From People to politics, radio serves Md.'s blind residents

24-hour network airs news, features read by volunteers

March 20, 2000|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

From a tiny radio studio in Northwest Baltimore, the written word comes alive for those who can't see.

Around the clock, seven days a week, Radio Reading Network of Maryland has been broadcasting to the blind for more than 20 years, with 100 volunteers reading newspapers, poetry, best-selling novels, comics and even food ads.

What began in 1979 as an enterprise for a few thousand Baltimore-area listeners has grown to a statewide network. Today, it's piped into the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville, where a number of the residents are losing their eyesight because of aging and illness.

For listeners such as Allan Martin, 86, a retired bank vice president who began losing his sight eight years ago, being able to hear the news read on the radio keeps him in touch with Baltimore events.

"I can't do what I want to do, so I have to take what's possible for me to get. I'm very grateful for the opportunity," he said from his home in Charlestown, where he listens to articles from The Sun and other newspapers on the network several times a week.

For others, who have been blind since birth, the reading network has long been an important connection to the sighted world.

Robert Lewis is a long-time listener, and works as the network's production manager and volunteer coordinator.

In the network's studio in the back of Baltimore City Community College on Liberty Heights Avenue, Lewis manipulates dozens of levers and dials with a sure touch.

Born blind, he was educated at Maryland School for the Blind and was a member of an Olympic wrestling team in the 1970s.

The radio network helps put him on par with sighted people. "I value it a lot, because people who can see don't understand [that] you need to know as much as anybody else," he said.

One of the most popular shows is the one on which the food ads from The Sun are read. Blind people, said Lewis, often hire sighted people to help them shop for groceries, so knowing in advance what's on sale often is crucial.

"You don't know what it's like to be at somebody's mercy," he said.

Lewis runs the daily operation of the radio station, and screens and hires the volunteers who read on the air.

He's very selective.

"It's tough enough to lose your eyesight -- you shouldn't be inflicted by bad voices," said Lewis.

One of his favorite voices belongs to veteran volunteer Gail Parker, who also does professional voice-overs for commercials.

At the Radio Reading Network, each week she reads People magazine with expressive inflections suited to its celebrity and pop-culture news.

"I love to do this," she said during a recent break from reading on the air. "When I was in high school, I went to a church with a blind pastor. He had always said, `You have an interesting voice. You should read someday for the blind.' "

Behind the scenes of the $150,000-a-year operation is executive director Mary Jo Pons, who started as a volunteer when the network first began, reading from the News American. She later joined the board and served as chairwoman from 1987 until 1994.

"My first edict as [chairwoman] was that the comics must be read," she said.

The network was started by Dan Freedman, a Baltimore real estate broker who has suffered from sight loss his entire life due to retinitis pigmentosa.

During the 1970s, he was intrigued by radio reading networks for the blind in Chicago and Los Angeles, and approached Mayor William Donald Schaefer about starting one in Baltimore. With an annual city grant and free studio space at the Community College of Baltimore, the network was launched in 1979.

"You don't realize how important the little details are that you miss when you're unable to look at them," Freedman said of the printed word.

The station got off the ground with the help of the Lions Club, whose members gave one-station radios to the blind, said Pons. The receivers are used today, although the signal also can be picked up through Maryland Public Television.

Today, listeners can hear text from several major newspapers, magazines and best-selling novels.

"Being totally blind is rough," said Pons. "If it wasn't for the reading service, blind people would be pushed aside."

Donations or questions about how to tune into the network can be directed to the Radio Reading Network of Maryland, 2901 Liberty Heights Ave., Baltimore 21215, 410- 462-8580.

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