For the last 30 years, Mountain Area Radio Reading Service (MARRS) has kept blind and visually impaired people in Asheville and surrounding areas abreast of news, features, entertainment, sports—everything that print media shares with the world. The nonprofit’s 60 volunteers provide on-air readings of local newspapers such as the Hendersonville Times- News and the Asheville Citizen-Times as well as national publications like USA Today and The New Yorker.
Funding for operations comes from churches, sponsors and donors, including listeners themselves. Willie Hunter of Asheville is one of the many listeners who depend on the programming they hear through the internet or from specially tuned radios that MARRS provides free of charge. Hunter says that, with his eyes not what they used to be, it became hard for him to read. “I used to read the paper all the time.” He has been an avid listener of MARRS for 15 years. “I listen at night. They read the sports section. I like that.” He tunes in to local as well as national and international news. “It’s truly been a blessing.”
Twenty-four hours of programming runs seven days a week, says board president George deWalder, with four to five hours a day of local news and information and the rest—fiction readings, religious news, commentary, business and finance, nutrition and fitness, just about any topic imaginable—streamed.
Before moving to the area in 2004, deWalder worked with a similar program in Winston- Salem, Triad Information Reading Service (TIRS). When time allowed, he joined MARRS as a reader.
It was through TIRS that he met Jonathan Milam—“a true gentleman and a genius,” as deWalder describes him. In 2014, Milam became a contract engineer for MARRS and, along with local support from Tim Warner, keeps things running smoothly.
“Having been completely blind since birth,” Milam says, “I have always had a passion for radio broadcasting and related technology.” His primary responsibility with MARRS, he says, is the automation system that plays and records on-air content in the Asheville and Hendersonville studios. “He can discern what’s going on with the system remotely,” says office administrator Julie Crawshaw.
Milam identifies personally, he says, with the importance of reading services. “While assistive technology makes it possible to read newspapers online through synthetic speech, many people do not have such technology available to them. Thus, reading services are a critical link to the outside world for our listeners, providing them with a level of news that is otherwise unavailable from terrestrial broadcast media outlets.”
Warner has worked in various capacities with MARRS since its inception. These days he helps keep microphones and other equipment working. (The most feedback from listeners received at MARRS, deWalder says, is when glitches occur and the service is interrupted.)
Warner appreciates the reading service for the thoroughness it offers. “Blind people need some way to get information on political candidates and issues,” he says. “The reading service provides the details and fills in what is missing in the partisan advertising that dominates television.”
Volunteer Gary Coleman says that a Citizen-Times article about MARRS a few years ago prompted his involvement. “I could relate to the circumstance of the MARRS listeners, as my elderly mother had endured significant vision problems during the last years of her life. That was my motivation to become a volunteer reader, which I thoroughly enjoy.”
To learn more about MARRS, including how to support the cause as a volunteer or as a donor, visit marrswnc.org. On March 11, volunteer Gary Coleman will present a program about MARRS at 11 a.m. at the Edneyville Public Library. For more information, visit library.hendersoncountync.org.