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My Sixteen Years as a Volunteer Reader

The audition process was as daunting as it was straightforward.

All I had to do that evening in September 1988 was sit in a broom-closet-sized recording studio and read brief selections from the Thornton Wilder play, The Matchmaker; narrate the children's classic The Three Billy Goats Gruff, describe a Gary Larson "Far Side" cartoon, read an editorial from The New York Times, an op-ed from The Wall Street Journal and pronounce, as well as I could, a list of 50 words, names and places—among them "innuendo, infrastructure, Kalashnikov, Kofi Annan, Zimbabwe and Gorbachev."

I thought that volunteering to be a reader for the Metropolitan Washington Ear—a radio reading service, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, for blind, visually impaired and physically disabled people who are unable to effectively read print materials—would be simple. Surely the organization would be delighted to have almost anyone, whether they could pronounce Zimbabwe correctly or not.

I volunteered for several reasons: The Ear's studios are in a church that was an easy five-block walk from my home. I have a reasonably pure accent that is free of any regionalisms. I enjoy reading aloud; I logged untold hours reading bedtime stories to my two children when they were young. And my friend and neighbor Les, a former newspaper reporter and novelist, takes great pride in including in his dust-jacket author's blurb the fact that he "reads to the blind." If Les could do it, I reasoned, so could I.

If I passed the audition, I assumed I would be asked to tape-record readings of chapters of books or articles in magazines—readings that, if I coughed, sneezed, wheezed or stumbled over a word or two, I could always correct by hitting the rewind button and re-recording. So it came as something of a shock when the Ear called and said, "Tom, we need a good, strong, male voice for the live reading of the Monday Washington Post."

Live reading. Two hours from 7 to 9 every Monday morning. Virtually no time to prepare, little chance to figure out how to pronounce unfamiliar words, no reprise when getting tongue-tied, only the microphone's "cough button" to spare listeners the sound of hacking and throat-clearing and no way to stop the ticking broadcast clock. The assignment was simple: read four front-page stories, all the editorials and two op-ed pieces; describe the editorial cartoon; and also read key stories in the Post's Metro, Style, Business and Sports sections. Plus "Dear Abby." And all within the two-hour broadcast time window.

The Ear's policy is, whenever possible, to have a male and female voice alternately reading articles from the Post. This gives listeners some variation when hearing what is being narrated, and readers a chance to catch their breath, rest their voices and preview the next story they will read.

During my 16 years as a volunteer reader with the Ear, I enjoyed my association with several other readers: Dale, who kindly helped break me in; Murray, who possessed a terrific baritone and stentorian voice; Christine, who gave me birthday and Christmas presents; a young woman who later was able to parlay her volunteer voice into a full-time professional announcing job elsewhere; and, finally, a guy whose apparent early morning fondness for the fermented fruit of the grape lead to his equally early departure as a volunteer reader.

I also was fortunate to have employers—first the office of university relations at the University of Maryland in College Park and later the media relations office at AARP—that supported my volunteer activity and winked when I showed up for work late on Mondays, and a usually sympathetic wife who often rose in the 6 a.m. darkness of a rainy or snowy winter morning to drive me to the Ear's studios. Given my proximity to the Ear, I was sometimes called on to be a snowbird reader, substituting for other weekday volunteers who were unable to get to the studios because of inclement weather.

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