A New Era of Old-Time Radio

The Talking Information Center and Bay Colony Shakespeare Company team up to broadcast plays for disabled listeners.

By Jennifer H. McInerney | Photography by Jack Foley
 
Pictured above: Talking Information Center’s production director John Shea sits at the radio station control board. 

Across the state, some 30,000 people who are blind or have other disabilities don’t have to feel alone, thanks to the Talking Information Center (TIC). Every day, around the clock, these individuals can listen to the comforting voices of dedicated South Shore volunteers reading printed publications aloud, which TIC broadcasts on the subcarrier signal of the Marshfield-based radio station WATD.

Established in 1978, TIC began as a reading service for the blind, delivered through a special receiver. Over the years, the nonprofit has expanded its reach to a broader audience of housebound individuals with a range of visual and physical impairments, and its volunteer base has grown to 200 readers.

“For a lot of people, TIC is a lifeline,” says executive director Jim Bunnell. “It’s rewarding to be able to provide this service to them.”

Poised to celebrate its 40th anniversary in June, the TIC network continues to permeate the airwaves with meaningful content, transmitting the latest newspapers and magazines, bestselling fiction and nonfiction, and even supermarket sales and specials to listeners.

In 2017, the organization garnered further acclaim with the introduction of a series of live radio plays that hearken back to the Golden Age of Radio.

Eric Joseph, the executive director of the Bay Colony Shakespeare Company and one of TIC’s volunteers, approached Bunnell about the possibility of recreating the style of old-time theatrical programming that was so popular in the 1930s and ‘40s.

“We sent a message out to our volunteer base and within 10 hours we had 50 people interested in auditioning,” says Bunnell.

To cast the first show, a production of “Twelfth Night,” Joseph recorded each audition to gain a sense of the volunteers’ voices. Afterward, with his eyes closed, he listened carefully to each voice and assigned them to the characters in the play. He found the process to be very different from selecting actors for the stage. For example, an older woman might have a very youthful voice and be given the role of a young woman. “She may be a senior citizen, but on the radio she’s a 30-year-old.”

Talking Information Center’s Assistant Executive Director Anna Dunbar and Executive Director Jim Bunnell work with a team of volunteers who read newspapers and other print documents over the airwaves for visually impaired listeners.

With the exception of Joseph, the people performing in the series of radio plays are not professional actors. A few may have had some experience on the stage, but the majority of the volunteers are new to acting. After rehearsals and coaching from Joseph, the “readers” transform into actors with a specific set of skills. “On stage, actors have many more tools in their toolbox—movement, blocking, gestures,” says Joseph. “In radio acting, your voice is your only instrument to tell listeners everything they need to know about the character you’re portraying. The volunteers have gotten really good at that.”

For that first live broadcast, TIC invited an audience into the studio. “We offered everyone in the audience a blindfold so they could experience what our listeners experience when they hear the show,” says Bunnell. “Many people gave it a try.”

The success of “Twelfth Night” led to a pilot series of three classic plays over the summer: “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “Working,” and “The Lottery.” The group then performed “The Maltese Falcon” in September, a Halloween double-feature of “Ghost Hunt” and “Three Skeleton Key” in October, and a veteran salute with “Johnny Got His Gun” in November.

“The plays have been extremely popular with our listeners, especially because they recognize the voices of the volunteers who’ve been reading to them over the years,” observes John Shea, TIC’s production director. “They’ve come to think of them as friends.”

Auditions are open to all active TIC volunteers. Over the summer, Joseph was able to guarantee a role to everyone who auditioned, including a blind woman whose script was converted to Braille.

TIC plans to broadcast one live play each month, on the last Thursday of the month, without commercial interruption. The commercials, which are also performed live by cast members in an “old-timey” style, are played at the beginning and end of the broadcast.

Because its services are offered free of charge to its audience, TIC relies on the generosity of donors and commercial sponsors to maintain its unique programming. Adding radio plays to its diverse programming seemed like a natural extension to Joseph, and he hoped the new offering would yield additional sponsorship opportunities for the organization.

Eric Joseph, the executive director of the Bay Colony Shakespeare Company, and a volunteer take part in a live theater reading. The Talking Information Center aims to broadcast one live play each month, on the last Thursday of the month, without commercial interruption.

“It’s been fruitful,” he says. “And the buzz has gotten people really excited. Everyone feels good about it because it’s fun, creative and unique—something no one else has—and we’re giving listeners something new that they enjoy.”

When he’s not acting live on the air, Joseph and the Bay Colony Shakespeare Company tour schools throughout Massachusetts, bringing Shakespeare performances and workshops to students in middle schools and high schools.

Listen Up:
To hear the complete summer series as well as upcoming radio plays performed by TIC Network volunteers, please visit ticnetwork.org. In addition, the free TIC app is available for both Apple and Android devices. Or tune in to: WVBF-AM Middleboro 1530AM, WUML-FM Lowell 91.5, WDJM-FM Framingham 91.3, and WRRS-LPFM Pittsfield 104.3.

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