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Florida Adults with Disabilities Become Radio Rock Stars

March 21, 2017
Source: Florida Times-Union

When Benjamin Lee is on the air as part of the WPCR 1670 AM team broadcasting the Pine Castle Morning News, he frequently veers off script.

The results often leave the rest of the team laughing so hard they have a hard time keeping their composure.

During a recent show, Lee read through his “This Day in History” bits about Andrew Johnson, the first U.S. president to have impeachment proceedings launched against him by the House of Representatives; the lease for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, being signed; and Adolf Hitler outlining the basic points of the Nazi party in Munich.

He followed that serious stuff with a “Star Wars” ad lib: “I am your father,” he said, in his best deep-voiced James Earl Jones.

The Morning News is the first radio show in Florida written and produced by adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Lee and the rest of the WPCR morning crew are clients at Pine Castle, a work- and life-skills training and activity center in Jacksonville. Their live show is broadcast to most of the 13-acre campus, where other clients and staff listen in on small radios.

Among other services, the nonprofit has on- and off-campus employment programs for its 280 participants, 36 of whom live in group homes on the property. The 30-minute radio show is a recreational, social and training activity, with participants learning on-air, production, interpersonal and other skills that could lead to real-life employment.

“We’re really proud of what we’re doing here,” said Jon May, Pine Castle CEO. “Our folks are so excited about the experience.”

The show has been broadcast Monday through Friday for about 2 ½ years, initially via walkie-talkie, but for the past year in a new studio equipped with all the bells and whistles.

The crew recently celebrated the first anniversary of the Terry G. Clark Jr. Studio, which was funded by an anonymous donor in memory of a former anchor and technical producer. Clark, who dreamed of the show having its own studio, died in 2015 at age 25.

“He will be missed forever,” Lee said.

Clark’s mother, Jackie Clark-Holsey, attended the anniversary broadcast. “I feel his presence here. Terry loved being a part of the radio show,” she said. “This is truly a blessing.”

The show is broadcast on a short-range AM transmitter with future plans for a second transmitter to get a clearer signal to more of the campus, said show manager Reagan Norton, who is also the nonprofit’s training coordinator.

Norton also envisions a podcast and livestream on the Pine Castle website, which would allow the public to listen in from anywhere in the world, and expanded programming. Other clients, he said, “want to be a part of it, want more shows.”

“It’s fun. Everybody puts in a great deal of work,” he said. “This past year has been an absolute blast.”

Norton kicks off each show and occasionally adds his own humorous Jeff Foxworthy-type Southern humor. The “radio personalities” are Anna Rosado, Percival Howliet, Lori Sammons, Dan Fox, Kyle Ferris, Cambryn Doran and Blake Struss; technical producers are Desmond Parish, Datryl Morris, Charles Passley and Dawn Smith.

“It’s a good job that we are happy to do,” Sammons said.

In addition to “This Day in History” and the “Joke of the Day,” the content includes news, sports, weather, the campus lunch menu and a trivia question. Norton prepares a working script for each show, but the team is encouraged to add their own twists. “They have to be able to improvise,” he said.

Lee is the king of ad-libbing, with 90 percent of his utterances off the cuff, Norton said.

Rosado is the host, introducing the other on-air people and their segments and acting as the buffer between them. “I love it,” she said.

Howliet may be the most passionate about being a radio broadcaster. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was a boy,” he said. “I’m getting to show what I always wanted to do.”

Fox particularly loves his “Joke of the Day” spots, which compete with Lee’s ad libs to keep the team in stitches.

“What happens when you cross a shark and a cow?” Fox asked for the anniversary broadcast. “I don’t know, but I don’t want to milk it,” he said.

He burst into laughter along with the rest of the team and a crowd of observers watching through a window. “I feel like a rock star,” Fox said.

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