Houston volunteers read aloud to those unable to

Houston volunteers read aloud to those unable to
Houston volunteers read aloud to those unable to

When Armco Steel closed its Houston Ship Channel plant in 1984, employee Bob Bartlett lost two things: his job and his eyesight. The former he dealt with by deciding to retire after 18 years of service; the latter hit harder.

At 41, he had to learn accessibility skills that the visually impaired need, and he immediately missed the simple things, like reading the newspaper while sipping his first cup of morning coffee. But that’s when he discovered Taping for the Blind, a non-profit group that had trained volunteers who read the Houston Chronicle and Post every morning, broadcasting via a special radio given free to users.

“I was told they were reading current journals and newspapers, and maybe I could get hold of them,” Bartlett recalled. “This way I could still have the paper, even if I couldn’t read the damn thing anymore.”

Today, Bartlett sits on the board of the organization, in its 56th year and now known as Sight Into Sound. Its footage of volunteers reading printed materials or describing the action of movies and TV shows now extends far beyond Houston, streamed over the Internet, through smartphone apps and smart speakers, as well as heard locally via HD radio and digital TV signals.

Visitors to the site at sightintosound.org can hear the content live, or go to an archive page to listen to the shows at any time. Sight Into Sound also does customized reading – send them a book, magazine, manual, even classroom materials, and one of 80-plus volunteers will read it and generate a digital audio file, free of charge.

Some refer to it as a radio station, but Sight Into Sound is much more than that. It’s now more like a public service podcast.

“I always say we were podcasting before there was podcasting,” said Jim Martinez, Sight Into Sound’s senior production and audio manager. “People have finally entered our world.”

What started in 1967 with reel-to-reel tape recorders has ridden wave after wave of technological change. Even something as monumental as the coronavirus pandemic has been harnessed to a positive, pushing Sight Into Sound into an all-digital format, with much of the audience listening digitally on many different platforms.

In fact, Sight Into Sound’s recordings are popping up in ways that not even Martinez or CEO Kari Musgrove know about. For example, the station can be heard via Radio Garden, a free website and smartphone app that uses a Google Earth-style map of radio stations around the world. Zoom down to Houston on the screen globe and you’ll find Sight Into Sound available for streaming, among 32 other Houston stations. Neither Musgrove nor Martinez was aware that it was available that way.

“We hear about something that carries us all the time,” Musgrove said. – At this point I am not surprised.

Sight Into Sound has its roots in an initiative in the late 1960s by the Library of Congress to create a spoken archive of written works for the visually impaired, so-called “talking books.” Houstonian Robert Levy encouraged the library to expand the collection, and in 1967 the institution accepted his proposal to create a volunteer organization that would contribute audio recordings.

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The earliest recordings were made on reel-to-reel recorders in offices on Westheimer, where the home goods store Crate & Barrel now stands. Sneller was sent to Washington, DC, but the operation did not immediately benefit visually impaired residents of Houston.

That changed in the late 1970s when Taping for the Blind gained access to an FM frequency next to public radio station KUHF. One of the advantages of the then-emerging FM radio was that stations had subcarrier frequencies, and Taping for the Blind’s content – both recorded and live – could be broadcast over KUHF’s sideband.

The nonprofit, which had then moved into its current offices on Essex Street near the Museum District, bought custom-made FM radios in bulk that could only receive one “station”: Taping for the Blind’s broadcasts. The radios, in a wooden case about the size of a shoebox with only an on/off switch and a volume control, were given away to the visually impaired, as well as those physically unable to hold a book or flip through it. They cost Taping for the Blind about $50 each, and were to be returned when no longer needed.

The organization’s volunteers began by reading the Houston Chronicle and the Post, live in a studio in a one-story building on Essex Street. Two readers exchanged stories every morning, for about two hours. Over time, Taping for the Blind expanded into magazines, books, instructional materials, and more.

When HD radio arrived, the organization moved to digital radio receivers that were much more expensive, at $250 a pop, but they were still given away.

Eventually, the radios were phased out as the use of smart speakers from Amazon, Google and Apple increased. Martinez said most people listen via the web or through smart speakers, where a simple voice command can bring up the Sight Into Sound stream. The service can still be heard on KUHT-TV’s channel 8.5 on digital TVs.

The name change came as the organization dealt with the fact that there was no longer any “taping”. Management decided that Taping for the Blind’s slogan – Turning Sight Into Sound – could be reused as a new name.

The biggest driving force behind the change so far was the pandemic. When the first shutdown hit in March 2019, Musgrove said, the station’s 150 volunteers suddenly couldn’t get into the offices to record. Sight Into Sound had already switched to digital recording, and now staff were trying to find volunteers who had the right equipment to learn how to record and edit at home.

“We got them up and running on software like (the free audio recording app) Audacity or Apple’s Garage Band app,” Musgrove said. Files are then uploaded to the cloud-based service Dropbox, where they are retrieved and sent to KUHF’s servers, which handle the streaming and the posting to the Sight Into Sound website.

The pandemic also ended some long-standing traditions. The live, two-hour morning reading of the Houston Chronicle ended, replaced by a taped version that does not air until 11:00 a.m. Now Bob Bartlett listens to the paper with his lunch instead of his morning coffee.

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But not everyone could make home recordings, and the pool of volunteers shrank. Even in those cases where a volunteer had home recording skills, the sound was often not as perfect as those recorded in the 10 hearing test boxes that the organization used as mini-studios.

“We had a lot of exhibits that had dogs barking in the background,” Musgrove said.

These shows are an eclectic mix. Along with the local newspaper—a feature that most of the nation’s nearly 30 similar businesses include—Sight Into Sound carries magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Men’s Health and Women’s Health, Texas Monthly, The Economist, Southern Living, Consumer Reports, People, Time, The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal.

For years, Sight Into Sound included the print edition of Playboy magazine, complete with verbal descriptions of the images, usually read by female radio personalities. It ended when Playboy stopped publishing its print publication and went online only, but the final episode – from winter 2020 – is still available on the station’s podcast archive.

There are also readings of complete books, technology tips for the disabled, audiobook reviews and even a cooking show called “Cooking in the Dark.” Sight Into Sound also streams movie soundtracks, with a volunteer describing the action. Volunteers even provide narrative services on select nights at RodeoHouston, narrating the action for blind contestants wearing special headsets during the competitions before the musical acts.

Sight Into Sound is allowed to read copyrighted material under a section of copyright law known as the Chafee Amendment.

The amendment states that “it is not a copyright infringement for an authorized entity to reproduce or distribute in the United States copies or phonorecords of a previously published literary work or of a previously published musical work that has been fixed in text or notation if such copies or telephone plates are reproduced or distributed in accessible formats solely for the use of qualified persons.”

“Eligible persons” refers to someone who is blind or has another visual or physical impairment that prevents them from reading. Although the exemption was written before Internet distribution, adjustments to copyright law made during the Clinton administration specifying disclaimers and copyright notices have cemented the ability of organizations like Sight Into Sound’s to continue their mission.

The volunteer readers come from all walks of life. Many are retired, and quite a few have broadcasting or theater experience. Among them is Texas Radio Hall of Fame inductee Chuck Wolf, whose career in radio news spans more than 30 years. Even he had to pass an audition process to ensure he had the skills and vocal chops to read for an extended period of time.

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