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Watching Out For Washington’s Ear

Service reading newspapers for the blind finds home at WETA.

Reading newspapers was more than just something to do over coffee for Paul D’Addario. A journalism major in college, D’Addario read two or three newspapers a day in college. Living in Arlington after college, he would head to the Arlington Central Library on Sunday nights.

“There’s a section with newspapers from out of town, and I used to go there and read newspapers from Boston, where I went to college,” D’Addario said.

But those daily and weekly rituals fell by the wayside in 1991. D’Addario lost his sight from retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that gradually degrades the eyesight. Now, said D’Addario, “I can’t read a newspaper. I haven’t been able to since 1991.” Coincidentally, that was the same year that the Washington Ear began offering newspapers read aloud over the phone lines.

The Washington Ear, an area non-profit, has offered a radio service for and people with blindness and low vision in the metropolitan area since 1974. Volunteer readers would read out stories from the front page, the editorial page and the sports page of the Washington Post. Tapes of the newspaper reading, along with novels and magazines read aloud, were broadcast on a hidden band of broadcasts by WETA, the public radio station based in Shirlington.

In 1991, the Ear began offering dial-in service — a “more interactive” version of the radio broadcasts, said Margaret Pfanstiehl, founder of the Washington Ear and president of its board of directors. “You can control the section” that you listen to, she said. “You can skip to one story, or skip back and forth in an article.”

<b>IT’S A SERVICE</b> that D’Addario appreciates. “I missed [reading a newspaper] very much, when I started to lose my vision,” he said. “The Ear was able to give me back something that was lost.”

Subscribers to the service call the Ear’s phone line toll free. But listeners in Virginia almost lost those services this year, when the state cut its funding for the toll-free line.

“People living in Arlington, Alexandria and most of Fairfax can reach us by a local call, but beyond that it’s long-distance,” said Pfanstiehl.

Fortunately, she said, WETA stepped in again. Starting with last month’s broadcasts and lasting until next November, listeners in Virginia will find their toll-free calls to the Washington Ear are underwritten by WETA, while Pfanstiehl and other Ear directors look for a permanent way to fund the phone lines.

More and more people are taking advantage of the service, said Pfanstiehl. There are about 1,500 regular callers to the Washington Ear’s dial-in service, and it gets more popular every year.

Like D’Addario, Bud and Billie Jean Keith have been calling the Ear’s dial-in service since it began. “We can skim through the newspaper just about as fast as someone reading at the breakfast table,” said Billie Jean Keith, an Arlington resident.

She also uses the radio service, “when I do chores, boring things,” she said. “I like to hear the New York Times on a Sunday evening.”

<b>WITHOUT SUFFERING</b> a loss of vision, it was obvious to Michael Byrnes why there was a need for the Ear. Byrnes is the chief engineer at WETA, and since 1975 has served as the chief engineer for the Ear’s broadcast facilities in Silver Spring.

“People who need it depend on it greatly,” he said. “Being there everyday, listening to the readers and watching the feedback makes you extremely aware of something we take for granted … the ability to pick up the Arlington Connection, or any other paper, and scan that.”

Byrnes has been working with the Washington Ear almost since they started broadcasting on WETA’s subcarrier frequency. Those broadcasts, he said, are part of what the FCC had in mind when it set up the FM broadcast bands.

Each station’s broadcasts took up more than enough wavelengths to transmit clear music; there was also room to carry all sorts of information, room that stations were supposed to lease as a way of supporting themselves.

Some stations carry stock information on their subcarrier broadcasts, some carry pager calls, some lease their subcarrier space to the Muzak network. At WETA, since 1974, one of the subcarrier channels has carried the Washington Ear’s broadcast of daily newspapers.

<b>IN 1991, WHEN</b> the Ear started the dial-in service, it had phone lines donated by MCI, then paid for by the states of Maryland and Virginia. It took more volunteers to carry all of the information available on the phone line — the Ear has 350 volunteers, 300 of them readers, and it takes a total of 25 man-hours to get the Post online every morning, recording that takes place between 5:30 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Services in Maryland continue unchanged. But last year, the state of Virginia told the Ear it wouldn’t be able to underwrite the Virginia phone line.

“It would take us from $12,000 to $15,000 to pay for it,” said Pfanstiehl. “We had a few thousand to make it happen. If we could get $10,000 from the state, we could guarantee that it would continue to exist. But we can’t do it ourselves.”

Over the summer, WETA stepped in and offered to pay for the Ear’s toll-free line in Virginia for the next year, while the non-profit tries to find a way to permanently fund the service.

“They are good to citizens in the whole Washington region,” said Pfanstiehl. “The people who use our service are very grateful.”

It’s a boon to Billie Jean Keith. She lost her vision in college, and had to use magnifiers or hire readers to find anything in the newspaper after that.

“It took time. It wasn’t a particularly efficient way,” she said. “This is a great way to take advantage of how everyone else finds their news.”