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Radio Reading Network director finds joy, purpose, through the air

Robert Lewis guides service for blind Marylanders

By Laura Lefavor, The Baltimore Sun

4:16 PM EDT, April 28, 2013

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As far back as Robert Lewis can remember, he has been fascinated by what he heard on the radio — he would even sneak a receiver under his pillow when he was younger so he could listen to music late at night.

Decades later, he's still feeling that joy of radio. As the executive director of the Radio Reading Network of Maryland, he's bringing it to others who need it: fellow blind people in Maryland.

"I enjoy going to work every morning," says Lewis, 63. "I've always loved radio, so I'm blessed to be able to come back to where I've started."

The East Baltimore native was born blind. After graduating from the Maryland School for the Blind in Nottingham in 1971, Lewis held odd jobs throughout Baltimore before being connected with the Radio Reading Network, which broadcasts news. Lewis has been with the network since 1980, and was named to his position in March.

The service aims to provide visually impaired people with the same access to information that others have. A team of more than 75 volunteers read publications over the air, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and even grocery store ads. Potential listeners can apply for the special radio receiver through the network's website, which also details the weekly programming.

About 2,000 people across Maryland tune in, according to Sarah Taylor, the network's executive assistant. Listeners appreciate the information, Taylor says, but it's the human voices that keep them tuning in.

"For those who can't see, hearing the volunteers read is comforting," she says. "When they hear someone turn the pages, it feels like someone is there with them."

Starting out as a production manager for the service, Lewis was in charge of interviewing and organizing the volunteers. He even wired the entire radio room himself.

"We don't have Braille on the system," he says. "I work on everything by touch and memory."

Two years ago, the network moved from Liberty Heights to the Maryland School for the Blind. Lewis has mentored students from the campus and from elsewhere, hoping to teach them about the work that goes into running a radio station and showing them options available once they graduate.

"We may have to work a little harder," Lewis says, "but I always try to show that blind people can do the same things as everyone else."

As executive director, much of Lewis' focus has also been on raising money for the nonprofit, whose funding comes from grants and private donations. In addition to adding online broadcasting to the network, Lewis is working on getting a grant to have younger readers come in to read children's books.

"I know things like that have already been read, but having a human voice to listen to that you know is there reading makes it so much different," Lewis explains.

Outside work, Lewis loves to play the drums — a 15-piece kit that he sets up himself. He has performed in Detroit, on cruise ships, even alongside Stevie Wonder in Baltimore. Even though he's no fan of the "new garbage" teens listen to these days, he also takes time to give kids percussion lessons.

According to longtime volunteers Joe and Lorraine Gordon, Lewis is as selfless now as when they first met him 20 years ago.

"Sometimes, when something is taken away from someone, it's given back in another way," says Joe Gordon, speaking to Lewis' ability to make others feel valued and appreciated above himself.

"We're so glad that he finally has been named executive director," adds Lorraine Gordon. "He really deserves this opportunity."

Lewis shrugs off the praise.

"I never just wanted to be an average blind person," Lewis says. "I've always pushed myself because I want to give back. That's what really matters to me."