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Using voice to make a difference

Between water breaks and practicing pronunciation of unfamiliar terms, readers start and stop recordings by pressing the space bars; broadcasts that last an hour on radio might take two hours to read aloud. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

“You actually have to exercise muscles to be able to speak clearly and speak with meaning,” said Brad Stager, program director of WUSF’s Radio Reading Service. “You learn tricks, (like) how to break a word down … that’s what broadcasters do, they read with meaning.”

Downstairs in a bigger studio, a veteran reader sits quietly. A microphone hangs between him and the digital clock counting down until show time. He takes a swig of warm tea while a cologne ad concludes, and Stager’s voice invites listeners to stay tuned for the next program. It’s noon.

“Hello, this is Will Mallet reading from USA Today on your WUSF Radio Reading Service, this day. We’re glad you can join us.”

Reading for Someone Else

Since 1994, when Dr. William Mallet taught freshman English on campus, he has read short stories, poetry and a total of 30 novels for the RRS. He reads three hours worth of programs a week: Food and entertainment reviews from the St. Petersburg Times’ weekend section, a novel for his literature hour and selections from USA Today.

“Oh, I always liked to read,” Mallet said. “When I was young I’d steal my parents’ library cards, so I could get extra books.”

Now, he reads for others.

“I always read the editorials because that’s the clearest expression of opinion of the people that write the paper,” Mallet said.

Reaching Out

According to the National Eye Institute, age-related macular degeneration is one of the most common eye diseases among Americans over age 50 and affects over 1.6 million people nationwide and nearly 130,000 Floridians. The retinal disorder, causing blurry vision, is also a leading problem among listeners of the WUSF RRS.

“A lot of our listeners have been avid readers throughout their lives,” Stager said.

“As people age, disease or perhaps (an) accident robs people of their sight. So they’re not able to read for themselves, but they still have an interest in getting information.”

Stager, who has been with the RRS for six years, said broadcasts include volunteers reading what listeners miss reading themselves: Time and People magazines, newspapers and in-depth broadcasts emphasizing issues that affect them such as health care, transportation, voting and employment opportunities.

Newspaper readings, including detailed and local stories that commercial radio stations often don’t cover, draw the bulk of RRS listeners. Some tune in to early morning and evening broadcasts, before and after work, while the retired or unemployed audience listens in the afternoon.

Although the Federal Communications Commission does not regulate the service, Stager said RRS broadcasts are held to the journalistic standards of credible newsrooms. When they invited Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson to speak about new touch-screen voting machines, RRS also gave equal airtime to opponent Rob McKenna.

The Volunteers Make it Interesting

Stager served for 20 years as a photojournalist in the Navy, received a mass communications degree at USF and worked the news and programming sides for WUSF 89.7. Although he enjoys the technical parts of his job, Stager said the volunteers make it interesting.

They hail from all walks of life: teachers, students, doctors, nurses, business professionals and retired men and women. Most volunteer readers have no previous professional communications experience.

Two USF students read for the RRS. Reading aloud offers students from the fields of performing arts and mass communications the chance to prepare for their careers by strengthening and clarifying reading and speaking skills.

Even seasoned radio professionals learn something. One volunteer with a background in sports casting tried to do the hour-long reads the same way he announced sports.

“If you try to read something like The New Yorker (in that way), it’s not easy,” Stager said. “He learned to pace himself and learned good form.”

Who’s Listening?

“There are a lot of people out there listening,” said Linda Hudson, the other half of the RRS staff. As volunteer coordinator, Hudson arranges and assists volunteer readers with their reading sessions. Hudson came to the RRS three years ago from a human resources job, with no previous radio experience. However, she said an open personality and flexibility are necessary to keeping the station running.

“You have to be a people person,” she said. “You have to get along with the volunteers. They’re the bosses. Some of our readers don’t like to read certain material. I have to choose material my volunteers enjoy. I have to make it work.”

Listeners know veteran readers by voice and call in frequently to offer feedback: praises for their favorite programs or complaints when those programs don’t air. One listener wanted the Bible read aloud. For awhile, an RRS volunteer read the Spanish version of The Miami Herald. They also reach a younger crowd through their “Small World” children’s literature broadcasts. From Gulliver’s Travels to the women’s magazine Essence, Hudson said RRS covers a diverse range of topics in a timely manner.

Ray Fisher has tuned in for the past two months. Partially sighted, he cannot read print media and relies on Braille, Talking Books tapes and the RRS as alternative sources to written media.

A member of the Council of the Blind, Fisher works arranging pens and flashlights in boxes. He tunes in to the RRS several hours a week for news and weather updates.

“They cover the information real good,” he said. “A lot of the narrators do fine jobs.” Hudson agreed.

“(Listeners) connect with the volunteers. They know them by name,” he said. “Not a whole lot has changed, because what we do works.”

Getting the Job Done

Stories for Winners makes a connection with an estimated 600 blind students attending schools in the Tampa Bay area. A recent addition to RRS productions, the CD is a compilation of articles and stories about athletes who overcame some disability to excel: a blind runner for highschool track, a deaf football player and a blind sportscaster for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. RRS will try to distribute copies to local schools.

However, Hudson said funding for this distribution is limited. RRS has a six-month, 60 person long waiting list for the SCA radios. Although they are lent to listeners at no cost, each radio costs the station $90. RRS considered reaching a broader audience through the Internet, but the costs outweighed the benefits. Stager said online access does not fit their listeners’ habits.

The service switched from tape recorders to computer audio recording programs only a few years ago.

“With digital radio, people would be able to access stations with a digital radio they purchase themselves,” Stager said.

Even when volunteers move away or can no longer make the time commitment, RRS programs run every hour.

“That’s what makes me well-rounded,” Hudson said. “I learn so much everyday from the volunteers, from the readings.”

Special broadcasts run through holidays and highly-active hurricane seasons. Hudson said the only time their signals are down is when the main station gets hit.

She and Stager enjoy interacting with the people and hearing their stories too. When she reads for the station, she encounters stories and issues she might not have read otherwise.

“I don’t have a vision impairment, but I can’t imagine waking up the next day without (my vision),” Hudson said. “The volunteers are here to give (the listeners) back some dignity through information.”

Back in the studio, Mallet strains to get in the last words of an article before the clock’s red numbers signal time and Stager’s automated voice clicks back on to introduce the next program.

“You never know when it’s going to stop,” Mallet said, leaning back, breathing a sigh of relief. “I’m reading everything, sight unseen.”

“I just keep swallowing, hoping for the best and swallowing tea … after I’ve read for three hours, I don’t know how my voice will react.”

Mallet started volunteering for WUSF 20 years ago, answering phones for the station’s fund drives. Before that, he taught English and German in boarding schools throughout New England and Europe.

His love of people, language and literature shows in his work. He talks about teaching young Michael Douglas, who stuttered and didn’t plan on acting, similarly to Demosthenes, the great Greek orator who practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth to overcome a childhood stutter. Mallet laughed about the time Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange, was invited to speak at his dissertation. He expected a few dozen in the audience; but when 800 people showed up, Mallet looked at his written notes, “scrapped them and winged it.”

During a fellowship in England, he attended a production of Hamlet six times. The director was using the summer to let his actors play the characters in a variety of ways. One night, Hamlet was depicted as loud and mad while another night being melancholy and distraught.

“I learned more from that play than I ever did of anything else,” Mallet said. “You should show how important the words are, how important it is to know what you want to say.”

The Rewards

Mallet stood up, removing the headphones from his ears and the stress from his knees. A smile spread across his slightly flushed face and his ruffled hair resembled the retired newspaper clippings on the studio table.

“I’ll be much better when my two eyes are coordinating,” he said. His eyes are recovering from recent cataracts surgeries.

“I don’t like (the) driving that much,” he said. “(But reading) is something I look forward to every week.”

Mallet is a storyteller. He reads to make the connection for the audience that they cannot make for themselves, giving meaning to the printed word. For his literature hour, he changes the tone of his voice for women’s parts, even voicing a Southern drawl where it was written. In the middle of reading a review of the rapper Eminem’s “Eight Mile” album, he switched it up.

“I started to rap the review,” Mallet said. “I reached the audience … that was fun.”