What I Hear

Life with hearing loss

Radio for the Deaf?

Radio is usually off limits for the likes of me.

Last Saturday night “A Prairie Home Companion” was in town, playing at Town Hall on West 43rd Street in New York, an annual appearance. (A second show will be held there this coming Saturday.)

My husband had been given tickets and I decided to go along to see how the show was doing. I hadn’t heard it since 2009 when my hearing got bad enough to make listening to the radio a hit-or-miss experience -- mostly miss.

As the hundreds of thousands who have been in the audience over the four decades of the show (the 40th anniversary will be celebrated this July) can attest, it’s really fun to watch.

The stage is anchored by the band at the center rear, led by Richard Dworsky on piano, headphones anchoring his squashed beret which in turn anchors a cascade of reddish shoulder-length hair. (He’s completely bald on top.) Facing the audience, at least here at Town Hall, they seem to be enjoying the show as much as the paying guests. So does everyone else on stage, including the stagehands who walk on from time to remove music stands or hand out scripts, always utterly quietly since this is radio, but with a little appreciative body language as well.

The famously curmudgeonly Garrison Keillor is of course nothing of the sort. He’s a genial, relaxed presence on the stage, dressed in his signature rumpled suit and red tie, with red sneakers, drinking from a styrofoam coffee cup when he’s not on, sometimes standing by watching the other performers, sometimes with a smile, but mostly seemingly pensive. One of the highlights of every show is his reading of greetings submitted by members of the audience, scraps of paper brought up to the stage during intermission. As he reads through them one by one (looking maybe a tad bored) the pages flutter to the floor.

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But when he’s singing, on Saturday night with crooner Heather Masse in a slinky wrap dress, his eyes lock on hers in classic duet fashion, and his eyebrows speak volumes. And when the band is playing or guest musicians are performing, he’s into the music, snapping his fingers, swaying, a little dance step here and there.

And then of course there are the actors -- the Royal Academy of Radio Actors: Tim Russell, Sue Scott and sound effects man Fred Newman. It’s amazing to see how many voices come out of Tim and Sue, and hilarious to watch the snazzily dressed Newman create every single sound effect in the show -- from footsteps to bird calls to telephone rings -- using basically just his voice and a couple of wood blocks.

But, oh how I missed the words! I could almost follow the monologue because Keillor spiels it off the top of his head, no script. But everything else is scripted. The actors and singers have old-fashioned sheets of paper in their hands and read from them. Unfortunately to read on stage you pretty much have to hold the paper up in front of your mouth, so I heard very little of Sue Scott’s apparently hilarious rendition of Mom calling. What I wouldn’t have done for one of those scripts.

 But better yet, what I wouldn’t have done for a loop system in Town Hall. If you're unfamiliar with looping you can read about it here. 

Town Hall, built in 1921, is a non-profit National Historic site. Many of their events are miked and as a relatively small venue it would not be too expensive or difficult to install looping. That way people with hearing loss could hear everything simply by switching to the T-coil setting on their hearing aid, or by using a neck loop provided by the theater. Town Hall does offer infrared hearing devices for people with hearing loss, but these are not generally useful for people with more than mild hearing loss.

Town Hall seats about 1500 in the orchestra, mezzanine and balcony. Looping experts I asked estimated it would cost somewhere up to $50,000 to loop the entire hall. But it would be much less expensive to set aside one block of seating with hearing loops.

Town Hall? How about it?

 

Katherine Bouton, a former editor at The New York Times, is the author of Shouting Won't Help: Why I—and 50 Million Other Americans—Can't Hear You.

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