Full Sail Grad Matt Carlson Helps Blind Kids Run a Radio Station

Conventional wisdom has it that when people lose one of their five senses, other senses sharpen to make up for the loss. Full Sail graduate Matt Carlson will tell you that from his experience, conventional wisdom is right.

The Recording Arts grad works with blind students at the legendary Perkins School for the Blind, Helen Keller’s alma mater. He’s helped set up and teach students to run a school radio station, “Radio Perkins,” which began broadcasting in May.

“They can hear when they’re stepping into a different room,” said Carlson. “If someone enters a room as quietly as possible, they’ll say, ‘Who just entered the room?’ They can hear things a lot quicker and better than most sighted people can. That’s what they’re relying on.”

Many of the students at the Perkins School have an appreciation for music, which is what makes a radio station such a natural fit. What wasn’t a natural fit, however, are all the lights, buttons and computer interfaces sighted DJs rely on to do their jobs.

Carlson, who attended the Berklee College of Music after graduating from Full Sail, gained radio experience working as studio manager at the Berklee college radio station. Carlson used his radio experience to come up with adaptive technology that gives students at the new Radio Perkins full control of the station.

“It’s a real professional broadcasting station,” said Carlson. “We had to incorporate Voiceover on the Mac. That’s how they can tell what’s going on. Voiceover is a program on the Mac that basically [verbally] dictates what’s going on on the screen. They load their songs from a flash drive onto the computer; they can cycle through what song they selected and then load it in the program that we use to DJ.”

Carlson programmed drum pads as a physical interface, which controls the most common DJ commands. “There’s a button that you have to push to load the song into deck A, and then there’s a button to control when deck A pauses, starts and stops,” Carlson explained.

The drum pad is also programmed with pre-recorded station IDs, with messages like, ‘You’re listening to Radio Perkins.’

Carlson had help from a blind professor at Berklee in developing a warning system that tells students when the volume gets too loud.

“We programmed a special plug-in that emits a frequency when it goes over a certain point, so the kids know it’s too loud and they can turn it down,” said Carlson.

Carlson said the students also have complete control over every audio input in the room. “Every audio input in the room is labeled with Braille,” he explained.

Carlson said the radio training is an extracurricular activity but eventually will be a class. There are 12 students, ages 15-22, working with the radio station, which hosts radio shows two nights a week. One show is called “Country Clash,” and features the back-to-back country and rock selections by two friends who have decidedly different tastes in music. Another one, “Crunchy Tunes from Space” plays newer music and ’90s sets.One student runs a sports show, talking about mostly Boston-based sports. It’s his dream to one day co-host a professional sports radio show.

Carlson said he couldn’t have predicted that he would be using his music production and engineering training in this way, but that it has been very rewarding.

“It’s a learning experience for the kids, the school and myself – so it’s a lot of fun,” said Carlson. “I’m a lot more patient now. I’m more understanding. Most of them aren’t just blind; some of them have social skills [deficits] or other disabilities, and we have to have them work as a team,” said Carlson.

Carlson said he’s also learned from the students in ways that have helped his own freelance music production work.

“It’s actually made my other projects better as well because sometimes it’s just a good idea to just close your eyes,” said Carlson. “[With music] if you just close your eyes, you can find out things much easier than if you’re using more senses.”