Audio Journal makes adjustments to continue radio reading service for visually impaired
By Richard Duckett
Telegram & Gazette Staff
WORCESTER — The COVID-19 pandemic brings some unique issues to many regular listeners of the Audio Journal.
The nonprofit radio reading service for the blind, visually impaired or individuals otherwise unable to read print and visual materials has been putting out special messages during the COVID-19 pandemic from a number of different sources, including student volunteers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said Audio Journal’s executive director Mary Frandsen.
“We have played a role in making sure our listeners know what’s going on with COVID. Visually impaired people get around through their sense of touch, so this is a challenging time for them,” Frandsen said.
There have also been challenges for the Audio Journal itself which has a paid staff of two and relies on more than 130 volunteers for its own programing. Audio Journal also shares programing with other radio reading services so that it is on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from its office and recording production studio at 799 West Boylston St. Frandsen has been the executive director since October following the retirement of Vincent Lombardi, who was with the Audio Journal for many years.
Up until the pandemic, volunteers would come into the studio to read. One of the Audio Journal’s most popular programs is volunteers reading the news (with obituaries the most popular segment, Frandsen said) live from newspapers such as the Telegram & Gazette as well as smaller local community publications.
“Two volunteers (at a time) would come in, paste all the articles together, review the articles, check pronunciation, especially for obituaries, and go into the (recording) studio,” Frandsen said. Other volunteers would follow for their news reading segments. “It’s quite remarkable to see.”
But with state restrictions following the pandemic, volunteers have been remotely recording from their homes, while Frandsen has been learning how to coordinate and put the recordings on the air.
“We’ve switched from live programs in the studio to pre-recorded and live remote recording … I have 28 people recording from home. They came to me, they said ‘I want to help.’ They said, ‘Teach me how to do this.’ And I was so grateful for that response,” Frandsen said.
“It’s the way people can know what’s going on locally. I had a listener from Worcester say, ‘you don’t know what’s going on unless you listen to the Audio Journal.’ ”
There are about 5,000 people in Central Massachusetts who are legally blind.
Special messages in the current situation have also been broadcast from David D’Arcangelo, commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired (headquarters in Illinois), and Bob Branco, who is from New Bedford and has a blog for the visually impaired titled “In Perspective.” The information includes the Audio Journal’s own schedule updates, advice on shopping and home treatment, and dealing with coronavirus regulations.
For example, “It turns out that when a visually impaired person puts on a face mask they can become disoriented, and it’s hard to get around,” Frandsen said. “The suggestion is to practice wearing a face mask at home.” Also when outside, “put your hand on guide’s back instead of holding on to the arm.”
The Audio Journal began broadcasting in 1987 with five volunteers from an unused closet at the Worcester Public Library. It is one of six radio reading services in the state and is currently affiliated with The Massachusetts Audio Information Network and also shares programing with the International Association of Audio Information Services.
In the early days you needed a special receiver to listen, but now the Audio Journal’s programing can be heard in a variety of ways, including from a receiver, smart speaker, via local public access cable TV channels, and online at www.audiojournal.org.
Meanwhile, in a collaboration between the Audio Journal and faculty and students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a special Audio Journal smart phone app is being developed, Frandsen noted. “We’re really looking forward to that. It’s a wonderful service they’re (WPI) providing to the community.”
Being visually or print impaired can also affect people with a physical disability such as paralysis, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Another of the Audio Journal’s regular services has been live audio descriptions of shows at The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts.
But the Audio Journal is for everybody who wants to tune in. “A lot of people listen to the Audio Journal just for company,” Frandsen said.
Its own programming goes beyond services like news reading to include topical and cultural broadcasts of interest to anyone such as “African American Experience” hosted by Tina E. Gaffney, “Radio Active Theatre,” and “Speaking Volumes.”
The latter, a book discussion program, received national exposure last year when it was featured in The Oprah Magazine.
Many of these shows are pre-recorded. “Speaking Volumes” recently tried to record a new segment remotely using Zoom technology, but there were some hitches. Frandsen admired the effort and volunteers sticking with it to fix the problem. “Next month it will come to me and I’ll be able to put it on,” she said.
“We’re facing technical challenges. We all are right now.”
Frandsen, who lives in Worcester with her husband, Ted Messier, has an extensive background in working with nonprofits. She first got involved with the Audio Journal in 2017 as a contract grant writer. In 2018 she became development director of operations. “I had two years of history,” she said before becoming the Audio Journal’s executive director after Lombardi’s retirement.
The other current paid staff member is Ginny Cooke. There aren’t too many specific job descriptions these days. “If something needs to be done, you do it. All hands on deck,” Frandsen said.
“I live about 10 minutes from the studio. It is handy. I can run right over if there are any technical problems.”
A few weeks ago “some unusual things were happening” at the studio while Frandsen was at home. “My husband and I would come in and crawl around on the floor unplugging things and plugging things.” On one occasion a power outage in the neighborhood knocked out the Audio Journal’s archives.
Frandsen and Cooke have been working in the office and studio recently. “How and when volunteers will be coming back to the office has not been determined yet,” Frandsen said.
But remote recording won’t disappear and could be an important ongoing component for the Audio Journal. It just started a new sports program with a volunteer reading from local and national publications. He had previously volunteered for the Audio Journal but after he moved he couldn’t readily come in to the studio. Reading remotely, he can volunteer again. “After several years he’s been able to read for us. It’s exciting for us to have that capability. It will enable to us to to have more local programing,” Frandsen said.
The other side of the coin is that “a lot of our own readers as well as listeners are retired and elderly. They say, ‘No. I’ll wait until I can come back (to the studio and read),’ and I totally understand that,” Frandsen said.
Still, other volunteers have asked if the remote reading will continue, “which to me implies they like the remote recording. They’re going to stick with that, and that will be fine. And those that want to can come in and record in our production studios.”
Another effect of the pandemic was that it forced the postponement of the Audio Journal’s popular major annual fundraising event, “Dining in the Dark,” which had been scheduled for May 9.
It will now take place from 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 8 in Hogan Ballroom, at the College of the Holy Cross.
By eating a meal blindfolded, “Dining in the Dark” will give guests a “taste” of what it is like to be blind,” Frandsen said. Tickets are $75 each. For more information, visit www.audiojournal.org.