When Hearing is Believing: A Profile of CHOICE MAGAZINE LISTENING

by B. T. Kimbrough

The Biggest Prize of All

By the company’s own calculations, Publishers Clearing House has given away more than $225 million through sweepstakes bearing the famous slogan, “You might already be a winner!” But the founder of the firm, LuEsther T. Mertz, left nothing to chance in deciding who the big winners would be when her company was sold in the early 1960s. She used much of the money to launch a project which would share significant magazine content with a group of readers who had been completely cut off from it until then. Mrs. Mertz’s gift made it possible to hire a group of editors whose only job would be to make a super-magazine, containing the best of what was in those other magazines promoted by Publishers Clearing House. Today, we know the project created by Mrs. Mertz’s gift, as CHOICE MAGAZINE LISTENING (CML).

Behind the Scenes

Every three months, the three current CML editors look through more than a hundred print monthly and quarterly magazines, dividing the territory equally among them. When they feel they have found the very best articles, poems and stories, the process of putting together CML have just begun.

Articles recommended by individual editors are recorded by volunteers so that all three editors can picture how they might sound in a recorded magazine. Only if an article passes the listening test, is it considered for inclusion in CML, which is described on its website as “a free audio anthology for a special audience of blind, visually impaired, physically disabled, or dyslexic subscribers.” As a longtime CML reader, I would describe it as a valued source of often-memorable articles–many of which I might otherwise have missed.

This website, choicemagazinelistening.org, provides a few other essential facts–the publication was founded in 1962, and Mrs. Mertz’s generous gift created the non-profit Lucerna Fund to offer “the best of contemporary magazine writing, completely without charge” to its chosen audience of adults who cannot read standard print.

So it happens that, like DIALOGUE, CML is coming up on its 50th anniversary. I cannot think of a better time to learn a bit more about CML–who works there, and how this unique project is managing in the rapidly evolving world of 21st century sound reproduction and distribution. Our source is CML Editor-in-chief Pamela Loeser, who graciously agreed to my interview request, explaining that she is “always eager to get the word out about CHOICE MAGAZINE LISTENING.”

The three CML editors make up the majority of the five-person staff. The longest-serving editor is Sandra Mochson, who joined CML in 1983 and retired from the editor-in-chief’s responsibilities at the end of last year. Pamela Loeser joined CML in 2000 and became its editor-in-chief in January. Associate Editor Ann Kyrkostas joined CML in 2007.

Loeser told me that the hiring process always involves a search for someone with previous editorial experience. She recalled being recruited in 2000 by then editor-in-chief Doris Fields because Loeser was a published writer and had a thriving business going at the time as a freelance editor. She had some initial hesitation, knowing that the job would substantially cut into her writing time. But the deciding factor, she told me, was the opportunity to do all that reading as part of her job. “Wait a minute,” she reflected, “I’d be getting paid to read magazines!”

Loeser said that a love of reading, and sharing what is worth passing on, makes the job of a CML editor truly worthwhile. She told me that all three editors have their favorite authors/subjects and that those preferences are occasionally reflected in their choices. At the same time, all three editors often find themselves delving with fascination into new subjects at CML, and Loeser added that many CML readers have written appreciatively to report the same experience.

With a group of three confident editors who care deeply about the quality of the product, it is not surprising that there is occasionally spirited disagreement about whether a particular piece deserves a place in CML. Loeser told me that those “interesting discussions” often relate to pieces of fiction, a genre in which she has published no fewer than 13 titles. In any case, be it fiction, nonfiction or poetry, on those rare occasions when there is no definite consensus among the three, the editor-in-chief, is, of course, “the decider.”

When they sit down to an editorial meeting to make those final decisions, the three have much more on their agenda than simply naming the 20 to 35 pieces which will comprise the next CML issue. Loeser said they are particular about the sequence, making sure that the spell cast by an effective serious piece isn’t instantly shattered by what follows. The CML editors also have definite ideas about which the narrator should read which piece. Since they carefully review the recordings sent by Talking Books Publishing in Denver, Colorado, before passing them on for duplication to National Audio in Springfield, Missouri, they have come to appreciate the different styles and skills of their narrators, and they generally assign each piece they select to a specific voice. Needless to say, those meetings can last up to three hours, especially now that the magazine is quarterly and contains 12 hours of material, instead of the eight hours which were provided when CML was distributed on a bi-monthly basis.

A Few More Numbers

The switch to quarterly publication is somewhat related to another major transition–the gradual shift from audio cassettes to digital access. Loeser told me that about 1,000 CML readers have been serving as volunteers to “test-drive” a new digital version, supplied on a cartridge which can be inserted directly into the National Library Service (NLS) digital talking book player. When the test is over, all CML readers will be invited to receive CML via cartridge, which must be returned once an issue is read so that the next issue can be copied in its place. Loeser said that with the advent of the quarterly publication, readers will have about two months to read and enjoy the current issue before they need to return the cartridge for reprocessing.

Over its 50-year history, Choice Magazine Listening has generally followed in the wake of technology transitions at NLS, moving from hard disks in the early 1960s, to flexible disks in the 1970s and later to four-track audio cassettes. Loeser said that the switch to digital constituted a tough choice for CML because the cartridges are relatively expensive–around $10 apiece in small quantities. Because of the expense, there is no way that CML could simply invite users to keep the cartridges as they have done with cassettes. However, readers who want to keep their digital issues of CML can obtain a digital download from the BARD website sponsored by NLS. Loeser told me that CML’s Circulation Manager and Information Technology consultant Michael Tedeschi is hard at work constructing an expanded CML website where users will one day be able to download the current issue and some past digital issues.

Some of what might be the most interesting numbers, budget figures for the magazine’s operations, are unavailable because CML is a private organization without substantial public funding, so its financial statements are not published. Loeser did say that the CML budget has risen steadily over the years, which suggests that the founding gift from LuEsther T. Mertz was successfully and safely invested.

Those nearly 50 years of operation have delivered nearly 300 issues to a readership which has grown steadily from several hundred back in the early 1960s to about 20,000 now. When I asked Loeser about her goals for the future of CML, she said that the number of readers should grow substantially above 20,000 if CML finds a way to reach a greater percentage of Americans with limited vision–a number she places at about ten million.

Beyond The Printed Page

One of her more immediate goals relates to a 50th-anniversary celebration, which is planned for this November. “We’re planning a big kick-off event,” Loeser told me. “It’s going to be a reading by some of our well-known authors–we don’t know who yet. It’s going to be in Manhattan at Lighthouse International, and it will be open to the public.”

Choice Magazine Listening is available free of charge to US residents who are blind or visually impaired, or who are otherwise unable to read standard print. Their website isĀ choicemagazinelistening.org. Their toll-free phone number is 888-724-6423. If you call, you will probably speak to Kathy Ye, who serves as CML’s bookkeeper and office manager.

Knowing that our virtual tour guide for this feature reads a great deal on the job, sometimes nonstop all day, I couldn’t resist asking Pamela Loeser what she reads away from the office. “I love mystery, suspense, literary fiction and history. One thing that I started doing once I started working for CML ten years ago, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got this 40-minute driving commute each way. I should be listening to audio books!’ That’s what I’ve been doing. I read a lot of books in the car.

“When I’m reading all day at work, my eyes get tired. So when I get home, I like to keep reading, but sometimes it’s just too difficult, and I’ve gotten into the habit of doing a lot of audio reading. Some books are just so much richer in audio, you can just appreciate them so much better–not unlike the pieces that we use in CML.”