by Mark Riccobono
In my role as President of the National Federation of the Blind, I love attending local chapter meetings since that is the place where the heartbeat of the organization begins. The chapter meeting is my monthly grounding in what is central to our organization—connecting with our Federation family, hearing about the ups and downs members experience, sharing my own ups and downs, explaining what we are doing as a movement, and engaging in conversations about where we have been and where we wish to go together at all levels of our organization. Unfortunately, I cannot physically be at every local chapter meeting across the country. Yet some of the engagement and dialogue that I would have in person is facilitated through the Presidential Release.
Playing the Presidential Release at your local monthly chapter meeting fuels progress toward our organizational objectives by allowing me to:
These are all important to our movement, and I hope this letter helps you to have a deeper understanding of why they should be important to your chapter. Careful attention goes into the Presidential Release to ensure that it contains important information, builds relationships, and includes some humor—known as "customary endings." Good chapter meetings are busy and packed with program—which should include the Presidential Release. If your chapter is not consistently playing the Presidential Release every month, this letter is to ask you to work closely with your chapter president to make sure it is part of the monthly program.
The very first Presidential Release was made on November 12, 1973, and I first heard a Presidential Release in the fall of 1996 after I became president of the student division for the Wisconsin affiliate. The question of why chapters of the National Federation of the Blind should offer the Presidential Release at the monthly chapter meeting has been around as long as I have been in the organization, and I suspect it came up before that time. As we come to the forty-fifth anniversary of this organizational asset, it seemed appropriate that the question get attention directly from the horse’s mouth—or maybe it is the horse’s hooves since this is being composed on a computer.
The Presidential Release is a monthly communication that is planned and presented by the President of the National Federation of the Blind. It is a direct message from the President of the national organization to the members at the local level, and it is intended to be shared within a local chapter meeting. The Presidential Release was originally distributed on cassette tape to chapter presidents and other Federation leaders. In 2012 it began being distributed on a flash drive which dramatically cut the time for duplicating and distributing the release. Not too long after that we began posting the audio file to nfb.org, and starting with the August 2015 release, #441, we added an RSS feed allowing it to be podcast. Shortly after that we added a new version of the Presidential Release which is intended to reach out to members who primarily speak Spanish—the first Spanish release was November 2015, #444. In the same timeframe that we moved away from cassette tape distribution, we established a telephone number that could be called to listen to the release, and that capability was later moved to NFB-NEWSLINE where you can now find the release on the National Federation of the Blind channel. In January of 2018 we began posting the English and Spanish transcripts of the Presidential Release at nfb.org to provide access to members who are deafblind. To make sure our list is comprehensive, I should mention that the Presidential Release can also be accessed on devices like the Amazon Echo or by pulling up the NFB Connect mobile application on iOS or Android. To get the release with Amazon Alexa say, “Play the Presidential Release podcast.” In general the Presidential Release is made eleven times a year, and it is available prior to the first Saturday of the month on the website and via the podcast feed. We generally have the Presidential Release posted within twenty-four hours of recording it, and the Spanish and text versions follow later in the month. I am not aware of any Federation chapters that meet earlier than the first Saturday. Therefore every chapter should plan to have the Presidential Release at their chapter meeting as long as a new one has been produced for that month
The Presidential Release is intended to be a common bond shared among all of the chapters of the Federation. Our organization is strong because it is a wide, diverse network of chapters working on common issues. The release is also an opportunity to make the President of the Federation more personally known by the members. Obviously I cannot be at every chapter meeting, but the release allows me to share some personal reflections, information about what is happening, and some personal notes that might not otherwise be widely distributed. The release is also a reminder for members of the Federation that they can reach out directly to me to share ideas, information, and feedback. I am always surprised when a member asks if they can have my email address since it is on the Presidential Release every month.
The release is also a tool that chapters can use to spark discussion about the topics that are raised. For example, discussion of organizational priorities, the national convention, pressing legislative concerns, or new Federation projects are an opportunity for chapters to discuss how those national themes fit into the priorities of the chapter and how the chapter can contribute. The goal is to have a united organization where we coordinate work at all levels—local, state, and national—and we find ways to maximize opportunities for blind people.
The most important thing to know is that presenting the audio version of the Presidential Release should be a regular part of every chapter meeting agenda. At what point in the meeting it should be played and how it should be discussed is up to the chapter president as the individual running the meeting. Some chapters use it as the first major item of content at the meeting. Others work it in immediately before a report from the affiliate president. Still others take it in chunks so that discussion can happen after a particularly important item has been raised on the release. I caution against the release being the final item on the agenda if it has the effect of encouraging some members to beat the crowd and leave before the meeting is over. I also urge that it not be used as background noise for a break in the meeting. Both of those approaches diminish the intent and importance of the release to the Federation.
The Presidential Release should be introduced with some context for new members. chapter presidents have an opportunity to remind existing members and educate new members before every release is played about its value in bringing the chapter together with every other chapter in the nation. The preamble to the release need not be long, but it is important to remind each other why we do what we do.
Although many members think I do not know, I am well aware that the release is sometimes played at a faster speed at some chapter meetings. I do not strongly object to this practice, but I do urge that chapter presidents be sure that the faster speed works for everyone in the room. Some people have hearing difficulties, and many newly-blind people may not be comfortable with listening to things at a higher rate of speed. Thus, my preference is that the Presidential Release be presented at the speed it was intended to make sure that it is as accessible to as many people in the room as possible. The playing of the release should be thoughtfully placed in the meeting, offered in its entirety, and its presentation should be managed by the chapter president.
In 1973 when the first release was made by Dr. Jernigan, or even in July 1986 when Dr. Maurer recorded his first Presidential Release (#117), we did not have the diverse and speedy communication tools we have today. It can be argued that email, Twitter, Facebook, podcasting, and other methods of sharing information mean that the information on the release is outdated as soon as it arrives. I believe this is not the case. In fact, if you go back and listen to the release over the years you can hear some of the commonality and some of the evolution. The release is presented in my voice, and much of our other organizational communication is heard through other voices. We provide less detail about specifics of Federation activities than we once did because we can now refer people to the website. Thus, rather than giving all of the details about the program for the law symposium or our next youth STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math] program, I can discuss the overall program and refer people to other sources for the details. Additionally, the release shares information that we do not share through other organizational channels such as celebrations of new Federationists (babies and grandbabies) and new Federation marriages as well as local Federationists who have passed away. This section of the release, which I refer to as the Federation Family notes, reminds us that we are a diverse, grassroots organization where most of our contributors are not high-profile names known to all across the nation. However, many of the names are widely known because of meetings at national conventions, service on a Federation committee, or information sharing through the Federation network. More than any other tool of communication we have, the release brings the personal element of shared understanding between our leaders and our members.
When I first heard the Presidential Release in 1996, I came to know that our President was a blind man who faced the same barriers and misconceptions that I did as a struggling student at the University of Wisconsin. The national President was better at dealing with the barriers than I was, and the release helped contribute to my development of methods and skills to cope with obstacles I encountered. When I finally met Marc Maurer in person, I felt like I already knew him from the release, and it eased my nervousness about approaching the President. Similarly, it is my hope that the Presidential Release brings members of the Federation to a place where they know me and can work with me. I could write something to the members every week or send out a Tweet of the day, but it will not be as personal or as comprehensive as the Presidential Release is today. I also believe that the release is an important part of cataloguing our progress as a movement. It gives us a running understanding of the Federation’s concerns and priorities over time, and it allows us to understand those concerns through the perspective of the principal leader of the movement. The release itself has given us a mechanism for continuing to evaluate what we do and how we might do it better—hence the evolution of the ways of distributing the release and the change from a communication that went primarily to leaders to one that is easily accessed by anybody (member or not). I hasten to add that I’ve seen this availability to everyone used as a reason not to take chapter time for the release, but, as I’ve already made clear, the release is meant to stimulate discussion in the meeting and not just as another source of information.
It is also worth noting that research demonstrates that people have to be exposed to things multiple times—seven is the number used in marketing circles—before it sticks with them. Even if the Presidential Release emphasizes content that is promoted in other places, the fact that it is on the release is helping it gain importance and building understanding within the membership. A good example is that someone once said to me that they were not invited to visit the Presidential Suite at the national convention. Besides the fact that it is in the convention agenda every year and we mention it throughout the convention, I have specifically invited people to come to the suite and thanked them for coming on Presidential Releases. Why did this individual think they were not invited? I suspect because the Presidential Release may not have been played at their chapter meeting.
I have tried to make the Presidential Release authentic to my style as a leader of the Federation. I have also tried to encourage people to share ideas, topics, and customary endings that might help shape the content of the release in ways that are helpful to the Federation. While I wish to have feedback and ideas, you should know that I have avoided certain things. I frequently get requests to announce a chapter fundraiser on the release, and I have consciously decided not to open up those floodgates. I may share interesting fundraising ideas that chapters are implementing, but I do not think the Presidential Release is the correct forum for pitching candy bars and umbrellas. I invite customary endings, and I have tried to encourage people to send audio clips of young Federationists sharing those treasures. Sometimes I receive jokes which are not appropriate for the family atmosphere we want at our chapter meetings. Other times I receive cute recordings, but they are hard enough to understand that I decide not to include them. In other words, just because you send a contribution does not mean it will be included for a variety of reasons. On the whole, I never get enough feedback on things you would like to hear discussed on the release.
And now for the real customary endings:
This was the only ending on the very first Presidential Release offered by Kenneth Jernigan:
What do you call a sleeping bull? A bulldozer.
On Marc Maurer’s first release in July 1986 he offered a number of one liners but this one seems most appropriate for a customary ending:
What goes ha, ha, ha bam? A man laughing his head off.
My favorite ending from the first forty Presidential Releases I have recorded appears at the very end of #458 (February 3, 2017). This ending is delivered by me to Oriana Riccobono. I think the ending is a good one, but Oriana’s reaction is the real Presidential Release gem—you will have to pull up the episode online to hear what happens. Here is my ending:
What did the coffee say to the cream? I do not always know how to espresso my feelings, but I love-a you a latte!
As we come to the close of this Presidential Release letter, I wish to offer a few items that might be of interest. Dr. Jernigan wrote an article upon the occasion of the 100th release in 1984. That article notes that he tried to keep the release to about twenty minutes. I had not known that fact until putting this letter together. I also try to keep it to about twenty minutes, but frequently it runs longer because of the number of important topics that I want to cover. With today’s digital delivery of the release, chapter presidents can easily note the run time of the release and work that into the planning of the chapter agenda. You can read the other nuggets from the first one hundred releases in the February 1985 issue of the Braille Monitor in the article entitled “Presidential Releases” (available at https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/bm/bm85/bm8502/
We only have eleven releases a year—how come? Because we do not have twelve of course. Actually the reason is that traditionally one is not made very close to the national convention because the organization is focused on the activities of the national convention. The President does not want to scoop any of the happenings of the convention on the release, and chapters should be discussing the national convention during that month. I did not examine the archive to determine if there was ever a year when we had a release very close to the convention because there was something urgent. However, I can remember years when we have had more than eleven releases. Typically this means we do not have a release in June, but can you think of a year when we had a June Presidential Release? It happened in 2017 because the convention was late enough in July that the July release would have come out immediately before the convention.
We have mentioned the first release by other Federation Presidents. What was my first release you might ask? It was July 2014, #429. I have tried to do some different things on the Presidential Release in the time I have been putting it together. Including my family in the release has been fun—my son Austin even tries to create his own customary endings now. I also once invited the Amazon Alexa to offer customary endings—probably the first time they were offered via the cloud. If the pattern for releases holds, the five hundredth Presidential Release will be December of 2020—seems like that presents an interesting opportunity to do something fun.There are a lot of fun and interesting jobs related to serving as President of the National Federation of the Blind. The Presidential Release is one of the fun tasks to tackle. It is not always that the news to be delivered is joyful, but the release itself—what it represents and the bond that it allows me to strengthen with members of the Federation—is really important to me and valuable to our organization. I hope that you will join me in that bond by making the Presidential Release a priority at Federation chapter meetings. Equally as important, I urge you to continue contributing to that bond by giving me feedback and sending customary endings—I would love to put more young Federationists on the release. If you have great customary endings but no young Federationists to deliver them, send them anyway—I have three members that I go to when a recording is needed. It is my honor to be a part of every chapter meeting within the National Federation of the Blind. I hope to get to your chapter in person very soon. Even if I cannot be there in person, I appreciate that I have the opportunity to offer my perspectives at the meeting. In many large organizations the primary leader serves at a distance to the members. That is not the Federation way, and I am glad to continue the tradition of direct engagement with members at all levels. Remember that together with love, hope, and determination we transform dreams into reality. Let’s go build the National Federation of the Blind.