cannot read,” she said.
“It’s that type of thing that makes Central Kentucky Radio Eye a unique volunteer agency. We touch the ones in the community that no one thinks about.”
Steven Phillip Cohen started volunteering with CKRE three years ago. The computer programmer was unemployed and looking for something that would keep him active.
The Frankfort resident already volunteered with God’s Pantry and the Friends of the Paul Sawyier Public Library, but thought CKRE would let him use his other skills.
Cohen is a semi-professional actor – he defines that as “I don’t get paid well, and you’ve never heard of me” – so he’s comfortable behind a microphone.
“It (CKRE) not only gives me something to do, and it does give me a chance to return something to the community,” he said.
“I have a talent, and I’m very glad to give it away, so to speak.”
Cohen started with The Kentucky Series of local and state magazines before moving up to USA Today. He spends an hour or more every Monday morning reading between 20 and 30 articles handpicked from the national newspaper.
“Everybody has their own way of doing it, and the radio station gives us a lot of freedom to do that,” he said.
Cohen says he and his fellow volunteers take their work at CKRE as seriously as a paying job.
People apologize if they show up even a few minutes late, he said. One volunteer is a mail carrier who reads the news on his lunch break.
Now that the organization’s website has undergone a makeover, people nationwide can listen to the 24-hour programming online. Cohen says his mother, who lives in New York, can hear his work.
He’s also happy that the stream is on Frankfort Plant Board cable. He wants people to know that CKRE isn’t just for people who are blind or disabled – it’s for anyone who wants to hear interesting stories.
“It’s a very eclectic program. We’ve had people say, ‘Why don’t you play some music?’” he said.
“But we think information is more important.”
Visit www.radioeye.org for more information about CKRE or to listen. The broadcast is compatible with smart phones.