Weighing Your Captioning Options, Part Two
By Kevin W. Daniel
In last month's article, I talked about what's involved when starting your own captioning business. This month I cover two other options for structuring your captioning business: working from your home as an independent contractor and working in-house for an established captioning company.
The World's Shortest Commute
If you're not ready to take on all the responsibilities of owning a captioning company, and if moving to another city and/or state is not an option for you at this time, your most likely choice will be to caption from your home or office as an independent contractor. It sounds like the ideal arrangement. However, there are both pluses and minuses to captioning as an independent contractor.
First, the good news. You get to work out of your home. It's the shortest commute to work you can have, and your hair and clothes don't have to be from the cover of a fashion magazine - assuming you choose to wear clothes. Child care becomes more manageable, and you can accomplish household chores between broadcasts or while standing by. The advantages of working at home are basically too numerous to mention.
However, what one person might perceive to be an advantage of working at home, another person might consider a disadvantage. Some might think it a godsend to be able to stay at home with young children, while others might wonder how they will be able to work around young children on such a concentration-intensive task.
Sales and marketing, customer relations, staffing and payroll are all the responsibility of the firm owner. You are, however, responsible for keeping track of your working hours and reporting that to the firm(s). And you'll still have to keep track of your income from all sources and report that to the IRS for tax purposes.
Scheduling becomes a matter of negotiation between you and the firm owner(s), but you are only responsible for your personal schedule, not locating and assigning captioners to cover the schedule for multiple broadcasts every day.
Most large firms have standard contracts for independent contractors, but virtually any contract can be "customized" to suit your working relationship, as long as both parties are amenable. Just make certain you're not signing anything that prevents you from working for more than one firm at a time. If one firm can't keep you busy, you have the option of dealing with other firms until you're working as much as you want. If a firm wants your services exclusively, make certain you have an agreement in writing regarding the amount of work they are guaranteeing you. Once you are relying exclusively on one firm for your entire work schedule, you are bordering on employee status. At that point, both the firm and the independent contractor should consider the benefits and drawbacks of employer/employee status.
In the technical department, you don't escape many responsibilities. All the duties of setting up a captioning office fall on you. Be aware, however, that some companies require you to purchase a particular brand and model of computer and dedicate its use to captioning. You probably won't have to equip your system with a generator. More likely you will rely on the firm as your backup in the event of power outage-type emergencies. You will still be expected to have a backup system in place, as well as a UPS. You may or may not be required to rewire your office for dedicated lines. Multiple phone lines for data transmission, voice, broadcast audio and fax, plus a routing panel for phone line selection, will all be your responsibility. Having an Internet e-mail account is commonly expected for most remote captioners.
For most independent captioners, selection of software is your responsibility and choice. However, some companies may require that you use a particular brand of captioning software in order to be able to provide you with technical assistance. If you work for more than one captioning company, you may have to maintain separate systems and/or software for each. You may even find some companies reluctant to provide technical support of any kind, out of concern for creating an unintended employer/employee relationship in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service.
There are two features of remote captioning that deserve special attention. The first is the unstructured environment of remote captioning. It will be up to you to set your schedule, do your own research and keep track of the necessary records required by the captioning company, the client and the IRS. It will be up to you to review your files and keep your dictionary well maintained. In short, if you're not self-motivated and independent and you don't work well in an unstructured setting, remote captioning may not be for you.
The second point that escapes the attention of even seasoned reporters is the absolute lack of social or personal contact that can surround being a remote captioner. When I have broached this subject with reporters in the past, the standard comment was, "Oh, I know. I freelanced out of my home for five years. I know what that's like." But it's not like that at all. When you freelance - even out of your home - you still experience the day-to-day contact with attorneys, witnesses, secretaries, court clerks, parking attendants, postal clerks and the like. When you caption from your home, there is no personal contact, no social exchange with the news anchor on the screen. Basically, you can't have a relationship with your television and the people whose words you caption. In that respect, it's very different from freelance reporting, and if you're someone who craves social interaction, you need to find a way to fill this need outside of captioning.
The Comfortable Cocoon of In-house
Now we come to the option that reflects my current situation and is my personal favorite - and what I would recommend for all beginning captioners: captioning in-house for a large company. Unless you already live in a city where an established captioning company is located, a decision to work in-house will have to be accompanied by a willingness to relocate. If your drive to caption carries that level of commitment, you have a distinct advantage. You have an option available to you that very few people consider. The benefits of working in-house are many and varied.
Sales and Marketing
Not only are you free from worrying about doing this yourself, but you can assume that since the company is already well established, it must be pretty good at sales and marketing. If you've chosen your employer well, you'll find the kind of programming you're interested in captioning, whether it's news, national sports or talk shows.
Again, a large, well-established firm will handle the details of customer relations. Leave this to the professionals.
Scheduling to an in-house captioner is a matter of selecting your schedule, rather than having to arrange to cover several hours of captioning a day or week. The larger the company you work for, the more likely you are to be able to select both the time schedule and the programming schedule that are most to your liking.
Mary and I have different internal clocks that regulate our most productive waking hours. Mary is a morning person, and I'm a night owl. We were both able to work out schedules that give us interesting programming that fit our personal preferences. We both work the same four 10-hour days a week, with three days off.
This difficult, time-consuming task is left to the professionals. Of course, if you have any friends who would like to become captioners, feel free to give their names to your supervisor. There might even be a bonus in it for you if a friend works out.
Training and Supervision
Here's my number-one reason for recommending that all beginning captioners start in-house with a large captioning firm. Not only do you get a firm foundation by learning the right way to caption in the beginning, but the larger firms actually pay you while you're training. Training has improved over the years, so it's now not uncommon to turn a recent graduate into an on-air captioner of national programming within three months. Besides learning how to change your writing theory, you'll also learn all the facets of captioning, including scripting, live display, research and how to cope with on-air nerves. When you're captioning in-house, the training never ends, and you're learning from the best in the world.
That "best in the world" is not limited to your training supervisor, either. You work shoulder to shoulder every day with your fellow realtime captioners, all among the best in the world. If you've never worked as part of a team of topnotch reporters, I can tell you, there's nothing quite like it. You can't help but be in awe and have tremendous respect for your co-workers, and the opportunity to work with and learn from them is akin to a doctoral program in captioning.
Payroll is something you look forward to. If the clients are slow-paying, that's not something you're aware of, because your paycheck comes as regular as clockwork every two weeks.
Taxes are taken out of your check on a regular basis, as with most employers, and you receive the standard W-2 at the end of the year reflecting all your withholding.
Leave this one to the professionals. Just keep track of your hours for your timesheet.
Look closely at your paycheck, and you'll notice some other things that are absent from your check as an independent contractor. You'll see a reflection of the medical, dental and retirement benefits. In another column, you'll find accruing vacation and sick leave. Basic benefits should add up to between 10 and 20 percent of your base salary.
You still have to be well versed in your software, so your training will include everything you need to know. And you'll be trained to know some basic things about the hardware, such as understanding the different information you can glean from the blinking modem lights. You'll learn how to switch from your primary system to your backup system with the flip of a switch, and you'll learn how to switch from your satellite feed to your backup audio in the event of a loss of signal.
But here is the number-one, hands-down best reason to work for a large caption company - The Panic Button! If all else fails, and you need any kind of help at all, you simply press The Panic Button, and a technician scrambles to your control room at your beck and call. If the problem isn't apparent on its face, just tell the technician, and he'll fix the problem. Meanwhile, you continue writing on the machine, waiting for the problem to be resolved by the people most qualified to do it.
For the first couple of months I was working for VITAC, every time the panic alarm sounded, in classic Pavlovian fashion I jumped up and ran to see what was wrong. You have to understand that when we owned our firm, I was the panic button, and I was responsible for solving any technical problem beyond the ability of the captioner to solve. Occasionally Mary would gently remind me that I could relax, it's not my responsibility any more; there were people whose job it was to respond to the panic alarm. I actually consider The Panic Button a medical benefit. My blood pressure lowers 20 points every time I see it, and I'm certain my life-span has been lengthened because of it.
This category wasn't mentioned in the section on owning your own firm, because I believe it only exists in the very largest of established captioning firms. In addition to the technicians I've described above, the support staff includes people to prepare scripts for your use, sometimes providing scripts mere minutes ahead of the broadcast. Examples of such shows would be the Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards. A more common daily example would be national news. Other support staff are made available to search the World Wide Web and provide you with rosters and announcers for sporting events, as well as general information about the events and the venues. Research provided to you from the support staff for the Kentucky Derby, for example, would list all the horses, jockeys, trainers and owners in this year's field, as well as last year's field of horses, all the winners of the Derby through history, all the Triple Crown winners in history, and some background on the racetrack.
All the equipment is chosen and supplied by the company you work for. That goes for everything, including the ribbon in the steno machine it supplies; the computers, modems and televisions in the control rooms; the computer network serving the control rooms; the office space itself; the multiple satellite dishes, tuners and descramblers; even the encoders at the clients' physical locations. And the company services all that equipment as well. Whether it's a computer crashing, a modem going haywire, a steno machine charger dying or a satellite descrambler on the fritz, it's all taken care of by professionals. All you have to do is point out the problem. And if you don't know where the problem lies, there are professionals to figure that out as well. In the meantime, the company will assign you an alternate control room until it can diagnose the problem, and, if necessary, there is usually somebody available to caption for you while you change control rooms.
Naturally the software is supplied by the firm. In fact, the large firms play a major role in shaping the software they use, simply because they are major players in the captioning industry. What a large firm demands - or what a network expresses that it needs, through its service provider - winds up as a feature in the next generation of captioning software. That is happening now, as the entire broadcast industry is making the progressive conversion to DTV and digital broadcasting. In some cases, the large firms have employees who are engaged in setting the standards for the next generation of television and the captioning standards. But you don't have to be concerned about that, because when the networks require changes, the large firms will respond. Your job may entail learning new software, but it won't require that you either write or select the best software for the job. That will be up to the professionals again.
This is one of the areas where large firms can really flex their muscle to provide services the smaller firms are hard-pressed to match. The very largest of the firms are equipped with large industrial-size generators that automatically kick in when the generator detects a loss of power. There isn't even a noticeable power sag in the changeover, and no captions are lost as a result of a power outage, whether it lasts a minute or a week.
Where phone service is concerned, phone companies are falling all over themselves for clients with usage profiles of a nationwide caption company. That leads to a level of cooperation and service from the phone company that, again, smaller companies just don't have the resources to buy. Also, a large company can invest the funds necessary to route its control rooms to provide access to more than one carrier in the event the primary phone company's service fails. Even large captioning firms can't totally insulate themselves from phone line difficulties, but they can give themselves more options. But then again, that's not something you personally have to worry about. Leave it to the professionals.
I've tried, as best as I know how, to describe some of the principal differences among the most common options available to someone who wants to get into the field of captioning. Writing this article has served to remind me - some two years later - why Mary and I were so ready and willing to give up a thriving business and go back to working for someone else. I can add a little more insight to that decision.
When we first started our business, it was so that we could caption in the community where we lived. At that time, there were no other captioning companies in the area, so we had no other choice except to create the business that would employ us as captioners. As the years progressed and the business grew, we found ourselves captioning less and running the business more. That ultimately led to our decision to turn over the reins to someone else, so we could get back to doing what we wanted to do all along - caption.
I hope that if captioning is your goal, this article has somehow helped you organize your thoughts and provided you with valuable information to launch your new career, under whatever business conditions best suit your situation.
About the Author
Kevin W. Daniel, RDR, CRR, and Mary Cox Daniel, RDR, CRR, from Henderson, Nev., are the authors of Writing Naked: Principles of Writing for Realtime and Captioning. This article is an excerpt from the book, which is available through NCRA by calling 800-272-6272 or visiting the NCRA Store.