Although reading services for the blind and visually impaired have been available for many years, some folks may not know that volunteer opportunities exist as readers for these services.
If you’re a voice artist looking to improve your skills, while at the same time giving back to your community and beyond, this is an excellent avenue to pursue if a reading center’s recording studio is near you. Using Google or other search engine can quickly identify the nearest one to your location. For me, VoiceCorps reading service (www.voicecorps.org) is located in Columbus OH, about a 20-25 minute drive from my house.
Sometime around 2008, a co-worker of mine who was in the communications department talked with me about my goals to become a voice artist, and recommended I sign up with VoiceCorps as a training and developmental tool, an addition to being a great volunteer opportunity. In 2012 my life schedule had changed to where I could budget time for this. I contacted VoiceCorp’s volunteer coordinator Amy Billerman, who had me fill out a questionnaire and come in for a brief recording audition, just to make sure I could make myself understood – fortunately, I passed, and I was placed on their on-call list, and given a tour of their studios. There five or six individual studio rooms, and one studio designed for two readers to work from at the same time. I was given a quick training session on how to use the computer application to begin recording, pause when I needed to know, and how to re-record a section if I’d made an egregious error (for most minor fluffs I was advised to just keep going and not worry about it).
VoiceCorps broadcasts 24 hours a day, playing a variety of programs under different subjects, many of which would play multiple times so that listeners on different schedules could catch their favorite. While most of the readers came to the studio to record shows for a future date, some readers came in each day and did live broadcasts, typically reading from the local daily newspaper. In fact, I was offered an immediate opportunity to come in Sunday mornings to read the paper, which conflicted with my church. But after two weeks I was asked about recording a weekly one-hour show on technology, primarily on tech which assisted the blind, but also of general interest, which I agreed to do.
I was directed to a cubbyhole where a print copy of a monthly newsletter published on-line by the American Federation for the Blind (www.afb.org), containing 10 to 12 articles on technology for the blind. Someone would also leave local news articles or national magazine articles on technology to use, so I would have enough material to fill an hour.
It didn’t take long into recording my show to learn that; A) reading coherently, clearly, and without making a mistake is a lot harder than it looks; and B) there were times when I simply could not articulate a particular group of words or letter combinations; and C) when I had to re-do those sections, I ended taking an additional 30 to 45 minutes to get one week’s program in the can. One particularly rough week I was in there a little over two hours.
At the time, there were two blind engineers overseeing the studio control room, and who would come to your studio room to upload your recording to their master broadcast file. It took a while before I realized they were doing most of the voiceovers for their station ID, ads, calendar reminders, etc., and that they were very, very good at it.
Did I ever listen to my shows afterward? Yes. The VoiceCorps signal can be accessed streaming on the web, with the proper login and password. In addition, they also broadcast on one channel of the old Time Warner cable system, which we had in our house at the time. My show was broadcast Saturdays at noon, and again at midnight Saturday night, and I would try to listen each week and critique myself.
My goodness, those early attempts were, shall we say, unpolished. In short phrases, I could sound suave, sophisticated, and professional. But these articles had LONG sentences, and it was tough to be reading continuously and anticipate where to place short pauses, or slight accents, or emphasis on certain words. At the end of one long sentence, my articulation and pacing might leave you wondering exactly what the sentence meant.
I would listen to other shows , and marvel at how smooth and relaxed other readers were. But I persevered each week, and once in a while Amy would tell me that a listener had called or emailed to say they liked my show and my work. I knew wasn’t going to win any trophies, but eventually I reached a point to where I could be reasonably comfortable with my reading.
However, once in a while, a voice inside my head would give me a virtual slap to remind me that my work at VoiceCorps wasn’t about me – it was about those listeners who depend on the service because they were unable to read the articles for themselves. And I was learning about things I had never heard of or considered as a sighted person. For instance, did you know the Apple iPhone became a favorite of the blind and visually impaired because of its VoiceOver feature? Apple tapped into a new market, other phone companies saw this and decided to add assistive tech features on their phones, and the world opened up for many. I learned more about about digital scanners that can identify objects and colors and street locations. Surprisingly, the on-line Uber taxi service quickly became a hot item for blind people as a way to hail a cab without having to call a local company, and I read articles on that service as well.
My time at Voice Corps lasted almost two years, until their evening engineer retired and they were forced to cut back on their evening studio hours. I was still working for the Postal Service, and I couldn’t free myself up during weekdays before 5 PM to go to Voice Corps. I reluctantly stepped down, but was gratified when I was told that I was welcome back anytime, especially when I retired.
And that time has arrived. I’m going to call Voice Corps this week, and ask if they have any openings or need someone to fill in. And I’ll do so with a brand-new perspective and confidence, as a trained voice artist with a portfolio of commercial work. I recently met another Columbus voice artist in our monthly Meet-up group who just started at Voice Corps, so it’s nice to have someone who I can relate to in that area.
Anyone out there who also as experience working for a reading service, or who has questions? Drop me a line and reply to this post, I’d love to hear from you.
Okay, back to work in my studio. I think another cup of Tim Horton’s coffee from my Keurig is in order. There’s definitely a chill in the air this week, autumn has arrived. Until next time, keep putting your best voice forward, and remember that you can be a voice for others who need it.