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Seeing-eye radio: Station helps the blind help themselves
Seattle Times staff reporter
Let your eyes dance over the words. Maybe this is the first newspaper you've read today. Maybe it lingered on your coffee table for a day or two before you got to it. Maybe you read the sports first, took a peek at local news and then dove into the supermarket ads to see what was on sale.
But what if you couldn't see at all? What would you do then?
Listen to program samples
"Grocery Cart" (1:03, MP3)
Front page of Tacoma News Tribune (:51, MP3)
"Entertainment West" (1:02, MP3)
"Contemporary Living" (1:01, MP3)
The specials, and a little more
"Good day, shoppers," the woman says into the mike, her voice as gravelly as her delivery is smooth. "Time for us to take a check into the grocery ads again. ... This is your host, Eileen Gruhn, with this week's 'Grocery Cart.' "
When Gruhn first heard about the show, among those offered by the Evergreen Radio Reading Service, she thought it sounded about as exciting as reading the phone book. But she soon realized the significance of the station's mission — "to enable [listeners] to function better in society. If I can provide the information in a way that's a little more enjoyable, that's a benefit."
The Evergreen Radio Reading Service (ERRS), a program of the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library, is the only such service statewide, offering live talk shows, radio dramas and news stories read aloud for the blind and visually impaired. It's one of about 100 around the country that collectively serve an estimated audience of about 1 million, according to the International Association of Audio Information Services.
Minutes after arriving at the station's downtown Seattle office, Gruhn combs through the week's supermarket ads, cultivating material, placing it in mental order. First up today is Albertson's, featuring a slew of "10-for-10" specials: yogurt, spring water, six-packs of raisins, all 10 for $10. "Cauliflower or broccoli — 10 pounds, 10 bucks," she says. "That'd be a lifetime supply at my house."
And on and on, a fusillade of chicken breasts, beef franks and soft drinks spiced with occasional commentary: "Anyone who's heard of this, please let me know, but anyway it's eight-ninety-nine." Or, "I guess you have to be a young person to like some of this stuff."
For 35 years, the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library, one of 57 such libraries nationwide and a branch of Seattle Public Libraries, has served people unable to read normally. Director Gloria Leonard says the agency serves about 2.6 percent of the state's population, mostly through loans of its 300,000 books on tape and in large print.
The reading service, wholly funded by donors, is just another way for the library to deliver information to patrons. Maybe they're blind. Maybe they're experiencing macular degeneration, so they have only peripheral vision. Or maybe they've got a disability that makes it hard for them to hold a magazine or newspaper. Mostly elderly, their minds are active and eager even if their eyes and bodies are not.
"I can honestly say that what you do has made a world of difference in one patron's life," reads a letter received from a library staffer last year. The writer spoke of her frail, 90-something father, who zealously embraced the radio service after he got one of the specially tuned receivers required to listen in.
That's the thing: You won't find ERRS on your car radio. And other than on weekly call-in shows, listeners barely register a pulse except to complain when a show doesn't run or to lodge pleas with legislators whenever the program is targeted in budget-reduction talks.
"There's no way of knowing [how many people we're reaching]," says volunteer producer John Stone. "We just really have to have faith that we're doing it."
Treats for Hoss
Five minutes to 6 on a Wednesday evening, and Randy Hayhurst walks into the broadcast booth wearing shades and a backpack. One hand holds two glistening soft-drink cans, the other a harness hitched to a guide dog named Hoss.
"The taxi driver was like, 'What's the address?' I said, 'Drop me on Ninth and Lenora, southwest corner. The dog will know.' "
Eleven years ago, Hayhurst was a Frito-Lay salesman, at the wheel of a sports car that slid under a pickup at 50 miles an hour. When he came out of a coma 45 days later, he was blind, which is how he and Hoss came to meet five years later.
In the meantime, while launching a disabled-friendly computer lab, he'd started hosting a pre-recorded show for Evergreen called "Meet the Celebrity." One show went so well, they asked him to do it live; now he hosts the station's monthly computer-technology segment.
Broadcaster John Pai pokes in. "We've got a couple minutes," he says.
"Where are my headphones?" Hayhurst says, feeling around the desktop until Pai places them in his grasp. Hoss camps under the table, slurping his paws as Hayhurst goes on the air.
The weekly talk show might showcase guests from the Wing Luke Asian Museum or Seattle's Early Music Guild, but the monthly tech segment is its most popular. A fan of the automotive radio show "Car Talk," Hayhurst tries to keep the conversation punchy, his talking wristwatch signaling time gone by.
Hoss bears the brunt of his humor. "Remember, folks, for every call, Hoss gets a treat," he says.
Evergreen runs on the strength of 100-plus volunteers. Some, like Hayhurst and co-host Daniel Makus, are visually impaired themselves or know people who are.
Such services typically transmit on secondary, low-powered audio signals borrowed from other radio outlets; Evergreen broadcasts in Seattle, Spokane and the Tri-Cities on specially pre-tuned receivers provided free to eligible listeners.
Topography often interferes with the signal, and all of Evergreen's approximately 1,600 receivers are checked out, with a three-year waiting list. It's an ineffective system, which is why this fall the agency will pilot an Internet broadcast with a grant from the Washington Council of the Blind.
But let's go to the phones: "Oh, we have another caller," Hayhurst says. "That's great. Hoss is already drooling."
No Wolfman Jacks, please
Getting on the air is no cakewalk. Members of Evergreen's patron review committee evaluate potential readers for enunciation and cadence, but mostly, one host says, by "whether they would enjoy listening to your voice for any long period of time."
Jim Weston failed twice before he passed the audition. "I realized I was reading the book like this, because I was so scared," he says, speaking in the manner of an awful high-school physics teacher. "I had to get some more inflection in there."
And so he did. Now the former Spanish instructor hosts "Eastern Bargains," a wrap-up of store specials east of the Cascades. "It's a little bit of an ego boost to know you're on the radio and people are listening," he says.
But don't come in here channeling Wolfman Jack or Rush Limbaugh. "You don't want to have your enthusiasm be more prominent than the words on the page," director Leonard says. Adds Gary Christianson, a retired KIRO newsman turned Evergreen volunteer: "We're there to read the paper, not be disc jockeys."
Each morning features a different set of co-hosts. Every Monday, Christianson and co-host Ruth McRee read stories from the morning papers as broadcaster Craig Johnson monitors things from the adjacent control room. Local stories presage obituaries and business stories, with editorials and horoscopes taking up the second hour. (The Seattle Times was still an afternoon paper when the schedule was established, so it's read in the early evenings.)
"A lot of older folks grew up reading the newspaper, and it's hard for them not to," Christianson says. "One of the things I find challenging is to describe the political cartoons. ... It's hard to give a good, quick description and still have the punch and effectiveness it has in print."
"Grocery Cart" host Gruhn, a self-described ham, couldn't help but provide a bit of embellishment in her segment and, luckily for everyone involved, she found a navigable medium between no-frills reading and on-air flavor. Gradually, the comments came in: Listeners liked her little asides.
"I try to keep them to a minimum, given the mission of getting information on the air," she says. "I'm not trying to be a comedian."
Says Leonard: "Many people set their watches for the grocery ads. It helps them be more independent if they can know what's at a given store. That's what we're trying to do — make them more independent."
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company