By Michele B. Pennington
So you want to break into the profession of broadcast captioning. Or maybe you are looking to transfer your court reporting skills to this growing field. Or perhaps you have been captioning for a number of years, and are just looking to join a new firm. We spoke to a number of major national broadcast captioning companies and asked them what they looked for when they hired a captioner. Some of the answers might surprise you.
Certification: just one of many qualities looked at
Certainly, certification is a way of opening doors and distinguishing yourself to a potential employer. But it is not the only thing that firms look for, and it does not play as significant of a role as you might think.
While most companies strongly encourage getting certified—and certainly pursuing certification once hired—it is rarely a requirement to being hired. Certification through organizations such as NCRA are helpful in that they demonstrate official recognition of work and skills, and serve as a way of distinguishing yourself from another candidate. However, many firms stress that other issues—such as experience, work ethic, and skills—are more important in the hiring process.
"We look for someone with a well-rounded background, someone who has a good topical knowledge of world events, sports, and a good working knowledge of many subjects," says Gerald Freda of CaptionMax.
Work ethic is of critical importance in getting hired. Reliability and flexibility in schedule are often of primary concern to employers. The time when people are most busy with family and personal commitments—i.e., evenings, weekends, and holidays—are often peak hours for captioners. "Captioning requires a commitment of time and talent, and a determination to succeed," says Patty White, RMR, CRR, of Caption Colorado, LLC.
Great value is placed on teamwork and a positive attitude. At many firms, the work environment tends to be very open, with captioners working in close proximity to one another. In light of those conditions, a positive attitude and the ability to work well with others are qualities that firms seek.
Education: good communication skills are key
Ideally, undergraduate degrees or study in areas such as English, journalism, or communications are well-suited to prepare you for a career in captioning. Such candidates usually have a wide-ranging vocabulary and good grammar. The message from captioning firms is clear: Captioners should be able to communicate well, write well, and be able to edit and paraphrase without losing a speaker's message. In addition to communication skills, topical knowledge gained through education or outside interests; and knowledge of world affairs, culture, and sports greatly enhances your ability to caption programs related to those areas.
Experience: important, but potential also plays a role
Often, the most important quality to possess—but the most difficult to acquire—is experience. It can play a critical role in the hiring process.
It certainly helps to have past success in the captioning or reporting field, but related work is important as well. "Good experience indicators for me are some professional work with language—proofreading, primarily," says Tom Hinckley of CaptionMax. "But I also look for a background in some kind of 'pressure environment,' since captioning tends to be a deadline-driven business. This can be anything from court reporting to waiting tables or bartending—pressure is pressure, no matter the job."
However, firms not only look for experience, but also seek candidates who show good potential to be trained. They look for individuals with good skills and a desire to improve those skills constantly. It is important to note that as much as captioning experience is helpful, many firms are looking for people who are ready to start captioning today, as well as those who can start training to go on the air at a later date.
A cool head: an important asset
One of the most important "non-tangible" qualities firms look for is the ability to work well under pressure. Freda observes, "We look for people who remain calm under pressure and stress. Broadcast programming doesn't always go as planned; things go wrong. Good captioners must be able to do a great job in spite of this. They have to maintain their composure and fight through the stress and pressure."
Hinckley continues, "We look for people who are flexible and aren't thrown by sudden changes in direction, changes in assignment—people who, in fact, thrive in this type of environment."
Skills: accurate, clean writing crucial
Touchtyping, computer knowledge, and research abilities are valued skills in the captioning profession. Also, a general working knowledge of computer equipment and software is important.
Accurate writing and language skills, and excellent grammar and punctuation are critical. "We look for extremely accurate writing and excellent punctuation skills," says Karen Finkelstein of the National Captioning Institute. "I can't stress enough how important the punctuation is—not only the commas and periods, but also things like hyphens and decimal points for sports and musical notes for song lyrics."
Most captioning companies administer tests to evaluate the applicant's skill level. These include everything from submitting unedited files and live real-time tests on a steno machine. Also common are proofreading, vocabulary, and grammar tests.
Maximizing your chances: what you can do
What can you do to improve your chances of getting hired? Become familiar with the field of captioning in general, if you are not already. Watch captioned shows, gain an understanding of different styles of captioning. Genuine interest and enthusiasm go a long way.
Practice as much as you can to hone your skills. Says White, "My best advice to those looking to improve their chances of being hired is to write the news every day, several times a day, if you have the time. Edit those files, add dictionary entries, find conflicts, and improve your prefixes and suffixes."
Act interested, and be prompt and efficient in your application process. "Promptness in response to our requests is a strong indicator of interest to us. A captioner or prospective captioner should be prompt in following up with requests for a resume and work samples. They should also be prompt about completing and submitting the tests after they receive them," says Tammie Shedd of Visual Audio Captioning, Inc.
Another thing to consider to increase your marketability is to be flexible in what you are willing to consider. Often, you can improve your chances of being hired if you are willing to consider part-time work to start, flexible on working hours, or able to start with time slots that are not your first choice. Also, willingness to relocate temporarily for training purposes is helpful.
One last thing: watch TV!
Don't forget to show a basic liking of TV in general. "You'll be watching a lot of it, and it's not all going to be Emmy-quality. However, if you don't enjoy it on some level, you'll burn out quickly," advises Hinckley. "In interviews I will typically ask people about what they watch on TV to get a gauge on this. If I hear things like 'I never watch it," those applicants quickly find their way to my 'don't hire' pile."