News

Listening to the newspaper on the radio? It's a thing.

Service reads newspapers to over 3,000 visually-impaired Iowans a day

Volunteers Mary McCarthy of Coralville and Gale Kolbet of Iowa City take turns Dec. 17 reading articles in The Gazette f
Volunteers Mary McCarthy of Coralville and Gale Kolbet of Iowa City take turns Dec. 17 reading articles in The Gazette for the Iowa Radio Information Service in a studio on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. Volunteers read aloud from nine Iowa newspapers to be broadcast for more than 3,000 vision-impaired Iowans. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Blind since she was a teenager, Joyce Davis still gets to enjoy a daily newspaper.

Davis, 67, of Vinton, listens each day to the Iowa Radio Reading Information Service, in which volunteers read aloud from nine Iowa newspapers and other publications including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and Reader’s Digest.

“When you can get the local paper, it’s nice,” Davis said. “I just like the general things happening in the town. That is what is more interesting to me.”

The Iowa Radio Reading Information Service, or IRIS, is a free service in which more than 300 Iowa volunteers read print information to more than 3,000 print-disabled listeners in Iowa. Listeners tune in through special radios provided by IRIS, over Iowa Public Television antennas or through podcasts or smart speakers, Executive Director Maryfrances Evans said.

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Volunteers across the state read each morning from Iowa newspapers including The Gazette, Des Moines Register, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, (Fort Dodge) Messenger, Sioux City Journal, (Mason City) Globe Gazette, (Dubuque) Telegraph Herald, Ames Tribune and the Daily Nonpareil, based in Council Bluffs.

Mary McCarthy, 66, of Coralville, and Gale Kolbet, 76, of Iowa City, alternated reading local stories from The Gazette Dec. 17 at a studio in the Iowa Public Radio office in Iowa City.

“That’s what I’m afraid of, that I’ll cough,” said Kolbet, who had read for IRIS just one other time. But when the digital clock clicked to 8 a.m. and McCarthy turned on the microphones for the live broadcast, nerves calmed as the women read the day’s news aloud.

They start with the weather, followed by local news, opinion, obituaries, high school sports, Dear Abby, community stories and business.

When a story jumped from one page to another, McCarthy and Kolbet flipped with only the slightest pause, like a good pianist. There was also a tiny hesitation before a tricky name — T.J. Juskiewicz, the former director of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

These human touches are one of the things listeners like about IRIS, as opposed to apps that use text-to-voice technology with computerized voices.

“It’s just neighbors reading to neighbors,” Evans said.

Davis agreed.

“I prefer the human voice,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me that they mispronounce a word. I love that they do it in teams. If you hear an article and you’re not interested, you can go away and then come back when you hear the other voice.”

IRIS is a nonprofit organization with an annual budget of $175,000, Evans said. About $30,000 of that comes from the state, but the rest is in grants, she said. Listeners do not pay for the service, which ranges in cost from about $30 to $335, depending on what type of device is needed for the listener to get reception.

The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics earlier this year added IRIS to TV channels available for inpatients at the Iowa City hospital. When patients go to Channel 137, they can hear a round-the-clock broadcast and see a sample schedule so they know when to tune in for specific programs, UIHC spokeswoman Molly Rossiter reported.

To become an IRIS listener, you may complete a short online application or call (877) 404-4747 for more information.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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