June 29, 2014

For this TV show, no talent required

One of Charlotte’s most unusual TV programs is looking for new on-air talent.

One of Charlotte’s most unusual TV programs is looking for new on-air talent.

No experience necessary, no college degree required, looks are irrelevant and age is not a factor. The only prerequisite: An ability to read the newspaper ... aloud.

That’s pretty much all that happens on the “Charlotte Readers Information Service,” a Monday-through-Friday cable show on Access 21 that features average people reading The Charlotte Observer aloud for 90 minutes.

Yes, even the funnies page.

It may sound like an odd basis for a show, but producers say they have a common-sense mission: to give visually impaired people, shut-ins and the illiterate a chance to read the paper, or hear it being read.

The format has proven successful – not to mention cheap to stage – for nearly a decade.

Yet complications have arisen of late that are putting the nonprofit show in jeopardy.

The crew of readers, all volunteers, is dwindling as they age into retirement, leaving the remaining cast scrambling to fill five 90-minute broadcasts a week. Two readers are needed per broadcast and the group is now down to about six people.

New readers are being sought and just about anybody qualifies, said Neal Howes, a professional actor who is one of the stars of the show. And there’s no need to get dressed up, he said, because readers don’t appear on screen. Instead, viewers see public service announcements or promos.

“We’re not a news show, we’re not a talk show and we’re not looking for professionals,” Howes said.

“All we do is read the articles from the newspaper. Even I sometimes have trouble pronouncing things. We laugh on occasion and make jokes, but only when something is funny. We keep it to a minimum.”

Howes, a former county employee, said the show would be a good fit for college students who want to improve their diction for degrees in broadcast journalism.

It’s believed the “Readers Information Service” dates back at least nine years, having been launched by a man who had been involved with a similar program up North. He has since left the community. The Lions Clubs donates what little money is needed, when equipment must be repaired or replaced, Howes said.

He’s not sure how many viewers the show has ... or even whether anyone is watching at all. Ratings surveys aren’t done and nobody can recall getting any fan mail.

Larry Bumgarner, another of the readers, said he’d like to imagine there are rooms full of people in nursing homes or senior centers tuning in – captive audiences, so to speak.

He said the concept of the show is deliberately old fashioned, and is purposely missing the polish of televised newscasts. He’s not concerned with viewership.

“Even if I was told one person needed me to come to their house and read the paper to them, I’d do it,” said Bumgarner, a Mint Hill retiree.

“There is a segment of people out there who don’t get out of the house and we’re trying to reach out to them. Everybody needs a friend. If nothing else, we’re doing that.”

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