Don Thomasberg, a Falls Church insurance agent, gets up at 5 a.m. Fridays. He dresses quickly, bolts down a cup of coffee, then drives halfway around the Beltway to spend two hours in a Silver Spring church reading the morning newspapers.
About 10 miles away in a Foggy Bottom apartment, Philip Sklover, a blind lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, flips a radio switch, climbs into a hot tub of water and listens to the news -- read over the radio broadcast by Thomasberg.
"I soak up the news while I'm soaking in the tub," says Sklover, 36, who lost him his sight four years ago from an as-yet undiagnosed disease.
Thomasberg, one of about 200 volunteer readers, is part of Washington Ear, a closed-circuit radio reading service that reaches about 2,000 blind and visually impaired people throughout the area.
"I always listen to The Post for two hours when I get up in the morning," says Sklover. "Then when I get home from work at night I have a glass of wine and listen to The Star for two hours. I think I am better informed now than I was four years ago when I had the ability to read."
Thomasberg has been reading The Post over closed-circuit radio from 7 to 9 a.m. on Fridays for nearly five years.
"My original motivation for doing this was the ham in me," he says. "It was a chance to get on the air without having to go through the rigors of the commercial routine.
"Now I'm enjoying it so much that I go around at night giving talks to service clubs and civic groups on Washington Ear."
Washington Ear was launched five years ago through the efforts of Margaret Rockwell, of Silver Spring. When it first began, it was one of only five such services in the nation. Now there are at least 80, and more are being organized every month.
"We do several things," says Rockwell. "We read popular magazines. We read bestseller books in serial form. We read the grocery ads. And we read The Post and The Star.
"So much of everyday conversation topics comes from what people are reading in the newspapers. It's important not to have handicapped people cut off from that."
Rockwell's interest in a reading service began because of her own problems. In the early 1960s, while she was completing her PhD at the University of Maryland, Rockwell learned she had a progressive eye disease. Now, because of the disease, she is legally blind.
In 1973, nearly 10 years after earning her doctorate, Rockwell heard about a radio reading service for the blind in Minnesota and immediately set out to organize the Washington Ear. It took a year to raise enough money, line up volunteer readers and find enough equipment to start the program in Washington.
Finally, after local governments and the Cafritz Foundation contributed $100,000, Washington Ear broadcast its first program on a sub-channel of WETA-FM. There was an audience of 63, all of whom had special receivers. The date was Nov. 4, 1974, and Don Thomasberg did the first broadcast.
At first, Washington Ear was on the air only 30 hours a week. Now broadcasts begin just before 7 a.m. and sign off at 11 p.m. Local governments contribute about 85 percent of the programs's $123,000 annual operating budget; the remainder comes from individual donations foundation grants.
Just a few months ago, the operation moved from the Woodmoor Shopping Center on University Boulevard to the Marvin Memorial United Methodist Church across the street.
The aid of the broadcast, says Rockwell, is to help the blind and visually impaired experience what they cannot see.
Thus, when a newspaper is being broadcast, not only are the stories and headlines read, but pictures and cartoons are described. There is not time, of course, to read all of The Post or The Star in the two hours a day that each paper is allotted, so the readers have to make judgment calls. Occasionally, says Thomasberg, listeners call to complain about stories being left out.
Bestsellers are read from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays, and for purposes of Washington Ear's mission it is vital that the selection be current. The Library of Congress and a variety of organizations that aid the blind have been making tape recordings of books for years, but they usually are available two or three years after publication. Washington Ear is one of the few ways blind people can hear what everyone else is reading, while everyone else is still reading it.
"It puts you in touch with the world community in a more active manner. You're on the same track of movement as everyone else," says Beth Ostrowski of Laruel, who as a teen-ager lost her eyesight to a disease called retinitis pigmentosa.
Ostrowski, a service representative with the Social Security Administration, has been listening to Washington Ear almost since the first broadcast.
"Just the idea that you have the option (of listening or not) is so meaningful," says Ostrowski. "If you've never lost the option, then you don't know what the restriction feels like."
Washington Ear also tries to provide listeners with tips and hints on how people can function with their handicaps.
For instance, Phyllis Burson, 40, a blind psychologist from Silver Spring, does a program with two other visually impaired people called "Cooking, Cleaning and Coping."
"We've talked about relationships with other people, raising children, doing home repairs and relations with families," said Burson.
Most Washington Ear volunteer readers are retired people who find reading at Washington Ear a useful way to spend some of their time.
Joe Cochran, 54, of Silver Spring, for example, has been reading The Washington Star on Mondays from 3 to 5 p.m. for five years.
"Lots of people have been good to me so I figured I have some debts to repay," said Cochran, retired publications chief for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Command. "I decided I wanted to do something in my retirement and this is one thing that I enjoy."