How I Became A Broadcast Captioner
By Louise Becker, RPR, CRR, CCP, CBC, Olympia, Wash.
In late 1991, I was working for a freelance reporting agency in the city of Olympia, Wash. I had been reporting for a little over a year and had just passed the RPR exam. I heard about the Court Reporters Forum on CompuServe. It sounded pretty interesting, so I signed up. There weren't a lot of reporters on there, but they were very friendly and I enjoyed the conversations.
In 1992, some of the reporters on the CR Forum were discussing realtime and how they were doing realtime for various deaf and hard-of-hearing groups. In court reporting school, they had us do a realtime demonstration in one of the classes, but I hadn't really heard of doing realtime for a group of hard-of-hearing or deaf people. I bought a notebook computer and started practicing. I set the computer on the floor so it wouldn't make me nervous. One day, an attorney asked for a readback and I thought, why read from my notes when it would be much easier to read it off the computer screen? So the computer was permanently moved to the table in front of me.
The following year, I decided to maybe do a little more with the realtime. I started asking other reporters on the CR Forum about how to do volunteer work and what opportunities might be available. I then contacted the local Self Help for Hard of Hearing people group to see if I could offer my services. The president of that group was named Margaret Harrison. She was very pleasant and said she would love to have me come to their next meeting. So that fall, I packed up my equipment and went to the SHHH meeting. To say that meeting was a disaster would be putting it mildly. But after the meeting, Margaret came up to me and was very encouraging and enthusiastic about the realtime and wanted to know if I'd be back next month.
In order to properly realtime the SHHH meetings, I would need to make some adjustments. First off, the computer monitor wasn't going to work. Fortunately, there was a large screen TV where the meetings were held; I decided to use that for the realtime as it would be much less expensive than the overhead equipment. I made arrangements to test out the equipment a week or two before that meeting. The equipment was working great; I was all set for this month's meeting. There was even a local newspaper reporter who was writing an article about the SHHH group and realtime technology. Margaret did her introduction. Then the speaker got up and started talking. This speaker was talking at lightning speed about lip reading and how certain consonants were much easier to lip read than the vowels. They were all looking at my realtime on the large-screen monitor and he was talking 300 words a minute! I managed to write fairly clean, but my realtime writing definitely needed some work. After the meeting, I was pretty rattled, but Margaret approached me and really wanted me to come back the next month.
I continued doing realtime at the SHHH meetings. Every month, I'd have something new to work on, fine-tuning the equipment and my writing. It was kind of fun. Most of the speakers were informative and the people were friendly. After every speaker, Margaret would walk up to the front of the room and say, "Now, wasn't that interesting?" I always got a kick out of that and quickly became friends with Margaret. She was a retired pharmacist and neither she nor her husband was hard of hearing. She said she started the SHHH group because she would be at meetings and someone would tell a joke or say something funny and she wondered why some people weren't laughing; it was because they couldn't hear.
In the summer of 1994, we were on a summer break from the meetings when I received a phone call from one of the members. Margaret and her husband had been in a car accident in Oregon and both of them were killed instantly. The group was just devastated. They decided that although it wouldn't be easy, they would like to continue having the meetings. Tom, a retired engineer, took over as president. The first few meetings were rather difficult, but after the speaker was finished, I could still hear Margaret say, "Now, wasn't that interesting?" I knew she was still there and it always made me smile.
Later that year, some of the broadcast captioners on the CR Forum were talking about their job. Although I was familiar with captioning, I thought that you needed to live on the east coast to work as a captioner. These people were working at home in their slippers captioning local newscasts. I knew that was the job for me! So I started asking questions about the job and how to go about training for it. I had a TV set with a captioning chip and had been watching the captions. I knew that if I wanted this job, I would have to write like the captioners on TV. So I took a lower paying reporting job that required less travel so that I could have more time to practice and work on my dictionary and writing skills. I had a lot of work to do; after all, I didn't even use the number bar. Fortunately, there was a discussion on the CR Forum about writing numbers, so I never did have to learn the number bar. There was still a lot of work ahead.
Finally, after a few months of practicing the news and building my dictionary and cleaning up my writing theory, I actually wrote a half-hour show that went pretty well. I emailed it off to the captioning company and held my breath. A few days later, I received an email. The supervisor was impressed. I then received a three-ring binder from her with more lists in it than I had ever seen in my life. I had to go through them all and put them in my dictionary. I also had a few more writing changes to make.
In January 1995, I was working on the lists of dictionary building and continuing to practice the news. My realtime writing at the meetings was pretty good. The Certified Realtime Reporter test was being given in San Francisco and a friend of mine and I decided to fly down and take it. At the test, I was nervous, but seemed to be keeping up with the material.
In early February, I emailed off another realtime file from a half-hour news show. The supervisor told me that I was air-ready and to make arrangements to have three phones lines at my house. I received the captioning software in the mail. A few days later, I received a phone call asking me if I could be on the air in a week. One week??! I still didn't have three phone lines. I started harassing the phone company and got the phone lines installed in time. The training went well. I had written the script and it was time for my first show. I was ready. Then I went to load the script and it didn't work. I ended up having to write the show live while hyperventilating with the supervisor tossing proper name spellings at me on the commercial breaks. The captioning wasn't great, but it was a respectable 99.5% translation, and I survived the ordeal. The second show was much smoother. And after the show, I could hear Margaret say, "Now, wasn't that interesting?"
I then received the results from the CRR test. I passed!
At this point, I was transitioning out of the court reporting field and into a full-time broadcast captioning job. I captioned everything from the Oklahoma City bombing to religious rallies, the O.J. Simpson trial, hurricane coverage, basketball games, high-speed car chases in L.A., and everything in between. My cat, Snickers, would sit at my desk, sometimes sending out a line of script. I had my own little window on the world.
In early 1998, things were changing at the captioning company. Even though I didn't really have another job lined up, my husband encouraged me to quit. A few days after I put in my resignation, I received a call from one of the local stations. They were looking for a realtime captioner. Initially, I was giving them tips on how realtime captioning worked and how to hire a qualified realtime captioner. I really wasn't sure I wanted to manage a television contract like that, having to be available seven days a week for emergencies, scheduling, bookkeeping, etc.; it was a pretty awesome responsibility. But I really liked the station, so I decided why not. I was unemployed and they were looking for a captioner. They hired me and Regis Realtime Captioning was born. I sought advice from a captioner friend on the east coast. After all, captioning is a very competitive and cutthroat business. He told me just to take good care of my clients and not to worry about the competition - good advice that I continue to follow.
So here it is, 2005. Although the captioning industry has changed dramatically in the past seven years, I've been captioning the same shows for the same local station from the same basement office. The story changes every few minutes, so I rarely get bored. I always push myself a bit harder to write all the jokes and asides- wouldn't want my friends to miss a laugh! Snickers the cat still sits on my desk, sometimes feeding out a line of script. We did upgrade the computer hardware and software last year, so that's definitely made my job easier and more fun. I continue to provide realtime for the SHHH meetings. Sometimes I do CART work at the local colleges. I often have to caption shows when I would prefer not to or don't feel well; the connection that I have with the local viewers keeps me going on the toughest days. Maybe someday I'll do something different, like go back to freelance reporting, enroll in chef school, or hike to Mexico. Lots of opportunities have come my way in the past 10 years, but for now, I'm where I'm at because it's where I should be.
So as I mark my 10th anniversary as a broadcast captioner and my 12th year as a CART reporter, I can honestly say, yes, Margaret, it definitely has been interesting.