Blindness is not an obstacle for Alyssa Shock, WFDU DJ and FDU student

Alyssa Shock at the soundboard

Above: Alyssa Shock, FDU student and WFDU DJ, works the control panel while hosting her show "Master What?" (Photos by Dan Landau)

 

By Dan Landau

It’s 3 p.m. and “Master What?” is about to start. With a practiced hand, host Alyssa Shock manipulates the knobs and faders on the soundboard as she goes on the air. In a clear voice, she introduces herself before jumping into her one-hour radio show, broadcast on one of the HD channels of FDU’s radio station, 89.1 FM WFDU.

Unlike most of the hosts on WFDU, Shock is a student at FDU. The Metropolitan Campus junior is a psychology major and active on campus, where she is a member of the University Honors program and Psychology Club. Unlike most of the students at FDU and the other WFDU hosts, Shock, 21, is also blind.

Blind from birth, Shock nonetheless is able to do almost all the things sighted individuals do. She maneuvers her way across campus with grace to the radio station’s studios in the Linden Court Residence Halls. “I can get anywhere I’ve learned,” she says. “I memorize landmarks and instructions to get to places. One of my favorite places on campus, besides the radio station is the river. I like to walk by the river and I can hear all the geese; sometimes when I’m walking with my cane, they will hiss at me and run away.”

Hosting her own show is the realization of a childhood dream for Shock, who had a deep fascination with radio as a kid. “I was 9 or 10 and I would pretend to be on the radio. I even went so far as to record commercials from the radio onto cassette tapes, so I felt like I was actually on the air,” she says.

WFDU HD3 "on air" signAbove: The "On Air" sign in WFDU's HD3 studio.

 

Her weekly show, “Master What?” is broadcast on WFDU’s HD3 stream. Named “Masterworks,” the HD stream plays only classical music, except when Shock is on the air. Her show is a potpourri of music, trending towards pop, but also representing other genres.

“Since the HD stream is called ‘Masterworks,’ I called the show ‘Master What?’ because I deviate from the regular classical format,” says Shock. “I play a little bit of classical sometimes, but I also play country, some rock, some pop — I’m definitely a little biased toward pop. Basically, I’ll play anything. I have a Facebook page for the show and people can leave song requests there. As long as the requests are suitable for radio, I’ll play it for them.”

In breaks between songs, Shock talks about the latest science news and dishes out corny jokes and riddles. “The topics I’m talking about mainly are science news, computer scams, and weird news. I love new developments in science — psychology, physics, biology, etc.,” continues Shock.

At the radio station, Shock’s blindness is not an obstacle and with only minor adjustments, she’s able to host her show and do her own sound engineering. Unlike most blind DJs, Shock works the soundboard herself. The only accommodation to her blindness, being bits of stick-on Velcro and raised bumps stuck on certain controls, which enables Shock to navigate the board by feel.

Alyssa Shock control panelAbove: While Shock adjusts the controls in the background, a clear, rasied bump is visible on the fader in the foreground. Additions like these, allow Shock to work the soundboard herself, despite being blind.

 

“Typically blind talent has someone operating the equipment. The extra special thing about Alyssa is that she does it unassisted,” says Michael Phillips, chief engineer at WFDU. “We work with sound and lights on the console and she doesn’t see the lights, so we put physical landmarks on the consol so she can put her hand on it and find her way.”

Besides the low-tech Velcro on the console, Shock gets an assist from a more high-tech source: a screen reader. Shock makes her music playlists on her computer, which plugs into the soundboard. The screen reader is a software app that audibly narrates the text on Shock’s computer screen, including the time and song titles and lyrics. Well-accustomed to the screen reader, she has it set to read to her at the blisteringly fast speed of 450 words per minute, well above the average silent reading speed for sighted adults.

When she’s on the air, Shock manages everything by wearing two pairs of headphones at once: a pair of over-the-ear headphones for the screen reader, and a set of earbuds playing the broadcast stream of the show.

“Ten years ago, this would not have been possible at all. There’s enough technology around us now to make this possible,” says Phillips. “She has apps that talk to her and she’s so well-versed in the technology.”

“When you’re blind, you can do a lot of the same things that sighted people can do,” say Shock. “You can’t drive a car of course, but people say to me ‘whoa, you can do [insert something easy, like making a phone call]?’ and I’m just like, ‘uh, yeah, I can do that.’ Fortunately, they’ve been really great at the station. Everyone here has an open mind and lets me do my thing.”

Master What?” airs live, every Wednesday from 3 to 4 p.m. on 89.1 WFDU-FM HD3. Listen with an HD radio, on a smart phone with the I Heart Radio app or the WFDU app (Android/ Apple), and online at http://WFDU.fm. Connect with Shock on her Facebook page.