Perusing through a black-owned newspaper has become commonplace for many, with access to the latest news and events affecting the black community locally and nationally right at their fingertips.
Metropolitan Washington Ear volunteer Mark Baker has been providing visually and physically disabled Washingtonians with this same access, in a different way, for nearly 20 years.
“I am a volunteer reader and I have been reading the black newspapers for the Ear since 1999,” Baker said. “One day I got a package delivered to my door and the delivery person said ‘you have a really nice voice, have you ever heard of the Washington Ear?’ I said ‘Huh? What’s that?’ So I did some research, I went in for an interview and they accepted me, and I’ve been reading ever since.”
The Metropolitan Washington Ear enables visually and physically disabled individuals to access available publications “any time of day or night, seven days a week,” using touch-tone telephones, according to the organization website
While the Ear offers a variety of reading services, Baker, 53, has chosen to be an extension of the Black Press by primarily reading black-owned publications.
“I’m glad to be able to provide the Washington Ear service of reading Black newspapers like [The Washington] Informer for the community, whoever they are and wherever they are,” he said. “There’s a very broad community who is out there and I would love to know about them and have them as regular listeners to black newspapers.”
With a background as a trained vocalist and radio broadcaster, Baker found that his knowledge of the voice allowed him to better understand the needs of the people he serves.
“I try to do a verbatim reading of the article from start to finish without breaks so that it is a continuous reading that people are listening to, because people who aren’t able to see the written word are going to be very sensitive to breaks in the reading,” he said. “The sound of voice might change, the tempo of the reading, and the inflection might change, all things that are very important to listeners.”
Because he does all of his work in the Metropolitan Washington Ear studios, Baker has no interaction with the people who listen to his readings on a regular basis. In fact, in his 18 years of volunteering, he has never met or spoken to any of the beneficiaries of his services.
“I don’t have any stories of people who have benefitted from the readings, but I know that people reach out to the Ear and express their appreciation for what we do,” he said. “It’s sort of providing a service when you don’t know who is out there using it. I’m sure they’re out there but I’ve never interacted with them.”
For what may seem to be a thankless job, Baker finds inspiration to continue to read for the Ear through his own life philosophy.
“I have over the years sculpted my entire life around being able to serve other people,” he said. “This particular effort is gratifying to me because I get to provide a service to people in our community.
“When I was in undergrad at Howard, I really got interested in Alan Lomax, an anthropologist from the 1920s who was very well renowned for doing field recordings of music and interviews of different people including some former slaves,” Baker said. “It was so important to me to have an actual voice recording of a real person from that time. I get to provide that for someone else and that’s one of the things that motivates me.”
With a track record of recording readings at least once a week, Baker doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.
“To black newspapers, I want them to keep documenting our history … that is so very critical,” he said. “Without the black newspapers, we don’t have that insight into our history. It’s extremely important that what is recorded now will be available for future generations. Hopefully, with funding and support, together, we can do that.”