In my role as program director at KDNK, I answered the phone on a day like no other.
“I’m blind, mostly deaf, and I’d like to do a show about travel,” the voice proposed, wasting no time. The year was 2019, a simpler time, and Nick Isenberg had recently graduated from the Colorado Center for the Blind. A longtime journalist in the Roaring Fork Valley (and beyond), “Nicky News” Isenberg was eager to apply his experience toward inspiring others with visual impairments.
“Often blind people end up just staying home … I wanted to empower them to keep living,” Isenberg reflected. Some years and 37 shows later, persisting through the pandemic, The Tactile Traveler delivers a fresh program every month, replete with stories from around the world.
Even at birth, Isenberg was making news as “the second most premature person to live” at the time he was born in 1942, he told The Sopris Sun. Weighing only two pounds and 11.75 ounces, Isenberg arrived 90 days early and spent the next 10 weeks living in an incubator. It was unknown then that the excessive oxygen pressure could cause blindness.
Isenberg lost his right eye as a baby and made the most with his left, visiting all seven continents, driving and skiing, and eventually working as a television producer and news bureau chief. Following seven surgical attempts to keep his remaining eye, including three cornea transplants, it was removed in 2019 “under ideal circumstances,” as opposed to during an emergency.
For the first time since before COVID, I returned to his home in Glenwood Springs, where a swinging gate guards the stairs ever since a newly-blind Isenberg tumbled down them. Natural light floods in and travel photographs decorate the walls. He’d grown a long ponytail since I last saw him. “I didn’t get a haircut all during COVID,” he explained. “Blind women tell me I look great.”
In more than five decades as a journalist, arriving to the Valley in 1977 for a job with KMTS, “these are the hardest stories I’ve done in my life,” he informed me. “I do stuff so different than anybody has ever done. I can’t just call a normal source,” in a story about blind birding, for example.
Only a few episodes into the show, COVID hit, complicating the premise of travel for everyone. Isenberg grew a network of global contributors — like Jason Strother, a low-vision NPR reporter stationed in South Korea — and he learned to edit audio using GoldWave, a digital software capable of dictation.
Ironically, editing audio is extremely sight-oriented. Even just navigating file folders, a task that a sighted person can complete in under 10 seconds, can take up to six patient minutes as a robot voice reads aloud every file name. “I worked on one show for three years,” stated Isenberg. “What to do if blind during a natural disaster.”
Technology has also connected Nicky News with human helpers, like Kayly Romero.
Romero, 24 years old and living in O’ahu, Hawaii, graduated from the University of Hawaii at West O’ahu in 2021 and was looking for “something to brighten my day and make me happier.” A creative media graduate, she discovered an app called By My Eyes through TikTok, a social media platform.
She joined more than six million volunteers in over 150 countries assisting hundreds of thousands of blind people with the use of smartphones. Essentially, a visually-impaired person is paired with someone who speaks their language. The volunteer is then granted access to the blind individual’s phone camera to help them with a task, such as picking out a matching shirt or turning off the air conditioning.
On her third or fourth call, Romero was paired with “the most complicated one yet,” she said. “I get this call, I answer, and it was Nick!” Nicky News, needing his program to match KDNK’s standard 26 minutes, 30 seconds broadcast length. After more than an hour of attempting to guide him, Romero offered to directly edit the clip, and thus began a unique friendship.
“Nick and I, we just hit it off really easily … He reminds me of my grandpa, with the same kind of spirit and always cracking jokes.” Isenberg shares his knowledge and Romero spends a minimum of four to six hours each month helping produce the show, while also working at a surf shop.
“This show is literally a full-time job,” Isenberg informed me. “Seven days a week, usually.” Like all public affairs hosts at KDNK, he is a volunteer, though he’d be glad to turn the project into a paid gig. The Tactile Traveler’s very first episode won the Colorado Broadcasters Association’s award for Best Small and Medium Market Community Service Radio Program, and the show was a semi-finalist for the $25,000 James Holman Prize by the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco.
“Even when I’m listening to it and editing it, I’m feeling inspired. I’m getting emotional while editing,” said Romero. “It’s uplifting listening to the stories he puts out.” She was quick to recognize that many others regularly help Isenberg as well. “It’s great he has so many people around to help him and it’s definitely a team effort … but he’s the star.”
The Tactile Traveler, “empowering blind and low vision people to explore the world and helping our sighted friends see the world in a new way,” will next air on KDNK on Tuesday, Feb. 7, at 4:30pm. You can find the archives at www.kdnk.org/podcast/the-tactile-traveler and it is available wherever you listen to podcasts.
The program is also broadcast via the Audio Information Network, where Isenberg was named volunteer of the month for February 2023. You can reach him at email@example.com