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'Radio Reader' Leaves 'Em Enthralled

Charles Hillinger's America

February 05, 1989|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Eskimos and Aleuts in Alaska tune in. So do Navajo and Hopi Indians and cabbies from New York.

They are among the millions of listeners hooked on the "Radio Reader," otherwise known as Dick Estell. For 25 years he's been reading books to listeners of 125 National Public Radio stations in 35 states. Currently, his audience for the half-hour, weekday broadcast numbers about 1.5 million.

Produced by WKAR at Michigan State University, "Radio Reader" is one of the country's oldest continuous radio shows. Estell, 62, is the third reader in the program's 64-year history.

Hundreds of Books

"It usually takes me five to six weeks, or 12 to 16 hours, to read a book," explains Estell, who's completed nearly 300 books. He selects them from a broad range, including popular novels, biographies, autobiographies and adventure stories.

"I read whatever strikes me as an outstanding book that listeners would like to hear," Estell says, noting he reads them "cold on the air for spontaneity" and doesn't suppress his emotions.

"If it's funny, I break up, if it's sad, I'm often on the verge of tears. I read a book one time about a 6-year-old boy whose hero was his 10-year-old brother, who was dying of something. The little kid went into the room to say something to his brother who reached out, grabbed him, held on and died.

"I'm sure the listeners choked up. I did. I couldn't go on for a few moments. . . ."

He has to be careful. "Four-letter words jump off the pages in some books. I use a synonym or a variation of the word," Estell says.

"And, of course, some books have passages filled with explicit sex. I never know if that segment of the story is an important part of the plot. So I summarize it."

As an example he cited "Jaws," in which a scientist comes to town and spends an afternoon with the sheriff's wife, an encounter the author writes about in great detail.

"I simply skipped paragraphs and said they spent time in a motel room and dropped it. Anybody with an ounce of brains knows what happened," he says. "But I had to place them in the motel room, because, like the listener, I had no idea how that episode would fit in the overall story."

Estell is currently reading Ivan Doig's "English Creek," the first in the author's trilogy about his home state, Montana. Before that, he read Lamar Alexander's "Six Months Off," about the former Tennessee governor's trip to Australia with his wife and four children. And preceding that was "Traveller" by Richard Adams, the story of Gen. Robert E. Lee's horse from the horse's point of view. "An amazing story," Estell laughed, "right from the horse's mouth."

Later this year he plan's to read Howard Fast's "The Pledge," a novel about Sen. Joseph McCarthy's congressional hearings, and Robert Lindsey's "A Gathering of Saints," about the recent Mormon murders in Salt Lake City. Programs are recorded three months in advance to facilitate scheduling of radio station program guides.

Among the most popular in recent years, he says: Theresa and Michael Savage's "How to Go Around the World Overland," about bicycling around the world; "Voyager," Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan's account of their non-stop flight around the globe, and Steven Callahan's "Adrift 76 Days Out at Sea," a description of author's fight for survival.

To help him decide what books to read Estell scans reviews, books and dust jackets. Listeners also inundate him with suggestions, he adds.

Gets Author's Permission

Permission to read the book on the air must come from the author. "I don't pay royalties, he says, adding: "The books sell like hot cakes when I read them."

Estell, an avid golfer and swimmer, also reads books for Books on Tape, anchors a Lansing TV interview show and narrates documentaries. He has been on the staff of WKAR since 1952. He served as station manager for 22 years.

To meet his army of followers, he travels the country, appearing in cities and small towns that carry the "Radio Reader."

In Southern California, he was heard on Pasadena's KLCC until two years ago. In the San Francisco Bay Area, "Radio Reader" Estell is heard over KCSM.

Michigan State's WKAR handles the marketing of the show. "I come cheap," laughed Estell. Stations pay $15 a week for 2 1/2 hours of programming and Estell receives a percentage of the sales fees.

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