Roy Ward, Deputy Commissioner for the VA Commission for the Blind (precursor to VA Department of Blindness and Vision Impairment – DBVI) learns about new “Audio Reading Services” in Minnesota and Washington DC (The Washington Ear). Ward was a Kiwanian and an individual with blindness.
After research, Ward gathers nearly 50 people from across VA with a connection to service to people with blindness and vision impairment. The group is a mix of state employees, local Lions Club leadership, local Kiwanis club, representatives from all corners of the Commonwealth, included people involved in public/educational radio.
Richmond area Lions Clubs were very involved from the start. In fact, the Lions assumed the responsibility of purchasing the special sub-carrier radios over the first years of operation.
Ward and others raised funds from a variety of sources to raise modest start-up capital. Lions Clubs joined the effort, and like the Kiwanis Club of Richmond, have continued to help fund Virginia Voice from its earlies days through the present.
Ward became chairman of Virginia’s first Board of Directors. He hired Virginia Voice’s first executive director, Carlton Brooks, who was running WRFK, an educational radio station owned and operated by Union Theological Seminary.
WRFK is a story unto itself. It is the precursor to WCVE and public radio in Richmond. It broadcasted on an FM frequency that was simply given to the seminary by commercial powerhouse WLEE, which had no use for or interest in the then-worthless FM frequency band. Boy, did that ever change! WRFK broadcasted a mix of religious, educational and classical music programming. Later, it became the very first NPR affiliate in Richmond.
Virginia Voice for the Print Handicapped Board of Directors holds its first meeting, under Ward’s chairmanship.
1st year budget = $88K, which did NOT include money for radios.
Virginia Voice purchases its first sub-carrier frequency-tuned radios exclusively with funds raised by local Lions. Soon after, VA Voice goes on the air on a sub-carrier frequency owned by its first broadcast partner, WRFK, a radio station owned by Union Theological Seminary
The majority of the broadcast day at this time was comprised of a 2-hr morning reading of the Richmond times-Dispatch and a 2-hr. reading of the Richmond News-Leader. The “studio” was a small room at the Rehabilitation Center on the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired campus. Equipment was barebones: 2 microphones, a table, and a couple of chairs. Virginia Voice lore says the floor of this small room was covered in green shag carpeting!
Virginia Voice was originally envisioned as a statewide radio network, with 5 affiliate broadcasters using a sub-carrier frequency available at an educational radio station like WRFK. Different stations were to take different roles; board meetings would rotate through different parts of Virginia. But this never “took.” Once up and running, stations either went out on their own, either by choice or necessity. Some folded before getting on air, including one slated for Williamsburg.
Executive Director Carlton Brooks moves on and Virginia Voice hires Nick Morgan as his replacement, a position he held until his retirement at the end of 2014.
Nick Morgan hires Becky Emmett as program director in 1986. She holds that position until her retirement, also in 2014.
In the late 80s, Union Theological Seminary decided to get out of the radio business for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to reap the financial benefits from the sale of its rapidly increasing value of its FM frequency. This caused quite a stir in Richmond! Listeners were outraged that there would be no outlet for educational and NPR-generated programming and, especially no classical music! The 106.5 frequency was purchased by entrepreneurs from Tidewater area, and after passing through a few hands, is now owned by radio powerhouse Clear Channel.
WCVE FM Radio is born! Richmond public broadcasting pioneer Bill Spiller had launched and operated WCVE Public TV a decade or more earlier. With the folding of WRFK, Spiller saw a gap that needed filling – he gave classical music and educational programming a home by launching WCVE FM radio, which remains Richmond’s NPR affiliate to this day.
Spiller also adopted Virginia Voice and gave us a home that persists to this day, providing us with our broadcast frequency and technical support. Bill’s son, Mark Spiller, continues to help Virginia Voice to this day, and serves as an audio & IT engineer at VPM.
2000 - Today
Virginia Voice has grown by leaps and bounds over the years! Today we broadcast 24 hours a day/ 365 days a year. Our 125 weekly volunteer readers read from about 150 publications to create the 60+ shows we offer. Our annual operating budget has grown to approximately $400,000
VA Voice added programming and expanded broadcast hours steadily through the years. It grew listenership by building relationships with other organizations that provide services to people with vision impairment (DBVI educators, Richmond VA Medical Center’s Low Vision Center, others). Currently, we serve 11,000 listeners throughout Central Virginia through in-home radios, and and many others throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia through the use of streaming streaming devices which broadcast our programs at senior living communities and healthcare facilities. The Virginia Voice broadcast can also be accessed on Alexa through the use of smart speakers. which broadcast our programs throughout nursing homes and medical centers.
In 2018, Virginia Voice launched our Live Audio Description Program to create equitable access to the arts. Because of the pioneering work that was done during the piloting of this program, we have been able to double our community partnerships with theatres, museums, sports venues, and other event venues and significantly add to the variety in our scheduled offerings.