GLEN GORDON: On FSCast 190 I’m joined by Rachael Bradley Montgomery to talk about escape rooms, what they are, and what Vispero has done to prove that they can be made inclusive of people with disabilities. Then Ed Potter drops in. He’s the man who created Playback, a cassette magazine where blind people turned for technology news long before the Internet.
Hello, everybody. Glen Gordon welcoming you to our podcast for October of 2020. As you listen to this, Public Beta 3 of JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion 2021 is either already out or will be out really shortly. So if you want one last chance to preview what’s about to be officially released, now is the time to get Public Beta 3. The official releases this year are coming a little bit later than usual. We had a couple of last-minute things we needed to take care of. Our projection is that they’ll be out by the middle of November. If you have the latest version of your 2020 product update, you’ll automatically be informed when the 2021 version comes out. Otherwise, check the website around mid-November, and it should be ready for you.
After last month’s episode, when I demonstrated the new Voice Assistant, got a nice piece of email from David Ward saying that he’s looking forward to using it, but he did have a couple of questions, the first being does it work well in conjunction with dictation or Cortana or other things that rely on the microphone? The answer to that is most probably yes. The Voice Assistant only is actively paying attention in one of two circumstances, either after you press the hot key to bring it to life, which is INSERT+ALT+SPACE, or when you say the wake word. In the case of JAWS that’s Sharky; in the case of Fusion and ZoomText it’s Zoomy. But other than that, and for a few seconds thereafter, the Voice Assistant is pretty much sitting there dormant. So as long as you haven’t brought it to life immediately before you want to issue a Cortana command or dictation command, everything should work just fine.
David’s other question has to do with is there a best microphone to use, especially if you’re teaching in a classroom situation. And my answer to that is any microphone that would work well for Cortana or dictation should work really well. I know there are a bunch of array microphones that are on the market. I don’t claim to be an expert on those. But Voice Assistant is not terribly picky.
Interestingly, David reminded me that he hosts a podcast called Echo Tips. And for some reason it didn’t jump out at me until I went to look that it’s tips on using the Amazon Echo. I looked at some of the history of the episodes that he’s had. It’s a great way to keep up. I don’t know about you, but I don’t always keep up with what’s going on with Alexa. And David’s podcast may be something worth checking out.
I want to remind you of our Freedom Scientific training podcast. It’s relatively new, comes out once a week, and we package up a bit of our training content and put it in podcast form. A lot of people have said it’s really great to be able to listen on your mobile device to some training and at the same time practice on the PC. So I encourage you to check out the podcast. You can go into your favorite podcatcher application, enter “Freedom Scientific Training,” and you’ll be taken right to it. If you want to find out about all things training, including our webinars, both upcoming and previous archives, you can search for Freedom Scientific training in your favorite search engine or go to FreedomScientific.com/training for all the info.
GLEN: A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to go through a virtual escape room with some colleagues. And I must admit it was a lot of fun being able to solve puzzles with the help of JAWS and not being in any way impeded by the fact that I’m blind. But not all escape rooms are that way, and our virtual escape room happened not just by chance, but out of the clever work and orchestration of Rachael Bradley of our Paciello Group. She’s on the line with me now. Rachael, welcome.
RACHAEL BRADLEY MONTGOMERY: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.
GLEN: For people who don’t know, will you talk a little about what an escape room is?
RACHAEL: An escape room is like a giant puzzle. A lot of people think that it has to be being locked in a room, but it’s really not. It can be any theme that anybody can imagine. And they are a lot of fun. You go into some kind of physical environment normally. And you figure out whatever that theme is. So it might be a theme around a candy store where you have different colored candies, and you have to combine those or do numbers or relate things on the wall like a picture to some other object in the room that you then have to manipulate. And you interact with the room until you get whatever the goal of that room is. And so it’s a fun inclusive kind of team-building activity that just requires you solve puzzles.
GLEN: Had you been to escape rooms before thinking about them in terms of accessibility?
RACHAEL: So I had been, and had had a good experience and really enjoyed them. To give you an idea where this came from, and I need to give credit to a number of other people, but the conversation really started when Matt Ater from Vispero and I were talking one day over lunch, and he had just gone to an escape room. And he came back and over lunch was like, “I just paid $30 to take a nap.” Because he’d gone with his daughter and with his family, and he wasn’t able to participate in any way, shape, or form. And that’s really where this idea was born because we got into this conversation about, well, what would it take to make an escape room accessible? What would be a fun way to adapt things? And over time we just decided we had to do it because it was too fun an idea not to.
GLEN: So we’ve done it twice now; right? We did one in person at the CSUN conference earlier this year. And then now we also have a virtual one; is that correct?
RACHAEL: That’s correct. So there are two parallel efforts, and one feeds the other. So we have an effort that is really around the physical escape rooms. It is intended to go to conferences. We had piloted it several times. It is a collaboration between Vispero and TPG and Accessible Community and Mitre Corporation. And we also got help from a local escape room called Escape Room LoCo because we were really learning how to do this. And that physical escape room is intended to go to different accessibility-related conferences or events that then let people with disabilities have this experience because it’s so hard for them to do it in the commercial escape room space.
That then has led to – because of course we did a rollout at CSUN, and then this year happened with COVID and everything else. And so some really great developers from TPG adapted what we had built into a physical space into the virtual version of it. But at the same time we’re really optimistic that at some point we’re going to get back to these conferences, and we’re building a new version of a physical escape room to go around to those conferences. So we’ve got this kind of interplay of both of them going on at the same time.
GLEN: What were some of the challenges involved in taking the standard kinds of puzzles and making them accessible?
RACHAEL: There are some kind of puzzles that work really well. So difference escape room puzzles are around physical manipulation. And those can be challenging because we really want to make sure it’s accessible for as many people as possible. So, for example, I did an escape room, and one of the puzzles was a big clear plastic box. And there was a key at the bottom that you had to get out of the box. And you used a little wire hook to insert it into the box, and you had to then manipulate, do all this very fine manipulation to get that key out. And that’s a very common escape room puzzle that you had these really fine motor control manipulations. And that’s hard to make accessible to a wide range of individuals.
And so sometimes we work around those by providing alternatives, like maybe the key lets you in, but maybe there’s a verbal interaction or password that you can use. So one of our strategies that we’ve learned to use is this redundancy in puzzles where either there’s multiple ways to solve it, and different ways support different groups of individuals. Or there’s multiple pieces, and different pieces can be solved by different groups of individuals, but they have to work together. But that motor control element in escape rooms is one challenge.
And in fact when we first started the first run-through, before we brought Escape Room Loco in, in the physical space, we had really leaned towards computers and coming up with this digital technical solutions for everything. And they came in, and they’re like, well, that’s great. But you’re creating more of a videogame than escape room because escape rooms are naturally physical activities. And so just finding that balance between technical solutions and approaches and the physicality of an escape room was probably the biggest one we had.
GLEN: And you sort of hit on something subtle, which is, for those of us who are blind, or have a particular disability, we think of the world in terms of that disability. But it’s far broader than that. And so to not be exclusionary of somebody, it takes some creative thinking.
RACHAEL: It really does. And especially – I guess our other, when we piloted, our other big lesson learned and the other challenge we ran into, is we had been thinking so much about the puzzles, we didn’t think about the team building and the interaction. And so we piloted and realized that we had not put any kind of sensitivity training in. We hadn’t put any kind of instruction about how to collaborate with other individuals with disabilities. And kind of what you’re saying, because people just naturally see the world from their viewpoint, without putting in this time to have that interaction ahead of time, it really caused some challenges; and people were being excluded, not because the puzzles were exclusionary, but because the collaboration was exclusionary. So we actually built in time, both in the virtual version and the physical version, to encourage that kind of collaboration and talk about how the individual group should work together based on the people who were there.
GLEN: Did you have particular challenges taking the physical escape room and making it virtual? It actually sounds like you almost conceptually started making it virtual and then had to go out of your way to make it physical.
RACHAEL: We did. It was a process to turn it into virtual. We actually converted my basement, and especially, you know, we’re in this COVID environment, so everything had to be shipped from the different people who had it for the different conferences back to a central location. And we just decided to do it at my home. And then we converted my basement room into the physical escape room, and then ran through all of the puzzles with different videos and different photos and created that environment, and then passed it off to developers. And they did a lot of that conversion work. But it’s been so impressive kind of how they did.
And one of the things that I love about the final result of what they did is it not only captures, I think, the interest of the physical escape room, but it even starts to be very educational around good accessibility practices in the virtual world. And so for example there’s one puzzle which would normally require a physical manipulation of a lock. And they’ve built in all the keyboard alternatives to work with that lock. And so all of a sudden not only does it make it easier to use and more accessible from the virtual side, but we’re also demonstrating just how powerful really well-thought-out keyboard alternatives are.
GLEN: Are there particular strategies that make it easier for blind people to work these escape room puzzles?
RACHAEL: So there’s a couple. One is definitely building an audio and tactile redundancy. So if you have, for example, a set of clues – and we talk about this in the virtual world, too, where you have a set of different colors, and they’re on a wall in a flat picture. You have to think about, well, how do those colors interact? So can you add some kind of tactile letter to them? Can you add the braille below them that describes the color? Can you put in an audio that matches with the color, and then whatever that ties to as a separate part of the puzzle also has the audio. So you can play with that. So that, again, redundancy is a really critical strategy.
We also like to think about high contrast, and it’s surprising how many locks and other physical objects do not have high contrast. So sometimes if we are using an object like that, we’ll have extra material. And so I’m thinking right now there’s a really nice push lock that is physical and fairly easy to manipulate, but the numbers on it are silver numbers on a silver background, and they’re not huge. So we have an overlay that sits over the lock and has high contrast numbers in braille around the lock portion so you can have that experience and still use the lock, even though the lock itself isn’t accessible.
Trying to think about text. A lot of escape rooms have something like a letter or other text content. And so one of the things we use is seeing AI in the physical escape room so that people can get the audio content back. So thinking about what can you put devices in that will allow people to interact with content, and then you can still use the same content. What I love about that strategy is it starts to go with accessibility as a superpower. And we kind of feel that a little in our virtual escape room, too, because we can provide extra information using those tools that you wouldn’t necessarily get if you chose not to use those tools. So that’s kind of a fun way through.
GLEN: Do people tend to work together? Or do people tend to sort of go off on their own, and each one wants to be the hero?
RACHAEL: So we have watched teams do both, and we let teams do their own strategy. We always tell them this, and it’s true. Teams that work together solve the escape room faster and have a higher success rate than people who go off on their own way. And that’s because people will find different things, but they never bring them back to connect. So it never works well when people don’t collaborate. Of our physical escape room, in the first run that we had of it, the team that had the best time were two individuals, both who were blind, and they beat out all the other teams by about six minutes in the timing. But they worked.
GLEN: Really. And it was just the two of them?
RACHAEL: It was just the two of them, and they just worked so well together. And so, so much of this is really – it’s collaboration, and it’s bringing things together. That is something I think is harder in the virtual environment, and one of the things I’m loving seeing about the virtual escape room is that I think a lot of us aren’t used to that virtual collaboration. We’re used to Zoom meetings, but actually collaborating together across this virtual situation that we all find ourselves in isn’t something we’re necessarily good at yet. Like we’re all still learning it. And you put people in the escape room, and they have to figure out how to work together. How do they bring content together that’s not in the same place?
And that has been fascinating to watch, too, because there are definitely strategies that work, and there are strategies that don’t. And it is very – we point out at the beginning that you have to be intentional about your inclusion in the virtual environment, that you have to be aware of what other people are doing, about how you’re talking, about not interrupting each other, because that is hard for captions. But also just being aware when someone kind of checks out because they’re not being included.
GLEN: I found it harder than I expected to be working on a puzzle that I was trying to solve myself, and at the same time track what other people were doing, even though what they were doing would contribute to how I could solve my puzzle.
RACHAEL: So that’s a great point. Did you get anything out of that experience or from your reflection afterwards on how that would better work?
GLEN: I find it hard to be involved in working with my screen reader to get something done, and at the same time be 100 percent present. Which I must admit is a surprise because I really thought I was better at multitasking.
RACHAEL: Well, I heard once that no one truly multitasks. So we just switch context faster.
GLEN: Have you gone back to the escape room that you worked with and said, “Here’s what we’ve discovered about making stuff accessible. Do you have any interest in trying it?”
RACHAEL: We have. And they were already being very proactive around trying to be accessible. So even before we had gone and talked to them, they were already thinking about this space and thinking about how, when we get individuals with vision impairments, do we support them, or when someone comes in who is deaf. And I think they have started really improving their puzzles. And we’re hoping to continue that collaboration going forward. We really – again, this is kind of a collaboration across different partners and from the accessible community side. There’s a real desire from that charity to do a lot of outreach going forward with escape rooms to try to promote them becoming more and more inclusive, and then advertising that so people know that they can have a great experience when they go to those particular escape rooms.
GLEN: So what am I failing to ask?
RACHAEL: I would like to talk I guess a little bit about the fact that for escape rooms who are working on this kind of topic, there is this “gotcha” I feel like that people don’t necessarily appreciate. And that is around the theming. If you go to an escape room, and you want to participate, usually there are levels of difficulty. And the escape rooms that are easiest are typically also themed for children, and they aren’t quite as much fun for adults. The escape rooms that are hardest, like the most mentally challenging, and kind of the most fun, especially for people who are escape room enthusiasts, tend to be more either dark or anxiety-causing. So they could be things like you are put in a straitjacket, and you have to find the key while you’re locked in a straitjacket to get out of an asylum. Like you truly are locked into a room and locked into a space.
And I would just love to see escape rooms, even if they’re just starting on this journey, think about the fact that the themes can be non-anxiety causing, but still be hard. Because I think a lot of adults want to participate in escape rooms. But if you do experience anxiety, or you’re new to them, or you just don’t want to be locked in a straitjacket, there really is a need, a gap for these themes that are more available to people. And then just, again, I believe this can be done for all escape rooms. There are really common puzzles that use color. We can do redundancy on color that require vision. We can do redundancy around that, and we can solve those problems. We can add audio to the experience that supplements any visual clues or tactile experiences, too. And I just really – I want to challenge escape rooms to do that because it creates such a richer experience.
GLEN: Well, this was fun. I’m really glad we had you on. After participating, I had no choice but to talk to you about the process of creating it.
RACHAEL: I really appreciate you letting me do so. This has been such a joy to do.
GLEN: So many of you may be thinking to yourself, well, that’s all well and good, but how do I try this virtual escape room? And the answer is, under normal circumstances, you can’t. We open it up to specific groups for particular reasons. But one of those reasons is the fact that you listen to FSCast. We’re not going to be able to let all of you try it. But if you’re interested, we’re going to bring together a group of seven of you, drawn randomly. We’ll bring you into a Zoom conference, give you a link, and together you’ll be able to work as a team to solve the puzzle. So if you’re interested, send email to email@example.com, and make sure you put “escape room” in the Subject.
LYRICS: He’s got a hot pot of Java, all steamy and black. He’s got his braille notes organized, all in a stack. He’s got his tape recorder queued to the start of the track. And now he’s sitting down to do another Playback – another Playback Magazine.
ED POTTER: Well, greetings and Happy New Year, everybody, and welcome to Playback, Edition No. 129 for January, Year 2001. Now I’ve got to remember that, haven’t I.
GLEN: For those of us of a particular generation, that is an unmistakable voice. Long before most of us ever heard of the Internet, and long before anybody thought of podcasting, Ed Potter of Greensboro, North Carolina was doing the equivalent on cassette tape with a magazine he called Playback, something he produced for nearly 30 years, that was really the best place for blind people to get technology news. I’ve thought of Ed over the years. And quite honestly, I had assumed he was dead. But I could not have been more wrong. Both he and his wife Sue are alive and well. So well, in fact, that he agreed to join me today. Ed, welcome to FSCast.
ED: Thank you, Glen. It’s a pleasure to be here. One correction. I was in Goldsboro, not Greensboro.
GLEN: I even had it written down right, and yet I said it wrong. So correction noted. Do you recall when you were growing up how your parents dealt with your blindness?
ED: Well, they took me to Duke to try to find out what happened, and nobody ever did find out. And the interesting thing is my mother never acted as though she had to take care of me more than she did the other children. And she came down on neighbors that wanted to pity me. They would say, “Let me do this.” She said, “He can do it himself.” Now, my mother was a farm lady, had a seventh-grade education. But somehow she knew that if I were going to live someday without her, I had to learn to live on my own. And I’ll always be grateful to her for that.
GLEN: Did you go to a school for the blind?
ED: I went to the State School for the Blind, which is now called Morehead School for the Blind. And there were thousands of stories about schools for the blind in those days. They were not careful about how they hired people. And some of the people they hired should have actually been in jail rather than working at the school, and it’s a pity. A lot of people I knew, most of whom are dead now, bore the scars of some of those experiences. And it’s sad. It’s different now, but it was terrible back in those days.
GLEN: How did you hold up with all of that?
ED: I really don’t know, but somehow I did. Somehow I was always kind of in trouble. But my dad, who had a seventh-grade education, as well, had any number of flourishes with the people up at the school, and he was supportive. They came to see me from Wilmington every two weeks on a Sunday. Now, this was at the time that gas was rationed. My dad worked at the shipyard, and the guys would save some of their gas ration tickets for him to have to come see me every two weeks. So I think if I made it, Glen, it’s because I knew that my dad was going to be there to get me out of anything that was going on.
GLEN: I assume you transitioned from that school to a university? Is that correct?
ED: I did. I graduated from the school in ‘52 and went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated there in ‘56. When I was 17, living in Wilmington, I was a musician, a piano player. And the manager of a local radio station heard me once with a combo. And he said, “Have you ever thought of doing a radio program?” I said, “Boy, I’d love to do a radio program.” He said, “I got 15 minutes every day at 11:00. We’ll call it ‘Potter’s Piano Ramblings.’” And I said, “There’s only one deal.” He said, “What?” I said, “You can’t introduce me by saying ‘this young blind man playing piano.’” I said, “I don’t want anybody to be told that I’m blind on the air.” And he agreed. And that’s how I got started in broadcasting.
And when I was a senior, I wanted to go to the School of Radio and TV Broadcasting at Chapel Hill. And luckily there was a counselor at the school that really kind of believed in me, thought I was a lot more than I really was. And I said, “Ms. Rawls, I want to be in radio.” She said, “I don’t believe I know another blind person in radio.” I said, “Well, I want to be in radio.” She said, “Well, it looks like it might be feasible.” And I rushed for my dormitory to look up the word “feasible.” And she made it possible for me to get interviews. And ultimately through a lot of goings on there was a willingness to accept me as the first blind person in the School of Radio/TV at Chapel Hill.
When I went to be interviewed by the dean of radio school, who was a deep-voiced, very mellifluous speaker. He listened to me and he said, “We’re going to have you come here. We think you might make out in the radio. But there are two things you need to do and work the next four years on.” I said, “I’ll do anything.” He said, “You’ve got to lower that high-pitched whiny voice. And you’ve got to get rid of that deep Southern accent of yours.”
Round 2 coming up. This is Potter’s Week on a Saturday night. June the 6th. I had to do this twice to get that date right. Missed the month and the date the first time. Of course you never heard that one. Wouldn’t it be nice if all humanity could erase their imperfections by running their lives through again? Mull over that philosophic concept for a while. Come in, Frank. End it up. We’re going to get lighter, I certainly hope.
GLEN: How was finding your first radio job?
ED: You know, Glen, I never got a job making a cold interview. None of the jobs I ever had were jobs that I walked into an office and told who I was and interviewed for it. I’ll give you a quick rundown. In the spring I was going to graduate from college. I had not really looked around yet for a regular job, and there was a guy at the WMFD who was going to manage a small radio station. I like small market radio, and I can tell you why later maybe. And so he saw me coming in and playing piano and talking, and he said, “I’m going to go start managing WRRZ in Clinton. Would you come to work for me? I can’t pay you much money.” Well, I didn’t have a job anyway, and I accepted the job.
Now, I had a buddy in college named Ted who got a job at my next employer, WTSB in Lumberton. And he talked the manager into interviewing me and listening to my stuff, and I got the job. The engineer from that station, Bill Rogers, who became a good friend, moved on to my last radio job and brought some of my jingles and stuff to that station and said, “He won’t come cheap,” but they hired me. So I never walked into an interview cold.
GLEN: So why did you like small-town radio?
ED: I liked small-town radio because people got to know you. People really got to know you. And I came up kind of in a small town. But, you know, I never wanted to go to an interview cold. That is, without their knowing I was blind. Now, people differ with me on this. But I won’t say I was wonderful, but I was a pretty good broadcaster. I was certainly better than small-town radio broadcasters. And any number of times a broadcaster from a big station would stop and say, “I like your stuff, man; you have good gift of gab in those commercials. Have you ever thought of moving?” I said, “Well, I don’t know. I might.”
Now, this was on the phone. And I had to decide, do I tell him here that I’m blind? Or do I wait until I walk into his office, when he expected a sighted guy to come and interview, and tell him? And it’s a hard choice. And I always told them, and they always said, man, that’s great. I’m glad. It’s wonderful how you can do that. I’ll get back to you. And guess what? They never did. And they probably kept me away from some jobs I might have received because I was good in interviewing. If I could get in there and talk to people, I could usually get done what I wanted to get done. So it was a hard choice to make.
GLEN: What happened after radio for you, career-wise?
ED: Well, I came home one night, and I said, “Sue, I want to do something else. I want to go back to college.” And she came from an educated family, and she said, “Let’s do it.” We had two children: a seven-year-old daughter, a four-year-old son. And I said, I want to go back and major, get a master’s degree in speech communication and try to teach in college. So I gave them – one of the things that happens in radio, Glen, is very often when somebody leaves on his own, the manager will suggest that we had to let him go for this or that. On January 1st, 1969, I told all the people that liked to listen to me that I was leaving in June. And that’s what I did. I worked from January to June, and we moved to Wilmington, where my folks lived and where I grew up. And I wanted to try it out for a year before we tried Chapel Hill.
So I went to Wilmington and studied at Wilmington College for a year and did – I had a good time there. And so from Wilmington we moved up to Chapel Hill. Actually we lived in a little town called Hillsboro. And I was there for a couple of years, and that was it. Had a graduate degree. Sue taught chemistry during those years. And we managed. I was a piano tuner, as well. And I would put ads in the paper in Wilmington on that first year for piano tuning jobs, and I would get five or six jobs on a Saturday to give us some money. Now, the state agency, I’m glad to say, was willing to pay for my college tuition. So that was fine. But once again, I entered into a job that I’d never hit cold. If you’ve got time for the story, I’ll tell it to you.
GLEN: Oh, please do.
ED: I was in Whiteville, the last job I had. They had opened a college there, Southeastern Community College. And I interviewed all kind of people on the air, had little group sessions on the air. They knew what I could do. My main idea was to go back there. We liked little towns. And I wanted to go back there and teach at Southeastern Community College. When I came close to being finished at Chapel Hill, I wrote the dean, whom I knew very well. I said, “If you have any openings in speech, I’d love to interview for them.” And his return letter was. “I’m glad to see you got through grad school, Ed. But I’ve got to be honest with you, I have grave reservations about how a blind person would function in a classroom.” And that was it. And after I got the letter from Southeastern Community College, I had no idea what we were going to do.
When I was working in Lumberton, my second job in radio, there was a 16-year-old kid, a very talented young guy that I hired at night. He went on to law school, but he was a real admirer of my work and everything of this nature. It was when I was kind of blue, wondering what the hell I was going to do, that I ran into this young kid, Woody. He said, “Ed, I’ve been looking for you.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Aren’t you about ready to graduate?” I said, “Yeah, why?” He said, “I was finishing law school, and I really wanted to go to work at a community college. I went to Goldsboro, and the guy who’s president there described what he wanted in a person, and I said, ‘It’s not me, but I know who it is. His name is Ed Potter, and he’s just graduating.’”
I got a call from the president. We went down to Goldsboro. I went into the president’s office and stayed for an hour and a half. And blindness never came up. I said, “This guy isn’t going to hire me.” And he said, “It’s been really great to see you, and it’ll be even greater when you come here and work for us.” And that was the way that happened.
GLEN: That’s great, because that’s not usually what happens when people don’t discuss blindness. They’re just sort of waiting to get rid of you.
ED: He didn’t want to know. He apparently liked what I said and the way I said it, and I was going to teach speech communication. I was going to write radio spots for them and, you know, narrate them and all the rest of it. And I was there for 23 years. You know, when you’re a blind teacher, and you walk into a classroom, you wonder what they’re going to think about you. I mean, how are they going to look at me as a blind person?
I decided to turn the tables. The first day I walked into class, and I did this for several years because the students kept wanting me to do it again once they found out about it, I said something like, “It’s nice to have you here, and I want you to feel totally comfortable with your handicap.” I said, “We all have one handicap or another. I don’t have yours, but I have a great deal of empathy because you deal with it so very well.” And I know they were thinking, what the hell? He’s handicapped. We aren’t handicapped.
I said, “The fact that you have LD handicap is not something you should be ashamed of. LD is Light Dependency. You can’t go to the bathroom without turning those things on. I can because I’m not handicapped.” And it went on and on from there. And they eventually got the joke. But I think it helped them understand that I was okay because I had found something that I could do they couldn’t.
GLEN: Yeah, that’s really good. Because you covered the topic, but you didn’t cover it in the standard way.
ED: That’s right. That’s it.
GLEN: It was in the midst of all of that that you decided to do Playback; right? Have I got the chronology right?
ED: Yup. It was 1979. I was kind of interested in selling stuff. And the government was getting rid of all of its old open reel tapes, selling them wholesale for almost nothing. And so I bought some and advertised them in the magazines for blind folks. Sold a lot of them. And I wondered if they would be interested in a magazine in which we talked about equipment and audio and things of this nature. And so I sent out a sort of a sample issue to the people that had bought from me and said, “Would you be interested in subscribing to this?” And they all said they would, and that’s how it began in November 1979. And in 1990 we had so much material we started a secondary little thing called the Playback Underground, which you might know about.
GLEN: I remember it well.
ED: I did one or two little articles every time. “Products, Resources, and Trends” was one of them. And in the early days we were interested in toll-free numbers of places that you could shop for audio. But later on the members really got involved. I think it was after about the sixth or seventh issue that either Larry or John Gassman did a review of the GE Super Radio. That was that first outside interview. But we had so many more people who were talented. A guy named Tim Hendel did wonderful Reviews of the Year for us. And I did some, but the mag was really held together by what they did.
GLEN: I know of two of them, and I’m sure that there are lots more. But Jim Snowbarger.
ED: I was about to tell you that Jim Snowbarger is one of the most talented people I know, both in terms of jingle writing, in terms of humor. He was just a marvelous person. He did any number of jingles for Playback.
GLEN: One of the other people I know who contributed was Mike May, who’s made quite the career doing GPS applications.
ED: Mike May did a wonderful job for us. He did reports, and he went to the Consumer Audio show and did those things for us, too, when they came out. Mike’s a very talented guy.
GLEN: Your wife Sue played an active role, too, because one of the things that you brought to us were things that were not otherwise accessible. And so didn’t she read lots of the articles to you?
ED: She did, and we would write down what was not accessible in other forms. Putting it all together would seem hard for me now, but it was fairly simple. We had 800 or so members. And we had six cassette duplicators. I think I could do 12 at a time.
GLEN: I remember you had something at the end that you called “Potter’s Hustles,” where you were trying to sell doodads and candy and I don’t remember all the stuff.
ED: What we did, and that led to the Playback marketing that came in the middle of Playback, a little catalog business that I put together and sent out tapes to blind people. And it lasted for 31 years. I had a friend of mine at college make me an outboard tone indexer with variable pitch so I could create my tone indexing at different pitched sounds when the machine was going in fast forward. So I could fix it so that people didn’t have to slog through the whole catalog to hear what they wanted to know. They could find out by checking the right tone sequence. The first catalog I put out was 21 hours long.
GLEN: Did people actually listen to all 21 hours? Or did they go to the sections they cared about?
ED: I don’t know. But one person said that when it came, he and his friends got together and stayed up all night listening to it. So I don’t know whether they heard it all or not. But the tone indexing system that I had allowed them to skip over what they didn’t want to hear. Because if you’re going to have a catalog that long, you’re going to have all kinds of stuff that people don’t want.
GLEN: The magazine came out, what, quarterly? Or every other month? I can’t remember.
ED: Every two months, yeah.
GLEN: What caused you to decide in 2007 that it was time to bring this all to an end?
ED: Well, I was 75 years old. Technology was getting ahead of me. It didn’t come nearly as easy for me as I had hoped. And I was covering things that I wasn’t really expert at, as well as I’d like to have been. And I felt it’s time to leave it to the young kids. And that’s when I decided to bring it all to a close.
GLEN: Well, you have done a great service for those of us who grew up in those years because you couldn’t go to the Internet and just look things up. There were no really accessible sources to some of the stuff that was not so mainstream that everyone cared about it.
ED: That’s right. That’s very true. And that’s the whole reason why I did Playback.
GLEN: I thank you so much for being with us.
ED: I hope I gave you what you needed.
GLEN: And then some. Thanks again.
GLEN: If you’ve listened to Playback before and would like to talk to Ed, he’d love to hear from you. The only way is by phone, but I will serve as secretary. If you send me email to firstname.lastname@example.org, let me know that you want to talk to Ed, and I’ll send you his phone number so you can call it during normal business hours. If, on the other hand, you’ve never heard Playback before, I’m pleased to say that it’s up and available as part of the Internet Archive. So if you search for “Playback Magazine Internet Archive” in your favorite search engine, it’ll show up. The website is not the simplest to navigate to find the files. But when you do the right thing, you’ll be able to listen to them in your browser or download them. And it really is a way of looking to see how technology has evolved over close to 29 years, between 1979 and 2007, all the episodes up available on Internet Archive.
GLEN: That pretty much does it for October FSCast. I’m Glen Gordon. See you next month.