Between 1998 and 2001, I had the chance to fulfill a longtime dream of being on the radio. But I wasn’t spinning tunes from my favorite rock bands or moderating intense discussions of local politics— I was reading grocery ads to the blind and vision-impaired residents of Chicago.
I found out about Chicagoland Radio Information Services (CRIS) through my blind friend, Danny, who tunes in via a special receiver in his home (the signal is broadcast on a subcarrier frequency of WBEZ, the local NPR station) to hear newspapers and magazines read aloud. Intrigued, and harboring a not-so-secret desire to bust into broadcasting, I signed up to be an on-air reader and was given the Thursday 9 a.m. slot, in which I’d share the mic with Marjorie Harris, a slight 80-something woman who was a dead ringer for actress Margaret Hamilton (in her Maxwell House coffee days, as opposed to her role as the Wicked Witch of the West). Marjorie was a pro, having worked for ABC Radio back in the day, albeit behind the scenes. She showed up for our shifts wearing a mink coat with her Keds tennis shoes and royal blue double-knit slacks. I immediately adored her.
At 9 a.m. on the dot, Cat, our radio engineer, would give us the signal from outside our tiny studio, and for the next 30 minutes, Marjorie and I would read the sports articles the station manager had clipped from The Chicago Sun-Times and The Chicago Tribune, stumbling over Russian tennis players’ names during the summer tournaments and reporting the end of another losing Cubs’ season in the fall.
But come 9:30, we were on our own to choose what to read from the advertisements of four Chicagoland grocery stores: Jewel, the nationwide grocery chain that began as a horse-drawn wagon selling coffee and tea in turn-of-the-century Chicago; Dominick’s, a local Chicago grocer now owned by Safeway; Butera Market, which describes itself as “Chicagoland’s low price leader;” and Treasure Island, a quirky store known for its wide range of international products and its quaint tradition of continuing to weigh vegetables in the produce aisle rather than at checkout.
Without discussing it, we fell into an easy routine. Marjorie would begin reading the Jewel ads, ticking off the price of Italian bread or bakery fresh chocolate chip cookies before occasionally pausing for commentary.
“Broccoli Wokly, Mary,” she would say. “Do you know what that is?”
“Hmmm, Marjorie,” I’d say, looking over at her set of ads and scrambling for an answer. “It looks like packaged, pre-cut broccoli.”
“Yes, I think you’re right,” she’d answer and would resume reading the prices of baby carrots, spinach dip and grape tomatoes before cueing me to begin the Dominick’s ads.
I liked reading Dominick’s colorful flier because I shopped there. I’m not sure that it was any better than Jewel, but it was the first grocery store I learned when I moved to Chicago, and old habits die hard. So when I read their ads, I was reading for myself as well as listeners. I would scan the photos of fresh fruits and vegetables to announce that Driscoll Strawberries were selling at two quarts for $5 or that asparagus was $1.99 a pound, while making a mental note to try that new shortcake recipe I’d read about in the Food section.
Sometimes I couldn’t suppress the urge to comment, “Great deal!” as I reeled off the sales on cuts of meat— London Broil, $2.39 a pound, pork tenderloins for $3.99— and mentioned the deals on 5-pound bags of flour and sugar for avid bakers. Then, remembering that not everyone has the time or desire to cook, I’d call out the specials on rotisserie chicken or Lean Cuisine.
Meanwhile, Marjorie would sift through her stack of fliers and scribble a grocery list before resuming the Jewel ads. After about 15 minutes, we’d tackle Butera and Treasure Island, interspersing deals on sodas and toilet paper with prices of Major Grey’s Mango Chutney and imported Gorgonzola.
In my three years at CRIS, I read other sections of the newspaper on the air— advice columns and comic strips— but nothing grabbed me like reading the grocery ads. I loved being in the know about the sales. But more than that, I loved reading out the words “pluots” and “gherkins” and “vermicelli” each week. I’d belt out specials on ice cream the way the vendors proffered milk and strawberries in the song “Who Will Buy?” in the musical “Oliver,” or the way Cab Calloway offered dishes to his guests in his classic “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House” (which features the classic line, “Try a tomato, Plato!”). Along with the beer men at the ballparks and the guys who man street corner hot dog stands, I was part of a grand busking tradition.
I never got feedback, so I don’t know if anyone was paying attention to the ads. I like to think that my friend Danny tuned in and gave his wife, Odile, a shopping tip or two, but I’m sure Odile was far too organized (and Danny too preoccupied with serious reading) to need my advice. Still whenever I leaf through the ads in The Sun’s Wednesday food section, I have the urge to whisper, “Sweet corn, 12 for $1.99,” even if no one is listening.