“Good evening, listeners,” intones Chuck Wolf. “Welcome to tonight’s movie screening. This one has quite the interesting history.” Wolf, a Texas Radio Hall of Fame member with thirty years of broadcast experience, sits in a cramped room in the Houston headquarters of Sight into Sound, a radio station for the blind. His sonorous, radio-ready timbre is heard by thousands of listeners across Texas and as far away as Australia, where the station has at least one devoted fan. Thanks to volunteers like Wolf, the station is able to offer everything from book readings to cooking shows.
Volunteering with Sight into Sound is his retirement gig, a place for him to keep the rust off by reading everything from news stories in the Houston Chronicle to H-E-B ads for broccoli. Every Saturday evening, Wolf introduces the station’s weekend movie screenings with a mix of film history and trivia. “You won’t believe who was considered for the lead role of this one,” he says, introducing Saving Private Ryan in early 2020. These intros have made the broadcast vet a favorite among some listeners, who relish the classic radio showman bravado Wolf brings to the sound booth every weekend. When he’s done, production manager Jim Martinez takes over with an audio description of the evening’s film. While the audience listens to the rat-a-tat of machine-gun fire and the deafening roar of overhead planes, Martinez provides a shot-by-shot description of what Tom Hanks and company are doing on screen.
“They want to make sure you can bring a script to life,” Wolf says of the Sight into Sound leadership. “So every time I go to the studio, I remind myself that I am painting a picture, even if it’s just for one listener. I have to make them see what I’m seeing.”
Sight into Sound has served blind and sight-impaired Texans since 1967. Broadcasting 24/7 from a nondescript, glass-front office building near the River Oaks neighborhood, the nonprofit station draws roughly seven thousand regular listeners. The majority now tune in online, though all programming also airs locally on sideband channels of KUHF 88.7 FM and on KUHT-TV Channel 8.
The station’s audience has limited options for learning the news, hearing about which restaurants have closed, or listening to movies. Screen-readers turn websites into audio or braille, but the software only works well when sites are designed with accessibility in mind—which they often aren’t, despite legal requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Guillermo Robles, a California man who sued Domino’s Pizza over its inaccessible website and app.) As a result, wide swaths of the internet are still inaccessible to the more than 700,000 Texans who are vision-impaired.
“One of our volunteers likes to say, ‘We are their eyes,’” says Kari Musgrove, the station’s executive director. “During the pandemic, I think that’s truer than ever.”
Not everyone who listens to Sight into Sound is blind, however. “People with everything from arthritis to multiple sclerosis find our programming useful,” Musgrove says. “Anyone who is unable to hold a book or turn pages can tune in, and we’ll do it for them.”
Musgrove’s favorite listener anecdote is about a young man named William who uses Sight Into Sound’s reading service to enjoy his favorite graphic novels. Even after moving from Houston to Florida to live with his sister, he still listened to the station. One day, he got lost, and the police were trying to help him find his family. William didn’t have his sister’s phone number memorized, but he did know how to reach his favorite radio station.
“They read me G.I. Joe,” he told the officers.
Musgrove talked to the officers and William, and ultimately helped the listener find his sister. To her, the call shows how important the station is in the lives of its fans.
“These listeners depend on us to do the things that a lot of us take for granted,” she says.
When the station started broadcasting in the sixties, hosts mostly read aloud the Houston Chronicle or a small selection of books. Over time, the programming branched out. Volunteers started reading magazines like Time and National Geographic, plus grocery ads and, eventually, movies. When technology changed, so did the name. The station switched from recording on reel-to-reel audio tape to recording on computers, and Taping for the Blind became Sight into Sound. The organization, which now has three paid employees and roughly 150 volunteers, operates on a lean annual budget of just under $400,000.
The move to digital meant more followers and more programming possibilities. The station still reads the city newspaper, but now it has a cooking program (the microwave and oven provide their own commentary, courtesy of a cook cum comedian) and a weekly tech hour, in which listeners can ask IT questions and get on-air advice. On any given weekday, a listener can tune in to a Houston Chronicle reading in the morning, listen to a midday reading of the Wall Street Journal, enjoy a tech hour in the afternoon, and catch the news again at night. The weekends offer even more special programming, like a cooking show or the traditional film readings. The tech program is a particular favorite for Carol, a longtime listener and native Houstonian.
Carol lost her eyesight after an injury in 1988, shortly after her graduation from the University of Texas at Austin. She lived in Austin for a while, then moved back to Houston in 1997. She heard about Sight into Sound, walked into the office, and walked out with a free radio.
“I love the people,” she says. “I mean, what other radio station can you just walk in, say ‘hey,’ and get a free radio?”
Twenty-three years after that first encounter, Carol remains a devoted listener. Other stations have been helpful, especially one that was once called North Texas Radio for the Blind. It was eventually renamed Reading & Radio Resource, and then it stopped production altogether in 2014. She thinks Sight into Sound is the best radio resource for blind Texans, mostly because of the sheer amount of options it gives her and other listeners.
“They taught me how to fix my Mac, and they send me a voter’s guide anytime an election comes around,” Carol says. “Not just the general election, but any election that’s happening anywhere near you. They do things that no one else does.”
One key difference between Sight into Sound and similar stations like WRBH in New Orleans is its custom recordings. Listeners can contact the station to request audio transcripts of a specific book or movie, and a few days later, a staff member or volunteer will send them a CD or audio file with the recording.
“We’ve read everything from romance novels to religious material,” Musgrove says. “We’ve read some really, really weird stuff. But if they send it, we’ll read it.”
That’s how William sated his appetite for G.I. Joe graphic novels, and in 2014, it’s how a Houston cinephile named Thomas realized he could still enjoy the films he used to love.
Thomas, 51, lost his sight after a botched Lasik surgery in 2012. Two years later, he heard about Sight into Sound during his weekly support group for the blind.
“When you’re disabled, sometimes you feel like you’re not alive,” Thomas says. “You’re in the way. You’re a burden. You’re not whole. Then I found out I could enjoy movies again, and I realized that part of who I am might not be gone.”
Thomas has an expansive cinematic palate. He loves The Color Purple, but he also loves X-Men and the Harrison Ford action thriller Air Force One. “I like anything with Kathy Bates or Ving Rhames,” he adds. “If you got one of those two, you got a movie.”
He has now made Sight into Sound’s weekly screenings a part of his routine. He gets his popcorn and his candy (“just like the theaters,” he says), and blocks out all distractions for the duration of the reading. “The only thing missing is the ticket stub,” he adds. Thomas particularly loves Wolf’s intros.
“He makes you feel like you’re watching it with a friend,” he says. “It’s like you’re sitting in the dark listening to a movie, and your buddy next to you turns and says, ‘Psst, I bet you didn’t know Al Pacino turned down that role.’”
Wolf has yet to meet Thomas, but he likes knowing that there are listeners out there who love the programming he, the other volunteers, and the station’s scant staff put together every day.
“Like my wife always reminds me, I have a face for radio,” Wolf says. “So this has always been my calling. But I’ve never done anything quite like Sight into Sound, because there isn’t anything else like this out there.”
Nowadays, Wolf doesn’t go into the studio. Since COVID-19 hit Texas, he’s been recording his movie intros and Houston Chronicle readings at home, then sending them to Martinez. The production manager is the only employee who still goes to the studio every day, but despite a few schedule shifts, the last couple of months have been business as usual for Sight into Sound and its listeners. When he reports for work, Martinez takes volunteers’ at-home recordings and splices them together for a full day of recording. The station has even added programming focused on social distancing for the blind. Volunteer and veteran Houston videographer David Halliburton invites listeners to call in and share their tips and perspectives on remaining sane during the pandemic, then he reads articles on dealing with the despair and sadness inspired by crises like COVID-19. Additions like that have helped listeners like Carol stay connected.
“The isolation has been harder than usual,” she says. “Since March, I’ve only been out of my house to go see the doctor and see family once. I can’t tell you how important it is to turn on Sight into Sound and learn about what’s going on in the world.”
“I have a provider that comes over for four hours every day to help me cook and clean, but the rest of the time, it’s just me,” he says. “In those moments, I can grab my phone, press a couple buttons, and pull up Sight into Sound. And there’s my friend.”