Mid-morning host Chris Cuppett overcomes blindness to “make a difference”
Chris Cuppett loves working for her local radio station. Every morning she looks forward to getting out of bed, getting on the bus, and heading over to Northland Community and Technical College where she is an announcer for KSRQ Pioneer 90.1 - the public radio station that broadcasts out of the college. Not everyone can say they love their job as much as Chris does, but the road to where she is now was not an easy one.
Chris left her hometown of Thief River Falls after high school to major in music at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. She was interested in composing and had always loved singing, but it wasn’t until her sophomore year that Chris realized what she truly wanted to do.
“I just love listening to public radio,” she said. “That is my passion. That is my dream.”
Chris took up a second major in speech communications and started an internship at Concordia’s college station doing interviews with students and faculty. She thought she was on her way to a career in radio, but after graduation it became clear just how flooded the broadcasting job market was.
“Sometimes I would apply for a position, and the manager would write back and say there were a hundred applicants,” she said. “I don’t think I even got one interview.”
Unable to find work in radio, she decided to take a position at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind as a Braille teacher. Chris was blinded at birth by a condition call retinopathy of prematurity, a disease that affects the eyes of prematurely born babies, and was proficient in Braille. She also learned American Sign Language in order to teach students that were both blind and deaf.
Chris hadn’t given up on her broadcasting dreams. In the evenings, she volunteered at KFAI Fresh Air Radio where she learned how to use a control board and cue up records. She overcame her sight restrictions by labeling various parts of the control board with Braille as reference points.
Due to budget cuts, Chris was eventually laid off from her teaching job and was forced to quit volunteering at KFAI in order to focus her attention on the job hunt. Over the years she did rehab work out of patients’ homes and worked part-time at an organization for the blind and deaf called In Touch. When a full time position became available at the Mankato Rehabilitation Center, she leapt at the opportunity.
Chris worked for the program, Adjustment to Blindness, for 12 years. She traveled all over southern Minnesota, working with senior citizens who were losing their sight. She enjoyed the work she did with the elderly, but it was demanding and the stress caused by the constant travel wore her thin. Chris realized she was no longer happy, so she resigned from her position to give broadcasting another try.
“There were people who were telling me I was nuts to give up a full-time job with benefits,” she sad. “But I just knew emotionally I couldn’t hack it anymore.”
There had been many changes in radio technology since Chris had last worked as an announcer, so at age 45, she moved back to Thief River Falls to get a broadcasting degree from Northland. Chris knew the school had a good program, but she wasn’t sure how her lack of sight would affect her ability to work with a computer.
“When I came here I had very few computer skills,” she said. “And there were all these young whippersnappers who were practically born at the computer.”
Northland was equipped with a computer software called Job Access with Speech, better known as JAWS, which reads aloud the text on the computer screen. This software allowed Chris to catch-up with her peers, and she graduated at the top of her class in 2001.
Unfortunately, grades and diplomas are not guarantees, and once again Chris struggled to find work in broadcasting after graduation. She became increasingly pessimistic about her job prospects, while her peers seemed to have no trouble finding work. Chris was always very open about her blindness when applying for positions, and radio technologies were becoming increasingly more visually based. Chris started to fear that employers simply didn’t believe a blind person could do the job anymore. She started to wonder if she could herself.
Chris tried to make the best of her situation. She spent the next several years picking up rehab work where she could and working part-time as the Cantor at her church. She was underemployed and money was tight, but Chris kept pushing forward. She started taking online courses in medical transcription, but a flaw in the JAWS software made it hard for her to keep up. The program would read images as long strings of text, while sometimes skipping over entire paragraphs of information. Chris was failing the course and became frustrated and depressed. In March of this year, Chris hit her breaking point.
“I couldn’t concentrate,” she said. “I hardly knew my name it was so bad, so I knew that I needed to be hospitalized.”
Chris admitted herself for psychiatric care. She only stayed at the hospital for four and a half days, but it became an important turning point in her life. One of the psychologists who met with Chris had recently seen an ad for an organization called Experience Works and thought it might be just what Chris needed.
Experience Works, formerly known as Green Thumb, is a program designed to help low-income seniors get back into the workforce through training, employment, and community service. Chris was informed that Experience Works would train and pay for her to work at a non-profit organization, and she realized that this was her opportunity to finally work in public radio.
Chris contacted Mark Johnson, the station manager at Pioneer 90.1, who welcomed the extra help. Although the station is based out of Northland, the college only provides enough financing to cover the electric bill. The station depends on community involvement and support.
“It makes a huge difference to us,” he said. “To be able to turn over that air-time to someone as polished as Chris is a real benefit to the station.”
Chris’s sight was also no longer an issue. Northland’s IT department helped work-out the problem she was having with the JAWS software, and the Minnesota State Services for the Blind set her up with a wireless Braille display called Focus 40 Blue. This made it possible for her to read information and record audio at the same time.
Now Chris announces music on several programs: Monday through Thursday on Pioneer 90.1 from 9 a.m. to noon and Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon on the HD3 Classics station. She also does interviews for a Saturday morning program called Community Voices.
Chris cannot believe how much life has changed for her since Experience Works brought her back to Pioneer 90.1. The program provides Chris with more than just income. It provides her with purpose. She finally feels happy and fulfilled, and is so thankful to be able to give back to her community. Chris ends every broadcast with her own personal mantra, reminding her audience to never give up and to make the best out of every, single day:
“Don’t forget to go out there and make a difference.”
By Lisa Dixon, Pioneer 90.1 Volunteer Host