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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.

Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl founded the Metropolitan Washington Ear in 1974 as a nonprofit organization. Initially, the Ear was a radio reading service; listeners are loaned a radio receiver that is pre-tuned to an FM sub-channel of a local public radio station, which then broadcasts the Ear's services. Pfanstiehl notes that the Ear is now available throughout the greater metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, including parts of Maryland and Virginia. It is also available on the Ear's website ( where the radio-reading service is archived for four weeks.

Today, in addition to offering listeners selections from more than 200 publications via the radio-reading service—national and local newspapers, magazines and best-selling books—the Ear provides a dial-in service that enables visually and physically disabled persons to "read" (hear) selected publications (including the Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Afro-American, and Sunday New York Times well as Time, Washingtonian and People magazines) anytime day or night, seven days a week. Using their own touch-tone telephones, listeners can access the available publications whenever they choose. "By using the dial-in, you can control what you want to hear," Phanstiehl says. "It is one of the most comprehensive such services in the country."

Some 1,200-1,300 people use the radio reading service and almost 1,500 others access the dial-in service.

It is the more than 350 volunteers who make the Ear's services possible, Phanstiehl says. They serve, as I did, as readers, and audio describers of television programming, theatrical productions, motion pictures, and at museums and other exhibitions, for people with limited or no vision.

Volunteering is a positive, socially responsible and genuinely rewarding activity. I thoroughly enjoyed my 16 years behind the mike and hope that my reading of the morning's Washington Post was of value for listeners who otherwise did not have access to the newspaper. In retrospect, I wish that my interactions with the hundreds of other volunteer readers hadn't been limited to the organization's annual volunteer appreciation and recognition banquet. At those events, despite the fact that we all wore nametags, we usually identified ourselves to one another as "Monday Washington Post," or "Thursday USA Today" or "Wednesday Christian Science Monitor."

While there was little feedback or reinforcement of an "attaboy" kind, reading stories from the Monday Post into a microphone and knowing that someone "out there" was listening to the broadcast of my voice was a good and satisfying thing.

A directory of nationwide organizations like the Metropolitan Washington Ear is available from the International Association of Audio Information Services at (800) 280-5325 or Those interested in volunteering or otherwise getting involved with the Washington Ear can call 301-681-6636 or go to


Tom Otwell retired from AARP in July 2005 after more than 13 years with its media relations office. His 16-year "career" as a volunteer reader with the Metropolitan Washington Ear ended when, ironically, he developed cataracts. Today, he volunteers as a docent at the National Museum of Natural History's "Insect Zoo" and as a tutor at the University of Maryland-College Park's undergraduate Writing Center.

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