on the cheap and sleazy side (www.cheapandsleazy.net)
Jill Driscoll -- Captioner
180 Is Not Enough
Meet Jill Driscoll.
Jill, as you might guess from the title up there, is a captioner. She's been at it for about two years now ... and she has some words of wisdom to share with you to help you on your journey to Bunny Slipper Nirvana!
So, Glen asked me to write this article and I said, "Sure!"
Well, that was about, ummm... several weeks ago now, but here it is!
A question I get asked often is why did I want to become a captioner?
I'm sure I am a lot like many of you out there who always "think" about becoming a captioner or a CART provider.
How tired folks must have gotten of me -- over the years anytime we would go out with friends and there were television sets with captions on them -- pointing at the screen and saying, "Look, that's what I am going to do -- some day."
A huge factor for me, though, was BURNOUT.
"Bitter Burnout Face"
I had worked as an official reporter for 15 years and when my judge retired, I tried my hand at freelancing.
It never was my niche.
I had a couple good clients where I didn't have to worry about getting paid, but that was really about it.
I tried working with a firm, which was nice on occasion, but so many weird things occurred with scheduling, locations and times, that I was more comfortable just being on my own.
After about four years of that feast or famine deal, I really started thinking hard about captioning.
Right about that same time, I had an "unfirm" offer about a "possibility" -- LOL -- of getting back into the courtroom at my old county, but with a new judge.
The idea of security made me start feeling wistful about the old courthouse, my friends there, and the benefits.
That was probably in January of 2006, with the primary election coming up in April.
I decided it was "do or die time."
I got pretty serious and basically quit freelancing altogether, except for my one really good long-dep, rapid-pay client.
At home I set up my writer and my computer near the television and kept a realtime file open 24/7, and tuned in to CNN Headline News.
They run their news, sports and financial stories in a 30 minute cycle, so it is perfect practice material for captioning.
Every spare second, I would sit down and hang with it for as long as I could.
The best thing about that was that if I didn't get the story the first time, it would come around again and give me another shot in the next hour.
I also ordered the "Caption Accelerator" CD.
I also ordered the manual, "Captioning the VITAC Way."
Reading through that manual helped me make the transition in my mind from reporting to captioning by giving me the mental picture of how my dictionaries would be different, and how many dictionaries I would need and the differences in briefs and word parts and the vitalism that is fingerspelling.
Now whether or not "vitalism" is a word does not negate how important fingerspelling is.
Another excellent resource I recently acquired and also recommend is the Broadcast Training Captioning Manual by Jennifer Bonfilio.
I had been seeing the ad in the back of the JCR that read "Caption Colorado was a national caption company looking for captioners for news, sports, financials," for several months.
Based on that ad alone, I went straight to their Web site when I was ready to apply for a job.
I actually didn't investigate any other companies.
I read about how to apply with Caption Colorado, which basically consisted of filling out an online application and sending in two "first run" unedited ASCII files from a local nightly newscast.
I sent the files in and soon got an e mail back from one of their top captioners and captioner trainees, who gave me a few pointers and basically said, "Good job."
After that, they had me do what amounted to an audition of sorts. I set up a time to call in to the company, and they gave me an audio feed of a broadcast of one of their news stations. This particular station was out of Chicago and I will never forget it! I was so nervous!
The next day I got a call and a job offer and they were scheduling me to fly out to Colorado for a three-day training session.
Please keep in mind that this was in April of 2006.
The Federal mandate that all television programming must be captioned had just gone into effect in January of 2006.
Captioners were being hired by the truckload.
Getting "selected" was not necessarily that shocking at that particular time.
I flew to Colorado and met some other wonderful soon-to-be captioners.
The company took us out for wonderful meals and introduced us to the owners and the staff and spent a few days showing us the very basics of getting ready to caption a show.
I went out there on a Wednesday and returned home on Friday.
My First Captioning Experience
My first show was Easter Sunday morning, I believe it was April 16th, 12:00 A.M.
It was a sports show out of Baltimore.
I had spent about six hours getting ready for it, studying every little thing I could about Baltimore sports teams and coaches and players and news about any of it.
Got my dictionary ready, had a whiteboard covered in new brief forms ... and had enough sweat pouring out of my hands to put out a California wildfire!
For my first show, they had one of the staff persons on the phone with me to talk me through the initial connection with the station.
Well, wouldn't you know it, something went wrong technically.
The support person from the company came on the line.
"Jill, would you mind switching with another captioner to do another show?"
ANOTHER SHOW? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
The kind and good-humored support person, Shirley, said something about "grabbing a bucket and keeping it nearby in case I got sick."
Next thing I know, zip! I was doing a nightly newscast out of Phoenix, Arizona!
I didn't know DIDDLY about the places, the news stories, the anchors NADA!
I got through it, but will never forget it.
Tran Rate vs. Accuracy Rate
I think my tran rate was 97.6 for that first show.
Let me tell you, 97.6 translation rate is terrible for captioning.
Right now after captioning for two years and a lot of dictionary work and a whole lot a shakin' goin' on, I average above 99% ACCURACY rating ... not a translation rating.
As I am sure you already know, translation rating is just whatever your tran rate happens to be.
That means wrong words that tran correctly, et cetera, are not factored as errors.
An accuracy rating includes as errors wrong words that translated correctly ... so it is much more difficult to get a high accuracy rating than it is to get a high translation rating.
180 wpm -- Not Enough!
I have heard that somewhere out there it is being suggested that 180 wpm is a threshold speed at which you can begin captioning.
I strongly disagree.
If you aren't very comfortable at 225 with the capability to push to upwards of 260 with bursts of speed while not losing accuracy at 300 wpm, you will not be a successful captioner.
But I digress.
On a typical day I have my alarm set for 4:30 A.M. I don't usually have a lot of trouble waking up so that is not a big issue for me. That being said, coffee is the first order of business!
I get that going and then head down the hall and into my office, where I pull up the Web site of the station that I will be captioning first that morning.
I read the top local news stories and national news stories and world news stories, then look over the sports and the weather.
This is when I will make some dictionary entries that will help me through with some proper names for that broadcast.
This is "prep" time.
As I mentioned earlier, on my first show I spent about six hours doing that.
Now that I am "seasoned, " as it were, I can usually do a decent amount of prep within 15 minutes before the beginning of the show.
My first show is typically a morning news show from 5:00 A.M. to 6:00 A.M.
After that I may have a couple of hours of "news cuts."
These are what occur after you hear Willard Scott say, "Here's what's happening in your neck of the woods," and then it shoots to your local newscaster giving a brief update of news and weather before it goes back to the national broadcast.
Those are easy and only last about 5 minutes. They occur at the half hour and top of the hour.
Following that, I may have another news show from 9:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M., another show from 12:00 P.M. to 12:30, maybe a 2:00 P.M. to 2:30 and then one or two shows between the hours of 5:00 P.M. to 6:30 P.M. ... and then I'm done for the day.
Each day is not the same, though; I am just trying to give you a basic outline of a typical day, just to give you an idea.
Of course as you probably know if you have ever watched captions yourself, "mistakes are made," and admittedly, some captioners are much better than others.
I like to think that I am a very good captioner.
I may not have been able to say that when I first started, but I went from fair to pretty dang good in about six months ... and now I have a lot of confidence in my abilities.
But back to the mistakes.
I have a few that I always think of when people ask me, "what if you mess up?"
There is no doubt that you will mess up, so get over that worrisome fear.
A couple of memorable errors that I have made readily come to mind. One occurred when I captioned that the "jews of life" were stolen from a volunteer fire department.
That should have been jaws of life, of course.
I also captioned that as he lay in the rotunda for the third day in a row, that Gerald Ford was " lying in stale"
The worst moment that I ever experienced is when my CAT software's artificial intelligence resolved a misstroke of the word "suns" for me.
The story was about the Phoenix Suns' performance in the all star game in Las Vegas.
The sentence was "The Suns had a good showing in Vegas."
My unfortunate outline for suns was a T-dragging "SUNTS." Of course that is not in my dictionary, so artificial intelligence decided I must have meant a soft "C" and resolved the word as ... well, if you don't know by now, I am not going to tell you!
And, speaking of which ....
The "Bad" Words
We were told when we were initially hired to enter all possible offensive words -- "George Carlin list words, " as they are called -- and to define them as innocuous words so that the only way the "bad" words could get on the air is if we fingerspelled them.
Most stations bleep these words out, and we actually write [BLEEP] at the moment we hear the sound on the newscast.
If they do let the word through on the air, my feeling is that the deaf person has the same right to be offended as the hearing person so unless the station says otherwise, I think it should be included.
Let Your Fingers Do The Spelling
A word about fingerspelling.
In my opinion, it is the most important thing a captioner can do. If you think it seems impossible, it is not. You can start out just writing simple words that you know are in your dictionary.
Just fingerspell them because you have time and they are easy. If the proceedings aren't out of hand, go ahead and try to fingerspell a difficult word that you don't think or are not sure if you have in your dictionary. See how good it feels to see that word appear correctly on your realtime screen.
It's like a good golf shot: You will get hooked.
What I have learned about myself is that sometimes I will go ahead and fingerspell a word that I may have in my dictionaries just because I am not sure what the outline is.
In captioning, you really don't have time to wonder about outlines.
The other VERY important aspect of captioning is having a good suffix and prefix dictionary.
A lot of times I don't have to fingerspell the whole word. I might use a prefix, then fingerspell the root word and then add a suffix.
It doesn't take that long, really.
Making the Grade
One more thing I really love about captioning, at least for this company, is that we periodically get our files reviewed by someone other than ourselves and find out what our accuracy rating is for that particular file.
They want the accuracy rating to always be above 98.5.
As I said, I try to stay above 99% and when I first started I thought that would N E V E R happen.
Not for Everyone
Now, it is not all delightful and this job is definitely not for everybody.
Let me remind you, I am talking about working as a captioner for a large company with lots of other captioners.
When I went to training, I was there with seven other very excited prospective captioners.
Within a year of our being hired, only three of us are left and one of those has gone to part-time. She is doing depositions and captioning on the side.
The reasons people may not like captioning are probably legion, but a couple that come to my mind right away are schedule adjustment and isolationism.
I think it took me about a year to really adjust to my schedule and to figure out how to rest when I had time and how to use my days off wisely.
I have every Wednesday and Sunday off.
There are no holidays "off." If a holiday falls on your day off, that is great. If it does not, you are likely to be working that holiday unless you can get another captioner to cover for you.
One of the best parts of working for a large company is that other captioners are available to call upon to help cover jobs if you have something that you need to do.
When my husband leaves in the morning and my kids are gone to school, it is just me and my office, all alone.
That's why I am often found in online forums meeting and greeting with other reporters and captioners.
It is hard to remember what it used to be like to get up, get dressed, and get out the door in the mornings.
Sometimes on Sunday mornings when I am getting ready for church, I will think, "Hey, this is the first time I have had shoes on in three days!"
Besides the support of the other captioners and staff at my company, we are also provided paid-for phone lines, software, modems and health insurance.
I get a steady paycheck -- (what? Pay? You want to know about pay?) -- on the 10th and 25th of the month.
The pay is another thing that some will consider a downside in working for a company and others will consider an upside. It probably just depends on your personality and your needs, I think.
I am not a real strong businessperson.
My strength lies in writing on this machine and that's about where the line is drawn.
I won't go into details on the pay structure, but I did pretty well last year.
(If you want to know exactly how much Jill is making, she asks that you send her an e-mail! Her e-mail address is at the end of this article.)
That is not enough for a lot of reporters, and I realize that. However, that may sound good to some of the rest of you. It is not as much as I could have made working for the courthouse, but money isn't always the driving force behind every decision, either.
What I Love About Captioning
What I have now is what I have always wanted.
I love captioning. I do not ever feel like I am working. I always feel like I am playing that translation game with myself.
And I am my favorite competitor.
I feel like I get paid to be retired and sit at home and look out at my backyard and watch the kids play basketball.
I feel like I get paid to listen to the news.
I feel like I get paid to listen to baseball games.
I don't mean to denigrate my skill's worth or the worth of any captioner, and I hope that I am not by saying that.
I know that if I wanted to, I could get out there and hustle for myself and become an independent captioner and procure some clients and make more per hour, but as an independent, I wouldn't have my W2 and I wouldn't have my 24/7 tech support, and I wouldn't have my software and supplies provided, et cetera.
For me, this particular niche is just right.
I hope if you are interested in captioning, that you will go for it!
It is a pretty sweet deal when you love what you do so much that you actually miss it when you don't get to do it for a few days.
Hurricane Ike had me on a non paid vacation for the last five days. After a couple of those days, I was itching to get back to my work!
Writing and writing well is a passion for me as it is, I'm sure, for most of you.
Plus, I am getting paid ... and even better, no one will be calling me in three years saying, "Were you the reporter in 1999 on a case styled (blah blah blah)?"
Can you say cringe? I sure can!
In Closing ...
I am always happy to talk about captioning, any time. If you would like to contact me with any questions or comments, feel free to e mail me at jilldmail (at) gmail (dot) com … and if you have read this far, thanks!
As a treat for graduating from your captioning program, you simply must reward yourself with a pair of bunny slippers! Get them here:
Good luck ...! And thank you again, Jill.