Seeing-eye radio? IRIS is on the air

One of my favorite volunteer gigs these days is to be a reader for the Iowa Radio Information Service (IRIS). IRIS is a statewide network of volunteers who read the newspaper as part of a radio broadcast that can be picked up by specially tuned receivers. The receivers are provided at no charge to Iowans who are blind or have a visual or physical impairment that makes reading difficult.

I jokingly tell people that this is the perfect volunteer job for me because I love to hear the sound of my own voice. Actually, as a former journalist, I like the idea of remaining at least tangentially involved in the news business, and I believe that there still is news (especially local) that can’t be gotten from either radio or television. I first got involved with a similar group when I lived in the Quad-Cities.

The NBC Nightly News recently focused its “Making a Difference” feature on a similar program in New Jersey. Watch this:

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Here in Iowa City, IRIS operates out of a conference room at WSUI/KSUI radio. From 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. 7 days a week, 365 days a year, two volunteers take turns reading the local news, opinion, obituaries and sports from the Cedar Rapids Gazette. (Programming for the rest of the day’s schedule is produced in Des Moines or by the national InTouch network.) As with all things, the best of intentions can sometimes go awry. I have had mornings when my reading partner never showed up, leaving me to stumble through the hour alone. There have been mornings when I have been the no-show. Once in a while, the radio station staff will inadvertently lock us out, or the newspaper carrier will forget to deliver our papers. Somehow, the show goes on.

Even after 15 or so years of volunteering here and in Rock Island, I’m far from a professional radio broadcaster. I have learned a lot about reading out loud, though. One of the lessons I learned early on when one of APRIS’ listeners wrote in to complain politely that we were reading too slowly. It seems our natural instinct is to slow down and over-enunciate when we are reading out loud, but that listener assured us that reading at a normal pace was much more tolerable.

I’ve also learned from IRIS how to pronounce the names of a lot of small Iowa towns I’ve never been to. We have a cheat sheet of phonetic spellings for towns in our Eastern Iowa broadcast area. That’s how I know it’s Ne-VAY-da, not Ne-VAH-da like the state; it’s Mont-i-SELL-o, not Mont-i-CHELL-o like Thomas Jefferson’s home. I can tell my reading partner is not a native Iowan when they read a story from Maquoketa and pronounce it Ma-kwo-KEE-ta. Another morning, I remember my non-sports fan partner was repeatedly flummoxed by a sports story about the Iowa football team and specifically one of the Hawkeye players, Kenny Iwebema. I think she pronounced poor Kenny’s name about 12 different ways before she was done with the story, but having started the story she gamely soldiered on to the end. (For the record, it’s pronounced Eh-WEB-uh-muh. I think.)

Like most operations run entirely by volunteers, IRIS is always in need of a helping hand. This spring, the Iowa City operation was shut down for a couple of weeks when the Iowa River floodwaters crept uncomfortably close to the KSUI studios and damaged a transmitter. Other IRIS broadcast locations around the state were affected. As if all that wasn’t enough, the upcoming transition to digital television means that IRIS will lost its ability to broadcast in some areas of Iowa unless some alternative transmission methods are found. If you’d like to make a donation or find out more about volunteering, check it out. That’s also the place to go if you know someone with a visual or physical handicap who would enjoy having an IRIS receiver in their home. Where else are they going to get serious news and unintentional comedy all wrapped up in one early-morning hour?

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