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Stroke of Genius For The Blind Ronnie Milsap Tunes in to Fans With Special Software

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from USA TODAY, Sept. 21, 2000. Photos: Ronnie Milsap website

For blind country singer Ronnie Milsap, communicating with fans has always been a challenge.

But the Internet has changed all that. Now he can read online fan mail (or rather, have his PC read it to him) and type or use dictation software to respond.

The singer, whose latest album, 40 #1 Hits, is No. 47 on Billboard's country chart, put up a Web site this summer that he can follow using a synthetic speech program.

His site offers tour dates, his biography, a message board, song previews and a live chat every Tuesday.

Before, we had fan clubs, mailings, fax broadcasts, Milsap says. (He declines to give his age, but reference books say he's 56.) But there's nothing like the spontaneity and easy access of the Internet.

The downside is that it's all-consuming: There's a lot more mail than any one person can ever answer.

Milsap sees other downsides, too. He has been an outspoken critic of the Net song-swap service Napster, and he's on the board of Artists Against Piracy. What the public can get (free) in the click of a mouse has taken me a lifetime to create, he says. It doesn't seem right.

The speech software he uses is called JAWS (Job Access With Speech, Henter-Joyce, $795). It translates text into synthesized speech a $5,000 add-on feature also converts text into Braille printouts.

I'd love to see the screen, Milsap says. But I can access everything.

We can shop, we can do e-mail, we can listen to headline news, says Curtis Chong, technology director for the National Federation of the Blind. Fifty percent of my e-mail is junk, just like you, adds Chong, who is blind.

Milsap began typing as a third-grader at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, N.C. I did 120 words per minute even back then, he says. Then, when computers and synthetic speech were invented, he latched onto the tools.

When Windows first started, because it's a graphic interface, a lot of blind users were terrified, he says. But Microsoft has been very cooperative in working out compatibility problems. America Online, which has not been accessible with screen-reading software in the past and was sued by the National Federation of the Blind last year, says it will make substantial changes in AOL Version 6.0, due out by the end of the year.

Milsap's site, updated every two weeks, has counted 110,000 visitors since the launch.

Among other music sites, Milsap likes the American Council of the Blind's online radio setup, featuring music by blind musicians. He keeps up with hometown Nashville station WSM on his laptop while traveling.

Milsap isn't selling the album on his site just yet, but he does provide a link to CDNow and Amazon.com. It's a re-release of such hits as Pure Love, A Woman in Love and Let My Love Be Your Pillow.

It also has two new songs. He says he's getting great response to 40 #1 Hits, even though the mean age for country radio right now is 16. I'm just proud to be the first country artist to have 40 No. 1s. Cable's A&E channel will devote an episode of Biography to Milsap on Oct. 12. He's not the first blind entertainer to have a Web site.

At Josefeliciano.com and Raycharles.com, you can learn about the musicians, but there is little interaction. There is a perception that if you're blind, you're not on the computer, and you're not working, Chong says. Milsap's site shows that we're out there. I hope people forget that he's blind, and just realize that he's a darn good musician.

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