Should the Radio Talking Book Be Privatized?
By Tom Scanlan
"Privatization" is a leading buzz word in some political circles these days. It is based on the idea that private industry can do almost anything better than government can do it.
Senator Cal Larson (Republican from the Fergus Falls area) introduced a rider to the appropriations bill funding State Services for the Blind (SSB) in the 1994 legislative session ordering discussions to privatize the Radio Talking Book. We opposed that move and got the legislation changed to conduct a real study of the issue (see "Legislature Orders Study of Radio Talking Book" in the Summer 1995 Minnesota Bulletin).
Tom Scanlan and Eric Smith represented the NFB of Minnesota in the study. The American Council of the Blind of Minnesota, the United Blind of Minnesota, the Friends of the Communication Center, and the Rehabilitation Advisory Council of the Blind also had two representatives each. Commissioner R. Jane Brown, Assistant Commissioner Dick Davis, and Communication Center Director David Andrews represented the Department of Economic Security and State Services for the Blind.
The study revealed the following information:
the direct cost of running the Radio Talking Book (RTB) in 1995 was $396,000,
the Communication Center provided an additional $277,000 worth of support services (engineering, shipping, Brailling, etc.),
the rest of SSB provided $17,000 worth of services,
the total cost of operating and supporting the RTB for 1995 was $690,000, and
the Friends of the Communication Center contributed only $15,000 to the RTB (just 2% of the total cost).
The RTB staff conducted two surveys. The first was a survey of other radio-reading services around the country. That survey found that no service that had been privatized had survived. All remaining services needed extensive public funds.
The second survey was of the RTB users. SSB has distributed 7,000 radios but has no way of knowing how many are in use. SSB mailed 6,500 survey forms and received 1,180 returns. That is a good response to a survey, especially in the short time allowed. The survey showed the following principal results:
three-fourths of the RTB users are elderly (65 or older),
less than half the people listen to their radio every day,
two-thirds listen to the newspapers,
less than half listen to other items,
most people consider the newspapers as most important, and
the vast majority is satisfied with the service.
The Friends of the Communication Center provided an outline of their plan for managing the RTB. This plan included a nonprofit public/private structure similar to the Minnesota Historical Society that receives 80% of its funds from the state but is managed by a private Board of Directors. The plan also included an organization chart showing what the Friends thought was needed to manage and operate the RTB.
The financial data, the two surveys, and the Friends' plan were very important to the study to answer the main questions of:
what is the problem,
would privatization fix it, and
could the Friends of the Communication Center successfully operate a privatized RTB?
The survey of the RTB listeners, the discussion from the representatives of the blind consumer groups, and the comments from the public at two public meetings clearly show that blind people do not think there is any problem to fix. Only the Friends see a problem in that they believe SSB pays too much attention to its other programs such as vocational rehabilitation and independent living. The Friends believe that blind people (especially the elderly) must be just sitting around waiting to get a radio, and SSB is not doing enough to provide one to those poor unfortunate people.
The plan and organization chart provided by the Friends just as clearly show they lack the financial, engineering, and management ability to operate the RTB. When they were asked about major gaps in their plan such as the source of funding and key functions lacking from their organization chart, their answer was always "we'll figure that out later."
All the participants in the study, except the Friends, agreed that there was no problem to fix. Commissioner Brown and Assistant Commissioner Davis repeatedly stated their willingness to meet with the Friends and work with them to improve distribution of radios and on any other issues. The Friends' final response was that they would take over the RTB or they would disband.
The Department of Economic Security said it would write a report to the Legislature with the results of the study. The report was to be circulated to all the study participants for agreement, and anyone who did not agree could attach their own statement. However, two months after the last meeting and half way through the legislative session, there is no report. The legislation does not require a report, and we do not believe one is needed from the department. We have already informed the Legislature of the results of the study.
Of course there is always the chance that the Friends will try to sneak legislation through Senator Cal Larson (who is also on their Board of Directors) as they did last year. We will watch for such as action and oppose it if they try. We won last year, and we will win again this year if we need to deal with it again.