Blindly Entering A New Frontier – MARRS

Recording Room in MARRS studio.

Recording Room in MARRS studio.

While attending a networking social on Thursday, I blindly volunteered to be a Saturday substitute reader for MARRS – Mountain Area Radio Reading Service of Asheville, NC, a radio reading service for individuals who are blind, visually or print impaired.  Volunteers of this nonprofit read local news and events from a number of newspapers and weekly publications to include the Asheville Citizen-Times, the Mountain Express, the Black Mountain News, and the Hendersonville Times-News among others.  And, yes, I recognize the irony of my opening sentence, but when I say that I “blindly volunteered,” this is what I mean…

One of the guests at the social comes over to a circle of us in conversation to ask the group if anyone wanted to cover her as a volunteer on Saturday morning.  Without hesitation but having no clue what I was getting myself into, I threw my hand in the air and said, “I’ll do it!”

Immediately, she grabbed me by my other hand and led me across the room to a high-top table where a tall gentleman holding a baby was standing.  She said, rather excitedly, “I found someone! She’s gonna read for me on Saturday.”  The guy smiled and with a questioning look asked me if this person told me I’d be reading the news for a radio recording, to which I responded no but said I’m all for it.  Then, after he briefly tells me a bit more about what I would be doing and where the studio was located, his wife comes over to the table, grabs one of the flyers stacked there, and jots down her husband’s name and cell phone number on the back.  The woman I was now filling in for on Saturday thanked me for volunteering and said she normally reads the news for the organization once a month but had something to attend to that morning that she couldn’t miss or reschedule.  I said I didn’t mind substituting for her at all and asked again what time on Saturday I needed to show up.  Being familiar with the service, I mentioned to them both that I had always wanted to volunteer for this type of program and was looking forward to the experience.

From that minute on, I was grinning from ear to ear and totally excited about the idea of reading the news.  All I could think of was a YouTube video I had watched a month or so ago of Oprah Winfrey being interviewed about her life and career.  In it, she mentions how she got into broadcasting as a teen after showing up at a radio station to claim a prize and randomly being asked if she wanted to hear how her voice sounded when recorded.  She read so well, that the person who recorded her told other radio staff to come over and hear her read.  And, as they say, the rest is history.

Now wait… I’m NOT saying I envisioned myself becoming the next Oprah or newscaster.  What I thought was, “Here’s my chance to see if my voice would actually be good for radio or not.”  Having majored in Communication, but the public relations track instead of the broadcasting one, I was curious to know if I could expand my job search and skill set into this related but different field.  And besides that bit of conceit and career exploration, I honestly didn’t mind having this one-off volunteer experience as one more way of embracing my new (but hopefully temporary) open schedule and freedom of time.

So, Friday morning, after wrapping up a job interview with a downtown nonprofit, I headed off up the sidewalk in search of the entrance to the recording studio and to estimate how long it would take me to walk there from home.  Circling around the building he described to me on Thursday evening, I couldn’t figure out exactly where MARRS was located but knew I was in the right area.  At that point, I just made up in my mind that I would arrive early enough the next morning to catch the gentleman before he entered the building or call his phone from the corner so he could direct me to the door.

Saturday morning dawns, and I jump out of bed excited for the appointment on my calendar and new experience awaiting me.  After getting cleaned up and dressed, I made myself a cup of coffee “to go,” hoping it would warm up my sleepy vocal cords and knock the chill off my eight block walk.  Arriving to the street corner of my destination with 15 minutes to spare, I watch as the elderly residents of the corner apartment building come and go from a side entrance – many in mobilized wheelchairs but others not.  And there I stood drinking my coffee and admiring how calm the city is first thing in the morning, while most tourists are still sleeping off beer binges from the night before or driving their cars in search of convenient parking or breakfast spots.

Fearful I might miss my contact person’s arrival, I call the number on back of the networking flyer and give my whereabouts.  He tells me he is a block away but will need to find parking.  Complimenting me for arriving early, he thanks me again for volunteering on such short notice.  A few minutes later, we connect on the street corner and enter the same side entrance to the senior housing complex I had been standing near all along.

Opening and Closing to The Urban News program.

Opening and Closing to The Urban News program.

The news for this particular recording (which is done monthly) came from The Urban News, a newspaper that focuses on happenings within the African-American community of Asheville and Buncombe County, and airs on Tuesday’s and Saturday’s weekly.  So, while waiting for the producer to arrive, the two of us set about reviewing the articles in the current issue, clipping those of major audience interest, and deciding who will read which ones.  Then, realizing the producer may not be showing up as expected, my reading partner goes into production mode – cueing up the music and having me read to test the headset microphones.  Anticipating my anticipation he asks if I’m ready and I reply that I am.  At that point, he said, “Ok, let’s get started.”

I put on my headset and listened for the intro music to fade in volume.  That was my cue to slowly read the opening lines to the news recording and await my partner’s quiet entry into the recording room.  Then, what followed was a natural game of toss between the two of us – he reading an article or two then tossing me a look that signaled my turn to read the next.  But, about midway into the recording he looked at his watch and realized he needed to put coins in the meter where he had parked his car, on the street a short block from the building.  So, writing a quick note on a scrap paper to tell me to keep reading while he went to “feed the meter,” my reading partner makes a fast exit out of the building and I am left to continue solo.  I instinctively slowed down my rate of speaking, and after a full page article on the top six candidates in an upcoming local election and one bottom-third article about a book reading and signing, my partner had returned and gained his breath fast enough to rejoin the game.

After another 15 minutes or so of reading, it was time to do the closing for the recording.  Back on producer duty, my partner signals for me to finish my last article then read the closing remarks as he exits the room to cue back in the music.  Again, speaking slowly and clearly I read my lines on the sheet provided and listen attentively for the sound of the background music to reach full volume again.  By that time, one of the organization’s day managers had entered the studio to prep for the Spanish-language news program to follow.  So, right after I knew the recording was over, I stood up, walked out of the room, and asked if that was it and whether I’d done a good job.  Immediately, the day manager said to me she heard the last part of our recording, thought I had a very good speaking voice, and wanted to know if I would be interested in temporarily filling in on a program for a couple of readers who would be leaving town for the winter.

Not quite as quick to volunteer time I wasn’t so sure I would have free on Wednesday mornings from November to April, I asked instead if she could jot down her contact information and how soon she needed a response to her offer.  But, as I exited the building with my reading partner and new friend, all I could think about was how cool it would be volunteering to do this type of thing again…or maybe even as a new career.  Stopping at his parked car, the tall gentleman I had met only a couple of days prior but spent most of my morning with said again how much he appreciated me filling in today, how great a job I did catching on to reading the news and being recorded, and how calmly I continued to read while he had to make his unplanned dash to feed the parking meter.  He said he would tell the volunteer I covered for how much she greatly owed me for taking her spot, but in my mind I thought how much I owed her for the opportunity to blindly enter a new frontier.

MARRS Studio in Asheville, NC

MARRS Studio in Asheville, NC

If you’re interested in learning more about MARRS, please visit the Mountain Area Radio Reading Service website for more information on the organization, volunteer opportunities, and ways to give.

Also, if you’re curious about the news read/recorded on Saturday mornings, give it a listen…

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