Braille Monitor                                                                               July 2006

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Handmade Music

by Rusty Marks

From the Editor: The following story first appeared in the Wednesday, March 29, 2006, edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The reporter approached longtime Federation leader Ed McDonald and his wife Karen with the idea of doing a story about the couple's radio program. Because the subject was music and broadcasting, Ed and Karen did not make a special effort to discuss blindness. The subject naturally came up, but it was clearly only an interesting sidelight. It is refreshing to have a reporter treat blindness as just one characteristic. Here is the story:

Ed McDonald

Ed and Karen McDonald have a big house in Keyser, a recording studio, and their own radio show. Can fame and fortune be far behind?

"If I were a good business person, I wouldn't be doing this," said Ed McDonald. "We've never turned a profit on it."

"But we've got a lot of nice equipment," Karen chimed in.

Every Friday at 11 p.m., listeners to West Virginia Public Radio can hear "Sidetracks," the radio show Ed and Karen put together from their Keyser home.

The program culls the best of today's acoustic music, with roots in the traditions of folk, bluegrass and blues. "It's kind of like handmade music," Ed McDonald explained of the program's format. "It's the difference between having a handmade wooden chair as opposed to a plastic stack chair. You can sit on both of them. You could listen to synthesized music, but there's something more natural about listening to acoustic music."

Ed is fifty-six, Karen a year younger. They first met in elementary school and even dated in the fourth grade. "He brought me a box of candy," Karen recalled.

But while Karen remained in West Virginia, for years directing the Fairmont Youth Experience community choir, Ed left for a career in broadcasting, working at West Virginia radio stations before going to Ohio University for a master's degree in broadcasting. He worked at college radio stations in Ohio and Kentucky before a need to reconnect with his Appalachian roots brought him back to West Virginia in 1988.

Moving back to his native Keyser to care for his ailing mother, Ed reconnected with his childhood sweetheart as well, and the couple eventually married. Ed, a lifelong bluegrass fan, wanted to produce his own show. The idea eventually expanded into "Sidetracks," which has existed in its current format since 1998. The weekly radio program is heard on community radio stations and Web radio as far away as California.

First heard on small local stations in West Virginia, the show was picked up by West Virginia Public Radio in the fall of 2003. Selections on the program are the result of Ed's experience in radio and Karen's trained musical ear. A piano player and singer who played saxophone in high school, Karen is instrumental in picking the music that is featured on the show each week. "I was doing radio before we were married, but she brings her ear to it," Ed said. "She screens a lot of the stuff before I even hear it."

"You should see my desk," she said. "It looks like a cyclone."

Karen McDonald

What "Sidetracks" listeners can't tell over the air is that Ed and Karen McDonald are both blind. They don't make a big deal out of it, and not being able to see doesn't affect the product that comes over the radio. "It doesn't take me any longer to listen to a three-minute song than anyone else," Ed said. "But getting ready is time-consuming." Each week Karen goes through the stacks of CDs to decide which might be suitable for the show. Special devices scan the CDs and can read the titles, but a sighted friend spends several hours a week reading CDs for the McDonalds.

Karen labels each CD in Braille, and makes a 3-by-5-inch index card for each track. "What we end up with is a library of cards that represent songs," Ed said. Around the middle of the week he starts listening to songs on the CDs and decides which tunes fit best with the theme of that week's show. The theme for March 24 was in honor of women's history month, but often Ed listens to several tunes and lets the theme develop itself.

He then writes a script of transitions between songs and sequesters himself in his twelve-by-twelve-foot basement studio to put the show together. Using an eight-track digital tape machine, Ed records songs on part of the tape and his voice on another. "When I have all those ingredients on a multi-track tape, I mix those down to a CD master," he said. The CDs are then put in the mail to radio stations all over the country.

"I could say on one hand blindness has nothing to do with it," Ed said. "You could say blindness has everything to do with it. My ears were my connection to the world, so I listened to a lot of radio. Blindness probably had something to do with my getting into radio."
"I'm a music person in my soul," Karen said. She would be a musician whether she could see or not.

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