An audible difference

Volunteers such as Southside’s Linda Stark help grow IRIS’ informational programming for people with visual or physical impairments

Linda Stark

As volunteers sit in recording booths, reading newspapers live over the radio for Indiana Reading & Information Services (IRIS), they may be imagining the person at the other end, listening and, hopefully, being impacted by the service.

“Because it’s an invisible audience, we don’t know who’s listening with the live broadcast,” said Linda Stark, Perry Township resident and Southport High School alumni. “From a volunteer perspective, I want to have as many listeners as I can and want feedback from listeners. We want to know what they like and enjoy.”

In 2012, Stark was driving when she heard a broadcast about IRIS and the service it provides. IRIS, a service of WFYI, gives access to printed information for individuals who cannot read due to a visual, physical or learning disability. Volunteers read everything from newspapers, books and even grocery ads for members to access 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Mandy Bishop

“A lot of people quoted this the hidden gem of Indiana,” said Mandy Bishop, Southside Indianapolis resident and IRIS coordinator. “A lot of people don’t know about our service. When we do get new listeners, they’re quick to call or send a letter that they’re so thankful for our service.”

Stark is no stranger to volunteering – from helping start Indy Reads (then Greater Indianapolis Literacy League) in the 80s to her 20-year service with the Indianapolis Zoo and Eiteljorg Museum, and more. She said IRIS sounded like a good cause, and fit her own talents and interests. She is a Ball State University graduate with degrees in journalism, radio and television, and is retired from a career in the publishing industry.

She auditioned in the summer of 2012 and started volunteering immediately.

She started as a book reader, recording The Scarlet Letter in hour-long segments. Each book is not aired until the person recording has finished in its entirety. One day, she was asked if she would like to sit in on a live segment.

“They handed me the microphone,” she said. “I didn’t have a sure concept of what was expected, but I ran with it. They said, ‘why don’t you come in and do a live read?’”

Live reads are two-hour broadcasts.

“Now there’s nothing intimidating about it, but I had not done that before,” she said. “A young man came in, a Butler student. He said ‘this is a piece of cake; don’t worry about it.’ We get in there and are doing the live broadcast. It’s a tradeoff. You have to be in sync with the person. He and I had never met. We’re doing the TV schedule. We’re doing pretty well. All of a sudden, he looked at me and says, ‘arthritis pain?’ I looked at him like are you asking me if I’m in pain? … He looked away and started laughing. The one thing you don’t want is dead space or to get hysterical on a live broadcast. Because he was laughing, I started laughing. In the end, neither of us could compose ourselves. That was my very first broadcast.”

Scene from inside IRIS.

That type of mishap hasn’t happened to her since, but Stark said they do have to be flexible and improvise on occasion during live reads.

“The reading partners I have, we’ve been together a long time,” she said. “We know each other really well. I think the camaraderie is added value to the listener.”

Stark now reads the first, third and fifth Thursdays and third Sunday of The Indianapolis Star with a reading partner. She occasionally reads grocery ads and Southside newspapers. She also composes her own recorded program called Annie-mals, named after her dog, Annie Rose. In this program she talks about all types of animals and related issues. She intends in the near future to do an interview with Dr. Robert Shumaker, vice president of conservation and life sciences at the Indianapolis Zoo. She said she hopes other volunteers will be inspired to do their own interviews with local people, giving added value to the programming.

IRIS has approximately 100 volunteers who read 150 publications each month. The service has 2,500 registered listeners: people with Parkinson’s, dyslexia, who have had a stroke or a have visual impairment.

Bishop said 75 percent of listeners have aged into blindness and the remaining 25 percent have a visual impairment or physical disability.

“It’s kind of isolating for elderly people or people who are bling to be at home, especially if they don’t have a lot of family and friends coming around, so I think they bond with our volunteers and our programs,” Bishop said. “When I go to work events and actually have listeners come up, they’re excited to see us and talk to us about how we’ve helped their family. It’s really neat to have them ask me about different volunteers… You don’t get that immediate feedback. To get feedback that there are people listening to us, it’s exciting.”

More than 150 publications are read each month through IRIS.

Since taking on the position as coordinator two years ago, Bishop said they’ve grown the programming to be 85 percent volunteer-based, with less than 15 percent of content downloaded from other reading services. Now that the content is where they want it to be, she said they are focusing on growing the listener base and the funding to be able to upgrade equipment. Bishop, and volunteers, are often at community events such as the upcoming Indiana Flower + Patio Show on March 11 – 19 or Walk MS: Indianapolis on April 2, 9 a.m. – 12 p.m., to promote IRIS.

“It’s a good service to the community,” Bishop said. To which, Stark concurred.

“My aunt, who is now deceased, in another city did rely on a reading service similar to IRIS,” Stark said. “It made such a difference in her life. I can only guess that the value is shared by a small, if not a big audience. We take for granted that we can see, we can hear, we can pick up a publication and enjoy it at our leisure. If you’re not able to read the words or literally can’t see, there’s not way you can get information other than the human voice.”