NCI v CWA Op-Ed Series
This is the first of a six-part series of articles.
It’s the story of my yearlong experience as an employee of the National Captioning Institute (NCI), a live television caption provider. During that challenging year (which started in October of 2015), I participated in the attempts of some of my fellow NCI workers’ to bring in a union called the Communications Workers of America (CWA). This led to NCI dismissing me from my job for what CWA claimed was an unlawful reason, which then led to a court hearing in front of a federal judge where I was represented by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lawyer.
What was at stake?
A judgment in our favor meant that NCI had unlawfully fired me because of my union involvement and I’d get my job back plus a public apology plus any back pay I was owed.
A judgment against us meant it was okay that NCI fired me because I was indeed a egregiously disloyal worker who didn’t deserve to keep his job.
Only time (a whole lot of time) would tell.
Part 1 – Getting the Job’s Never Easy
Like a lot of stories involving a union, mine starts out with a desperate man who needed to find a job in a new city to help support his wife and children.
BIG LIFE CHANGES
At the end of 2014, I happily retired from a 24-year career of performing comedy professionally to co-raise my two children. My wife and I moved to Dallas, Texas (a right to work state) to live in the same house she grew up in to start a new post-comedy life with my family.
The plan was for me to be the stay-at-home parent with my 2-year-old son while my 5-year-old daughter went to kindergarten and my wife grew her starting-to-get successful house-cleaning business. Except after about six months of this full time parenting lifestyle, I desperately needed to do something (anything!) that would involve me getting to leave the kiddy-filled house for a few hours.
A part-time job might do the trick, I figured, plus it would help pay our bills.
UNSKILLED & INEXPERIENCED
As a college graduate, I didn’t think it would be difficult to find decent work but I quickly discovered that since I had been computer trained in the 80s I wasn’t a very valuable worker in my trained field anymore. I updated my business resume as best as I could and began searching the job apps and Craigslist and anywhere else I could think of for job ads.
After hundreds of false leads and ignored resume sends, I came upon an ad by the National Captioning Institute (NCI) for something called a ‘voice writer’. They’re a company based in Virginia that provides live television captions nationwide for people with hearing disabilities. NCI also has a branch office in Los Angeles and, at the time, in my hometown of Dallas.
Since my mom suffers from hearing loss, this job got me curious.
The voice writing gig would involve sitting in a studio wearing headphones listening to live broadcasts, mostly local newscasts from all over America. Then I would have to use my voice to say out loud everything I hear in the headphones almost simultaneously, what NCI calls live voice-echoing. This would be done into a microphone so that their computer software could translate my spoken words into electronic voice captions that are then sent to that particular news station who then add it to their broadcast screen. The end result would be that the live audience could see those captions at home almost instantaneously.
The tricky nature of this job appeared to be at least twofold.
First, a voice writer would have to be extremely comfortable with computer technology, which thankfully I was from college and using one for my previous work.
The other even more complicated voice writer skill would be having to clearly speak what you just heard while listening to and remembering what has to be spoken next. But since I used to rock that same exercise during my Second City improvisation days I knew I could handle it.
I couldn’t believe I found a possible job where I would get to work in a studio, talk into a microphone, use computer software and catch up on current events, all while helping deaf people. This NCI job seemed to be a perfect fit for my odd collection of skills, and I really liked that it involved doing challenging but positive work that would make my mama proud.
Now I just had to figure out how to get them to hire me.
TOUGH JOB TO GET
I clicked on their ad and I began the application process and quickly discovered it’s not so easy to work for NCI. First off, you have to be a college graduate, preferably something like English or language arts or communications. No problem, I graduated from the University of Dayton with honors. Applicants have to give all their work and background information, so I uploaded my resume that I had meticulously reworked for this job.
I sent that in and after a few days, I actually heard back from them!
They hadn’t hired me, but they’d selected me to take two tests to see if I qualify for further consideration. I actually liked how selective they were being because as a former actor I was always wary of anything resembling a cattle call. My scores on the two tests must’ve passed muster because after a few days they called me back.
But not to hire me.
They requested I come in and do some live voice-echoing for them. Once there I filled out more paperwork, then sat in a studio and did a session of live echoing that they recorded. That must’ve also gone well because after a few days they called me back again.
But still not to hire me.
They had me come in for an interview with the woman who would be my future supervisor. I talked and laughed with her for about a half hour along with another woman who was on speakerphone calling in from elsewhere. It was an easy interview since I liked both ladies and was excited about the work. It must’ve gone well because after about a week they called me back once again.
This time they offered me the job.
THE NCI VOICE WRITER JOB
After so many prior rejections, I could not have been happier or more proud or more ready to work hard for NCI to make captions.
I was told I’d train with two other people 40 hours a week for three months making $30,000 a year ($14.42/hr) until we passed tests and qualified for the intermediate on air (IOA) captioner level that paid $32,500 ($15.63/hr). After another few months at the IOA level, we’d be tested further and those who passed would qualify to be full-time voice captioners and make $35,000 ($16.83/hr).
Paid training was fantastic, but to be honest, I didn’t consider $35,000 a year decent money to pay a college graduate in 2015, especially given the skills required for this occupation.
To put that in perspective, it was barely more than the pay I had made thirty years prior at my first (and only) business job out of college. Plus it was way more hours than I was originally looking for, but my wife and I decided we could make it work.
At this point, I was a beggar who couldn’t afford to be a chooser so I sucked it up and took the gig.
Sure, the money was low for me, but I made up my mind to do my best at this job so that I could clock at least three to five years of non-comedy related work experience. I desperately needed a job like this to help establish myself as a decent business employee who shows up on time and is willing to work towards something.
Without realizing it, I possessed the exact desperate nature that a non-union shop like NCI prefers in its workers.
VOICE WRITER TRAINING
My first day of paid voice-writer training was October 5, 2015.
I learned that my training class had the NCI standard three months to train for and pass the IOA test and then it would be our job to cover our share of the dozens of new stations that would roll out on January 1st of the New Year. These stations were part of an important contract NCI had just signed with a huge broadcasting group. And this contract was the main reason my training class had just been hired – NCI was counting on us three to help handle this new load of work they’d just acquired.
When they had told me that, it really reinforced the fact that NCI needed me to succeed.
The other two trainees and I worked incredibly hard voice-writing for hours every day for the first two months of our initial three month training period. We learned how to use the software and equipment while at the same time began the difficult task of learning how to accurately and efficiently echo someone else’s voice.
First, we had to learn how to listen and remember rapid speech and clearly re-speak every word simultaneously for an hour at a time.
Then we also had to learn how to program their computer software with hundreds of special macros that would help the software understand certain difficult words and phrases more clearly when we said them. Words like common homonyms (for example: there, their, they’re or to, too, two or your, you’re, yore) plus also all the local politician’s and highways and airport names and any other tricky sounding locations specific to each of the local stations we covered. Pretty much any term that might come up in a city’s newscast went into a macro file.
It was a lot to figure out, but by the end of November, we were all getting close to being ready to test for the next job level.
But this test was extremely difficult to pass.
To pass the IOA test I had to be able to echo over 80% of what was spoken in my headphones and do it at an accuracy level of 97%.
And trust me, our supervisors examined every single word and punctuation mark that came out of our mouths and onto our screens and they never missed a single error.
And there were plenty of them, especially at first.
Of course, when you look at what we were expected to accomplish virtually error-free, it’s easy to understand why.
On top of voice-echoing word-for-word every rapid-fire news story that comes through the headphones (including whatever tricky to pronounce terms and phrases it contains), the voice writer also has to identify and say the names of the multiple anchors and reporters and anyone else from the public who speaks words throughout the telecast.
And they have to echo all the voice-over ins and outs from the commercial breaks.
And also voice writers have to say out loud every single punctuation mark and new paragraph associated with whatever sentences are spoken.
Plus, all those previously mentioned homonyms in the English language that are hard for the software to tell apart plus the hundreds of other similar sounding and tricky words and phrases that exist in the English language?
It’s the voice writer’s responsibility to figure out how to program and use written and vocal macro work-arounds for every one of them.
And when it’s all said and done, 97% of what comes out of the voice writer’s mouth and computer has to be absolutely correct.
Every work shift is total mental and vocal chaos, truly, but that’s the voice writer’s job.
And this job didn’t scare me one bit – in fact the challenge excited me – because as a comedian I spent twenty-four years onstage controlling chaos. And I did it very well. I had no doubt in my mind that I could learn to do the same as an NCI voice writer.
Unfortunately, our voice-echoing training was about to get unavoidably disrupted.
UP NEXT: Part 2 – Learning the job but things change
Sometimes to get what you need you have to lose what you thought you wanted.