Radio Gives Young DJs A Voice At Perkins School For The Blind

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Not to boast, but the Boston area is pretty rich in radio. We have public stations, college stations, high school stations — and also an Internet radio station at the Perkins School for the Blind.

I visited with some Radio Perkins’ DJs in their state-of-the-art studio in Watertown to find out how new technology is empowering youth at the nation’s oldest school for the blind.

“I’ve been very into radio ever since I was a little girl,” Carolyn Harrington said. The 17-year-old grew up in Easton, Connecticut and recalled rocking out for hours in her bedroom while listening to her favorite pop songs.

But these days Carolyn gets to introduce music by Selena Gomez and One Direction while sitting behind a professional-grade microphone.

“I’ve always wanted to be like on the radio,” she admitted, “and now I am!”

Carolyn kicks off her hour-long, weekly show with a whispery, but authoritative, pre-produced open. In it she lets the world know, “This is Radio Perkins --with me, DJ Awesome!”

17 year-old Carolyn Harrington – a.k.a. DJ Awesome – hosts Pop Hitz Mega Mix on Wednesday evenings. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
17-year-old Carolyn Harrington – a.k.a. DJ Awesome – hosts Pop Hitz Mega Mix on Wednesday evenings. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

DJ Awesome is the teen’s “on-air” ID. She came up with it herself. Carolyn was born without sight and carries a distinctive vocal quality resulting from her premature birth.

“My show is the most popular show on campus,” the young DJ said proudly, adding, “I mean, a few weeks ago I had 11 listeners — that has never happened to me before in my life!”

Carolyn hopes to increase her numbers for “Pop Hitz Mega Mix.” Right now her biggest fans are Perkins students, alumni and her parents. They call in with music requests, questions and comments. When Carolyn first developed and piloted her show last year she remembers how hard it was to hone in on topics for talk breaks. Then a teacher suggested she focus each program by introducing timely themes.

On the day I observed, the young DJ engaged in an on-air conversation with station manager Samuel Shaw. He asked if Thanksgiving is one of Carolyn’s favorite holidays. She replied, “No, Christmas is... the only thing I like about Thanksgiving is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. That ... and the food.”

The holiday banter continued until the team was ready to hit play on the next song. Carolyn used voice commands to search for music on her iPhone.

Shaw, who’s sighted, explained how working with DJs who can’t see has been eye-opening because it’s dramatically different than at your typical radio station. For instance, many of the 30 DJs he oversees read scripts and Facebook comments via a device called a refreshable braille note-taker. Shaw also explained how communicating while a show is going out live can be tricky because in a usual broadcast situation – where the goal is to make the listeners’ experiences seamless – directions and cues are “said” through eye contact and hand signals.

“Yeah, so we have a lot more stuff that’s done with social cues or conversation cues to keep the students moving,” Shaw said, adding, “But that’s one of the challenges — figuring out how to say, ‘Wrap it up! In five minutes we're done! We’re over the limit!”

Radio scripts for the blind and visually impaired DJs are enlarged or read through a device called a refreshable braille note-taker
Radio scripts for the blind and visually impaired DJs are enlarged or read through a device called a refreshable braille note-taker (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Then there’s DJ Syrup and DJ Marvelous. They co-host a music show that airs on Wednesday evenings. Recently, they talked about their trip to the weight room at the nearby YMCA before pressing play on some Bruno Mars.

DJ Marvelous’ real name is Campbell Grousbeck. His father, Wycliffe, (Wyc) is a managing partner of the Boston Celtics. The Grousbeck Family Foundation provided a $10 million dollar gift that paved the way for the $28 million dollar Grousbeck Technology Center at Perkins.

“Campbell was born blind, like many kids here at Perkins actually,” Grousbeck said. “So it’s been a long journey for him to find his way in the world.”

That’s why Grousbeck got behind building the 17,000 square-foot center, which houses a music recording studio, assistive technology training rooms, a student-run café and the radio station. He told me his son Campbell speaks more clearly since becoming a DJ. And the 21 year-old senior isn’t just listening to music passively anymore. Now he’s presenting it and voicing his opinions.

“It just seemed to be such a natural place for these kids to literally find their voice,” Grousbeck said. “And just seeing our son as a DJ – he’s standing up taller. His name’s DJ Marvelous — I mean does that say it all?”

“We’re not here to teach a whole bunch of kids to be DJs,” said Dorinda Rife, superintendent of education programs at Perkins.

“The kids have to plan, they have to figure out the electronics. Some of our kids have increased their braille reading speed by reading off of a script because it’s so motivating to do that," she said. "And it just makes them more responsible for something that is going to be beyond their own world — which sometimes is very small for blind people."

Perkins is a private school that serves blind and visually impaired kids who can’t be sufficiently educated in their public school systems. Rife explained how the radio station, radio classes and a radio club are part of a larger strategy to help sight-challenged youth grow into confident, productive adults. She also believes adding “radio DJ” to a resume increases these kids’ post-graduation capital.

“An employer can relate to that and say, ‘huh, this kid can do a lot,’ instead of, ‘oh my gosh, this kid is blind, what do I do? I bet he can’t do anything at this job,” which Rife said is an unfortunate reality with some employers.

Only a handful of schools for the blind have radio stations, according to Rife, and she’s not surprised. Building a facility that would accommodate the students’ needs, such as providing wheelchair access, was no small task. And radio stations (like those at WBUR) are full of buttons and faders and sound boards made for people who can see.

“It’s a fantastic console, it sounds great — but it works on lights — so you can’t really see if you’re visually impaired if something is on or off,” Matt Carlson said. He works for Berklee College of Music, a partner in Radio Perkins. Carlson designed the studio and adapted the equipment, including the console. Now it’s labeled in braille.

Carlson said he’s constantly putting himself in the DJs’ shoes to improve their ability to navigate the studio’s equipment.

“Sometimes when I’m trying something new out I have to close my eyes and pretend like, ‘alright, if I can’t see how can I make this easier?”

Carlson said at this point some Perkins’ kids have gotten so good that they can run the sound board and DJ at the same time.

DJ Awesome (a.k.a. Carolyn) said she’s proud to be part of the Radio Perkins posse.

“What we say is, ‘This is Radio Perkins — possibility radio.”

Then, as we were wrapping up our interview, the teen joked that getting on this radio station (meaning WBUR) will help increase her listenership.

“And please do leave a comment on Facebook, tweet on Twitter and all that,” Carolyn added, with a smile.

For more information on Radio Perkins, or to listen to the shows, visit the Radio Perkins website

This program aired on November 25, 2013.

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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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