on the cheap and sleazy side (www.cheapandsleazy.net)

By G.D. Warner

CRI Seattle Guest Speaker Erin Duncan: Captioner

Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Captioning ...


Erin Duncan was our guest speaker today (20NOV03) during the day, and had a return engagement on 3DEC03 for the night students. She does captioning from her home in Bellingham, WA. She recently became the state's Captioning Liaison. This document is a report combining both meetings.


Erin Duncan, Captioner

Erin Duncan, Captioner

(Note: Website is dead! Below is a link to an archived version ...)

Website: http://web.archive.org/web/20050317102600/http://www.captioningseminars.org/

E-mail: askacaptioner@aol.com

Equipment: Two computers, six phone lines, one Stentura 8000, one Stentura 400, a UPS ('Uninterruptible Power Supply'; basically a battery in a box; 30 minute charge), and ProCat's CaptaVision software, RapidText for internet captioning.

Expenses: Equipment, software, and telephone bills (some long distance jobs; $1,000/month phone bill!)

Income: Roughly $8,000 to $10,000/month, paid by on-air time. She estimates she makes roughly $75 - $100/hour. The most she's made in a month: $15,000 (70 hour work week)

The most hours Erin has worked was a 16 hour day.

Average: 20 hour work week (on-air): $75/hour, or $78,000/year.

Notable Quotable: "I bought my first house at 29 years of age, making six figures. What other career can do that for you?"

Outlook: 300 captioners in the US; 3000 needed by 2006.

Companies typically ask new hires "How much do you want to make?" and build your schedule around that figure.

Startup costs: less than $10,000 (computer, phones, software).

An encoder is typically not required for broadcast captioning, but would be required for captioning an event with several TV monitors; new, these run $5,000. Used, about $2500; good for "live" events.

Internet captioning requires your steno machine, your computer and software, and an internet connection: virtually no overhead.

DVD captions are typically "off-lined" (i.e., not live). This pays less than regular captioning.

Mixed-case captions are also (usually) not done live.

Discussed the new (as of this month) NCRA certification, the CBC ("Certified Broadcast Captioner").

Recommends getting both the state and RPR certifications (CBC also).

For speeds, 225 with 98% accuracy.

"You will learn to brief on the fly (this is the Captioner's Mantra," says Erin).

Erin's typical briefs: Three strokes for the first name, two strokes for last name.

Best foot in the door: Start by visiting a working captioner ... like, say, herself. (E-mail her via her website when you hit the 200 mark). Says she can handle many interns, and is working with Sandra Metz, our Curriculum Ninja, to allow students to intern with her and receive credit. Also says that students make the best captioners: "No bad habits to break, Realtime-ready theory, and not afraid to learn new things."

Preparation: Says CART (Computer Aided Realtime Translation) would be good preparation for a career in captioning.

And, speaking of CART, when you are at the 180 - 200 level, consider doing some work with the Self Help for Hard of Hearing organization (http://www.shhh.org).

Watch the news. Build your dictionary from the news ... and keep track of new words that might be good to have in your dictionary.

Get used to fingerspelling. It is a VERY IMPORTANT skill to learn. This is good for foreign names which were not found in your research.

Working: Can work for the big agencies (CaptionMax, Caption Colorado, etc.), but some of these companies wish you to relocate to the east coast (and make you sign an exclusive work agreement). Erin does freelance work for different (smaller) agencies, and was recently selected to caption the Sonics games. These smaller agencies do not have the exclusivity clause, allowing you to work for different agencies.

While the big come-on is the "twenty hour work week" idea, that is dependent on the captioner doing (at most) 20 hours of prep work; that is, in the case of captioning sports, know the names of the home team's players, know the visiting team's players, build dictionaries for each team, etc.

She says she has one main dictionary, and over 100 job dictionaries (one for each team in the NBA, for instance), and using her software, she can select any dictionary she needs.

When asked about commercials, she says she uses these for bathroom breaks and updating her dictionary (if necessary). Speaking of bathroom breaks, note that companies don't tell you how long the commercials will be.

"That's the trick!" she says.

Advises "Never turn anything down because you don't like the subject matter or don't know anything about it. Do not be afraid to learn new things."

When asked if it's better to paraphrase or type the dialog verbatim, Erin recommends verbatim. Much easier to write what was said than to make up something close to what was said.

Mentioned that doing steno for the federal government pays between $80,000 and $100,000 per year ....

International opportunities exist: The JCR routinely runs ads which say "Come Caption Down Under!", where the captioner lives in Australia for anywhere from six months to two years, captioning. Similar offers for the UK.

Update (28AUG08)

The CaptionDownUnder link above has expired, so the link is to an archived page from 2005. Using DomainTools.com, it says this site has changed hands 20 times in the last six years! Hopefully the company (and opportunity) still exists.

Erin mentioned that bilingual (Spanish, etc.) captioners can earn DOUBLE the normal captioner's pay. Apparently there is a Spanish theory you have to learn, but at double the pay ...