Blindskills, Inc. - Publisher of DIALOGUE Magazine
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The First 50 Years (Part Two: Where Do We Go From Here?)

by B. T. Kimbrough

The Best Of Times

By its tenth birthday in the spring of 1972, DIALOGUE had mushroomed from a bold but fragile venture of faith into an ambitious service organization with its own building and full-time staff.

The most dramatic moment of this remarkable transformation came in March, 1969, when Chicago insurance magnate W. Clement Stone offered the hopeful young charity a sort of "put up or shut up" challenge. He would match all the donations DIALOGUE could raise in the next 30 days and add $3,000 for every board member recruited during that period of time. At the end of the amazing month that followed, Don O. Nold and company (better known thereafter as "Dialogue Publications, Inc.") had raised $200,000, equal to more than one million 2012 dollars, and added several members of the local business and civic communities to the DIALOGUE board.

A short time later, prominent advice columnist Ann Landers agreed to chair DIALOGUE's national advisory board and began making references to DIALOGUE in her nationally syndicated newspaper column. The most tangible result of her endorsement was a steady stream of small contributions from many of her regular readers, which represented the first, and perhaps the largest, amount of national support DIALOGUE ever received.

Founder Nold had known for years exactly what he would do if expansion funding ever came DIALOGUE's way. The first thing he did was to buy a bungalow to house DIALOGUE's operations. This allowed him to sell his office supply business and concentrate all his efforts on the magazine. The bungalow wasn't large enough for Nold's second dream--a fully equipped recording studio where the Talking Book edition could be produced and mastered. When a two-story office building became available just down the street, Nold jumped at it, and soon 3100 Oak Park Avenue, Berwyn, Illinois, was introduced as DIALOGUE's new "World Headquarters."

The building and the new funding permitted some space for expanding the staff. To his original manuscript typists, Gen Stender and Charlotte Kratochvil, Nold quickly added a features editor who would produce a separate magazine for younger readers, more support staff, a studio director, an executive director/business manager, and a managing editor to direct day-to-day DIALOGUE operations. The studio director and managing editor worked together to audition and record volunteer readers who read the audio version of DIALOGUE in the second-floor studio for nearly 20 years.

With a lot of help from production editor Fred Gissoni, DIALOGUE had developed its own unique sound, based on frequent appearances of the actual voices of people being interviewed. In order to maximize this distinction, editors began to attend national and regional conferences with cassette recorders in hand. This gave them the opportunity to offer amazingly direct coverage of events such as the memorable moment in 1973 when members of the National Federation of the Blind staged a large demonstration outside the New York offices of the National Accreditation Council. It also offered the possibility of extended interviews, such as the 1973 conversation with NFB president Kenneth Jernigan, which appeared simultaneously in both DIALOGUE and the BRAILLE MONITOR.

Now that funds were available, freelance writers were invited to submit articles, stories and poems. A schedule of small payments was devised for submissions that were accepted for publication. With this increase in original material, a third disc was added extending the length to about six hours per issue.

As the size and readership expanded, so did DIALOGUE's influence within the blindness field. An annual Public Service Award was initiated, giving DIALOGUE personnel the chance to rub elbows with some of the celebrities in the field. Located only a few minutes from downtown Chicago, DIALOGUE's headquarters quickly became a popular place for attendees of national conventions to come for a tour and perhaps an interview. During the summer of 1974, a young lady named Carol Derouin walked into the DIALOGUE studio to record a feature about her work and life in Oregon. No one then could have guessed that the interview amounted to a visit from DIALOGUE's future publisher.

By the end of 1974, a grant was obtained from the Reader's Digest Foundation for production of a "handbook for the newly blind." Originally designed by the late Margaret Freer, a recently-blinded writer from Wisconsin, it contained contributions from most of the DIALOGUE editors at the time. Distributed under the title WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE?, it has had several revisions over the years, and continues to be offered free of charge to individuals by Blindskills. A similar project produced a handbook for job hunters called A JOB IN YOUR FUTURE.

Limits and Choices

In the spring of 1975, DIALOGUE had a readership of more than 5,000 and commanded the attention of many prime movers in the field of blindness. Officials of both the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind were complaining, just about equally, of DIALOGUE's "partiality" toward the other group, which was a pretty fair indication to the editors that they were probably doing something right.

The burning question before board members and other supporters was how to arrange to find financial support for DIALOGUE--systematic, ongoing, national (perhaps even international) support. Several classifications of reader memberships had been devised under which readers could pay a small amount per year and receive a copy of the magazine, either to keep permanently or to return when finished reading. The National Library Service (NLS) was buying a small number of copies for readers to share. Illinois Lions had continued their loyal support, and a local auxiliary called Women for DIALOGUE was setting a local fund-raising example that some backers believed--erroneously, as it turned out--could be replicated on a national level.

The board's hope was that public contributions could be channeled into an endowment fund which might eventually yield enough investment income to help with editorial costs, while reader and library contributions might eventually be sufficient to pay distribution costs. Some incurable optimists even hoped that W. Clement Stone would step forward a second time with another magical matching challenge grant, but it didn't happen.

Meanwhile, DIALOGUE was living slightly beyond its means, in hopes that a fund-raising solution would soon be found. The situation did not yet seem urgent. There seemed to be time to explore possible solutions.

In pursuit of general operating money, one director of development after another tried and failed to establish a sustainable local or national fund-raising program. Several fund-raising events and other schemes were tried and gradually abandoned. An effort to sell innovative new smoke detectors and fire extinguishers to readers failed to generate enough sales to satisfy the distributors.

At the same time, publisher Nold was looking for a way to subsidize distribution of the magazine. Since NLS was buying a few hundred copies to divide among participating libraries, Nold conceived the idea of asking NLS to increase that number in order to provide a copy of DIALOGUE to any eligible blind patron who requested it. This would potentially fund all US distribution of DIALOGUE except for readers who were not eligible for NLS service.

At first, the project seemed to be going well. NLS conducted a reader survey to gauge the popularity of several magazines, and DIALOGUE finished "near the top." A contract was drawn up to place DIALOGUE on direct service to patrons who requested it, and 16,000 copies were ordered for the Spring 1978 issue of the recorded edition.

The arrangement didn't last long in the tricky landscape of bureaucratic technicalities and organizational politics. The direct service contract was canceled by NLS Director Kurt Cylke, and some suspected pressure had been placed on NLS to provide unlimited distribution of other blindness-related publications as well. Cylke explained the cancellation by saying that NLS was essentially taking on the role of DIALOGUE publisher by paying for virtually all copies of the magazine. Following the cancellation, NLS returned to its original policy of buying a limited number of copies of each issue to be shared by readers--with as many as six readers sharing a single copy.

Beginnings and Endings

By the mid-70s, each recorded issue of DIALOGUE consisted of four discs, comprising about eight hours of material, including sections of news, viewpoints, features, home hobbies and hints, fiction/poetry and a Close-Up section, described as "information in depth on a single timely topic." This was the format which characterized DIALOGUE until the late 80s when serious financial problems led to reductions in both staff and number of sections per issue.

In 1978, a large print edition was produced for the first time, using a copy of the typed manuscript originally prepared for narrators who read the recorded edition. With the expansion into print, sighted workers in the blindness field who didn't have access to Talking Book machines were able, for the first time, to read DIALOGUE on a regular basis.

As concerns about sustained funding began to deepen, INTERCOM, the separate magazine for younger readers, was discontinued, and INTERCOM editor Janet Cutler Bixby took charge of the DIALOGUE Careers section. The publisher took over the duties of executive director, and the managing editor's duties were merged into the role of studio director.

In 1980, Don Nold retired from running day-to-day operations, and the roles of editor and director were separated for much of the following decade. Louise Kimbrough became editor, while Bill Wetendorf, a charter member of the DIALOGUE staff, was named publisher.

Louise Kimbrough resigned as editor in 1983, and her successor, Nolan Crabb, was eventually named executive director/editor when Wetendorf retired in 1985. Nolan Crabb resigned in 1986, and Fiction/Poetry editor Bonnie Miller became DIALOGUE's first fully sighted editor.

Fund-raising responsibilities were gradually being transferred into the position of development director, which was held by a succession of fully sighted male executives over the period stretching from the mid-1970s through 1990. Some had successfully raised money for hospitals or other charities, but none were able to transfer that success to 3100 Oak Park Avenue. Late in 1986, the financial horizon looked so dark that one edition of the Winter issue actually announced the magazine's demise. The day was saved with a dramatic intervention by Ann Landers, a reduction in content, and a substantial downsizing of staff.

In 1987, as concern on the part of the DIALOGUE board grew that the enterprise might run completely out of money, an ambitious goal was set for Wally Adams, the last director of development, to raise $1 million per year for five years. Adams had strong ties to the organization of W. Clement Stone, and it was hoped that this relationship would help in reaching this extremely ambitious target.

When the $5 million Wally Adams campaign ended prematurely in failure, many thought the end of the line was clearly in sight. In fact, the BRAILLE MONITOR of October/November 1990 carried a story headlined "Down And Out in Berwyn, Illinois: DIALOGUE Magazine Goes Under." Indeed, the DIALOGUE board had met in August to begin arranging for termination of staff, dissolution of the corporation and closure of the magazine. Instead, Don Nold contacted Carol Derouin (now McCarl) and asked her to continue the publication of DIALOGUE under the auspices of Blindskills, the nonprofit she had set up just seven years earlier to serve blind students and their families. McCarl accepted the challenge, and DIALOGUE resumed publication early in 1991.

The transition would prove difficult for both Blindskills and the DIALOGUE board. Several tumultuous years would pass before all the assets could be transferred, the debts of the Illinois organization paid, and DIALOGUE magazine consolidated with the original Blindskills publication, LIFEPRINTS, under its slogan--"A world of ideas for visually impaired people of all ages."

EDITOR'S NOTE: To be continued in the next issue.

On to THE FIRST 50 YEARS (Part Three)
Back to THE FIRST 50 YEARS (Part One)

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