Stewards of the written word

Sun Sounds reads on the radio

Sun Sounds volunteers take to the airwaves to read local news publications, stories and more for those who can’t read.
Sun Sounds volunteers take to the airwaves to read local news publications, stories and more for those who can’t read.
The airwaves of tucson are home to a special kind of volunteer, one who is passionate about reading, and equally passionate about helping those who cannot. Sun Sounds of Arizona is a radio station that provides audio access to print information, such as newspapers and short stories, to people who cannot read or hold print material due to a disability. This service is available via three affiliate stations in Tucson, Tempe and Flagstaff, and covers a wide range of content for a wide range of listeners.

In 1979, Sun Sounds began serving the audiences of Maricopa County. By 1985, it launched its first affiliate station in Tucson. Aside from a small administrative staff, Sun Sounds is entirely volunteer-based. The station volunteers read local news publications such as the Arizona Daily Star, Green Valley News and Tucson Weekly; as well as national publications like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

Much like their listeners, Sun Sounds' interests don't stop at news. Readers host shows about literary short stories and mysteries as well. "Listeners like our programming because it's programming that you can't get on cable, that you can't get on the regular networks, and it's specifically tailored for that," said Tucson station manager Murry Everson. "We have Western shows, romance, science-fiction and health shows. Kind of everything you're not going to get on regular cable or TV. They're not going to get that anywhere else."

Everson first learned about Sun Sounds 18 years ago. His daughter, who is blind, attended Arizona State Schools For The Deaf And The Blind here in Tucson. While registering her at the school, Everson saw a Sun Sounds booth. He thought it would be a good fit for him, and joined shortly after.

Throughout his nearly two decades at Sun Sounds, Everson moved from being a volunteer to being a volunteer coordinator, and finally station manager. In his most recent role, he doesn't read as much as when he was a volunteer, but still occasionally finds time.

Sun Sounds' Tucson affiliate features some 75 volunteers, both readers and engineers, who read to tens of thousands of listeners. While the majority of Sun Sounds listeners are visually impaired, the station also helps individuals who have trouble holding newspapers, such as those with multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease. Volunteers also perform live readings at senior care facilities throughout the area.

Before getting on-air, Sun Sounds volunteers are interviewed, undergo a background check, and can even receive training from a speech pathologist about breathing techniques, pronunciation and enunciation.

"It's rather extensive before they go on the air," Everson said.

According to Everson, the demographic of volunteer readers is generally older or retired people, however, not exclusively. Volunteer readers at Tucson's Sun Sounds also include middle-aged residents, and even teenagers.

"We don't have a lot of turnover, but we do have some," Everson said. "We have a pretty stable group of volunteers who love it and don't change. If there's a common thread, I think a lot of them like literacy and literature, or they have a friend or relative with a disability."

Some of the volunteers have read at Sun Sounds for a decade or more, including Linda Primavera.

Primavera is a volunteer reader and sound engineer who's worked with Sun Sounds for 10 years. She first learned about Sun Sounds when several nonprofits hosted booths at her work, and she decided she'd volunteer once she retired. Primavera now reads literary short stories on a weekly basis.

"I love to read myself, and would hate to not be able to see in order to read," Primavera said. "And I also love reading new authors. So I get to discover new authors as I read the short stories, and help others at the same time."

Sun Sounds is a not-for-profit, volunteer-based organization, so fundraising is always a goal. Luckily, much like the organization itself, donations and funding have grown over the years. In 1988, Sun Sounds held its first specialty beer tasting festival, which raised about $10,000. These days, Sun Sounds hosts three annual festivals around the state which collectively raise more than $250,000.

"It's a radio station," Everson said. "It's a smaller board than what you'll see in a commercial radio station, but it's still a board where you have to control everything, like the volume and putting in the promos and everything else. We're not on a regular AM or FM band, we're on a sub-carrier band of KUAT-FM."

Sub-carrier bands cannot be accessed via AM or FM radios. So if a listener wants to hear their broadcast on the radio, Sun Sounds issues out their radios for free. Currently, Sun Sounds has issued roughly 14,000 radios to listeners in the Tucson area. Sun Sounds is also available via online streaming.

"The trend that we see, and that we hope continues, is that people will more and more primarily listen to us on the internet or any other electronic devices," Everson said. "That is something we're really aware of and that we see."

Another volunteer reader is Michael Koski, who's worked with Sun Sounds for four years. He first learned about the station when his wife heard a PSA for Sun Sounds on the radio.

Koski was recently retired at the time, and always held a love for radio. He found the station to be a good fit.

"One thing led to another, and it's sort of become a second career for me," Koski said. "Most of my life I wished to be on the radio. It was sort of an early love of mine. Now it's come full circle."

Koski has read multiple different styles during his time at Sun Sounds, including Westerns and science-fiction. He also reads the Tucson Weekly every week, and participates in live reading at a local senior care facility. A lifelong fan of Walter Cronkite, Koski said being on the radio is fulfilling for him, and reading different topics allows him to get into different characters.

"Everyone wants to perform, and it's sort of a performance art for me," Koski said. "It's an awful lot of fun, connecting with all these people... The main reasons I stay have to be Murry and Shawn [Frothingham]. Murry is a great station manager and very understanding, and Shawn just has so many great ideas. They kind of became a new family for me. And we're all working to help an underserved section of the community."

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