Lawrence-based nonprofit Audio-Reader offers free news readings to the visually impaired
Dr. Kimberly Marrow starts her morning as most people do. She wakes up, brushes her teeth, gets dressed, makes her coffee and catches up on the news.
“Alexa, play Audio-Reader,” she says.
“Are you blind or print-disabled?” Alexa replies.
Suddenly, Marrow’s home is flooded with the voices of volunteers reading everything from the Topeka Capital-Journal’s city council reporting to Playboy magazine essays. It’s all thanks to a Lawrence-based nonprofit. For nearly fifty years, the Audio-Reader Network has given free access to the latest news to people who can’t read it themselves, whether due to vision impairment or diseases like Parkinson’s.
“We like to call it ‘sight through sound,’” says Marrow, who has been blind since birth.
Audio-Reader’s roots go to the 1960s, when Lawrence philanthropist Anna “Petey” Cerf developed the idea.
“She was reading to a friend of hers in the nursing home and thought: ‘There’s got to be a way I’m reading to my friend or somebody down the hall is reading to their family member, there’s got to be a way to share this to a broader audience,’” says Lori Kesinger, the organization’s outreach director.
Cerf commissioned a study on the feasibility of using FM radio subcarriers to read printed material. On October 11, 1971—fifty years ago next year—the station went live on 91.5 FM. For copyright reasons, Audio-Reader was not—and still isn’t—transmitted on a frequency normal radios will pick up. Rather, it uses half-frequencies, called subcarriers, which are picked up on special radios tuned to Audio-Reader’s closed-circuit station. The radios have only one knob, which turns them on to the one station they pick up and determines the volume.
“Before the internet and before cell phones, that’s how we got started broad-casting,” Kesinger says. Until the internet era, eligible listeners were issued an FM radio tuned to the frequency sent out from the Audio-Reader headquarters on the KU campus. All they had to do was twist the knob to hear the news. “They wouldn’t be able to listen to Audio-Reader and then turn the dial and get jazz,” Kesinger says. “It’s audio reading only.”
Most Audio-Reader listeners now stream online, though the company does still provide the single-channel radio to those who need it—and who can pick up the frequency through our increasingly crowded airwaves.
“Back in 1990, the reach of the radio was a lot better than it is now because we weren’t competing with cell phone signals and the pager signals and whatever else is floating out there,” Kesinger says. “There’s an issue with reliable internet and also rural communities. We have the information, but how to get it to the specific audiences is really, really a big challenge.”
Although anyone can tune into the station via kansaspublicradio.org and hear the news being read live, you’re prompted to click a button confirming you’re in need of it.
“The reason that we broadcast on this subcarrier technology is because we are reading copyrighted material,” she says. “So if we were to read the copyrighted material on an open channel, we would be liable to pay the publishers for the use of stuff. Because we’re a nonprofit, we can’t possibly do that.”Audio-Reader airs all day every day and reads upwards of sixty-five publications every week, from the Wichita Eagle to Time Magazine. It gives special attention to the smallest papers in Kansas. “I think we’ve all started to realize just how important access to local community news is,” Kesinger says. “If you are isolated, if you’re unable to get out in your community, you still need to know what the reduced hours are for the grocery store or when the Covid Clinic is going to be. If you can’t read it in a newspaper, it’s not readily available.”
A typical day at Audio-Reader starts at 8 am with an hour of the New York Times. At 9 am, it switches to forty-five minutes of the Kansas City Star and the Topeka Capital-Journal.
“A lot of just the regular, run-of-the-mill stuff that you do on a daily basis that, if you can’t read for yourself any longer, you may lose access to that information,” Kesinger says. The Audio-Reader team also takes requests from listeners and will read their favorite magazines or textbooks—they’ve been known to read tupperware magazines and even instruction manuals. Their mission is reflected by the landscape at their office in Lawrence, which houses a public sensory garden.
“If someone is becoming more isolated because of their health condition, that’s one less isolation that they have to deal with,” Kesinger says. “They might not be able to drive and go to the coffee club at the church anymore, but they can still tune in to Audio-Reader and listen and find out what’s happening in their community.”
Marrow has relied on Audio-Reader for twenty years, since her time as an undergrad at Baker University. She came to rely on them more while pursuing her masters and Ph. D. at KU, where she had a hard time finding her textbooks in braille.
“I remember one instance where I was taking my master’s test in German and the student reader who was supposed to show up and read to me had a flight to catch to New York and couldn’t make it,” Marrow says. “But my time slot was set for my test to be read to me, so they couldn’t change that. So I called Audio-Reader and just panicked, and they found a volunteer reader who was very proficient in English but happened to have a background of her parents coming from Germany and spoke German at home when she was growing up. So that individual came in and read for me.”
Audio-Reader wouldn’t be sustainable without dedicated volunteers, most of whom have been reading for years. Some are retired, have experience with radio or have family members who can no longer read for one reason or another.
Take Max Mayse, who has been reading at Audio-Reader for over thirty years.
“One of the reasons that I got involved with it is that my father had a brother and a sister who were both blind because of retinitis pigmentosa and I wanted to do something,” Mayse says. “So I found out about Audio-Reader and thought, ‘This is the perfect thing.’”
Mayse, who is retired from KU’s endowment organization, started by reading science magazines, like Discover, over the air, but now reads Time and regional papers like the Mound City News.
Mayse tries to focus on local news in the regional paper, avoiding the national stories. He has under an hour to read four regional papers, just fourteen minutes for each.
“I wish I had more than fourteen minutes to do it, but you don’t have an unlimited amount of time. But you can at least give the people in that community an idea of what’s going on,” he says.
Although they do have to cut for time, Mayse tries not to make editorial decisions that affect the integrity of the story. “We’re just supposed to read as it appears in the paper,” he says. “There’s a sign in all of our studios on campus that says, ‘We are not the listener’s brain, we are their eyes.’”
When the pandemic hit, Mayse turned part of his basement into a recording studio and taught himself how to edit audio so he could read remotely.
“When we got shut down because of Covid, I said, ‘I can do this from home, it’s no problem,’” Mayse says. “I love the idea that we’re helping people who can’t do this particular thing. We’re keeping them informed of what’s going on in their community or nationally or whatever.”
Mayse isn’t the only person who has put in more work since the pandemic started. Some previous readers have returned to the project from their new homes in Pennsylvania and New York.
As it looks toward its fiftieth anniversary, funding is the next challenge for Audio-Reader. The organization has had financial support from KU since its founding, but university budget cuts mean that support is ending next year.
“It was not a surprise,” Kesinger says. “The reasoning they gave us was that the University needed to focus on its core values and Audio-Reader didn’t fit into that.”
Audio-Reader will continue to get in-kind funding, including its building and support from KU’s maintenance staff.
While the service does have private donors and support from groups like the Lions Clubs, Audio-Reader will still take a hit, becoming more reliant on their endowment fund and fundraising efforts.
“I think working for any nonprofit you’re concerned, and we’re no exception,” Marrow says. “I think everyone in the kind of community we serve is concerned. But we also have to have faith that people are going to believe in what we do.”
“We’re just supposed to read as it appears in the paper. There’s a sign in all of our studios on campus that says, ‘we are not the listener’s brain, we are their eyes”
How It Works: Audio-Reader originally aired on 91.5 FM, a subcarrier frequency that normal radios won’t pick up. Although many listeners now tune in online and an increase in broadcast noise makes it harder to pick up, the station still works.