A Day in the Life of a Captioner: Q&A with Caption Pro Liane Tomlinson
Caption Pro Liane Tomlinson has captioned two Super Bowls, the Olympics, news reports following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the O.J. Simpson civil trial verdict broadcast live on the Jumbotron in Times Square.
Tomlinson had a fascination with astronomy in high school and took a few classes in college. She soon found out it involved a lot of math and explored several majors. A random encounter at the registrar’s office led her down a new career path in captioning, and she graduated with a liberal arts degree and a certificate of completion in American Sign Language and court reporting.
While most of her classmates pursued a career in court reporting, Tomlinson wanted to work with people with hearing loss and wanted to help people.
After working for various companies and moving around the country, Tomlinson returned to her hometown of Phoenix and joined Caption Pros 10 years ago. She captions a variety of events, classes, meetings, and conferences.
Get to know Liane better
Q: How did you get started in captioning?
Liane: When I was floundering around in college, jumping from one major to another, one day I was at the registrar’s office waiting in line. There was a girl using American Sign Language and trying to communicate with the registrar at the counter. I watched helplessly as they both became more and more frustrated at their lack of ability to understand each other. I decided at that moment to sign up for an ASL class.
I fell in love with the language and at the time my intention was to become an interpreter. After a couple of years in the program, I determined that interpreting wasn’t in my future; however, through my interactions with the Deaf community, I learned that court reporters were adapting their skills and being used to caption live television. The next semester, I switched majors (yet again!) to court reporting. I have never looked back. At the time there were no programs that focused specifically on captioning, but I entered the court reporting program knowing my passion and career trajectory would be in captioning.
Q: What was your career path like?
Liane: Upon graduation in 1994, I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, and became an independent contractor, doing mostly depositions. Right around that time, there was a student with a hearing impairment enrolled in graduate school at the University of Virginia. I jumped at the opportunity to become his regular CART captioner. After six months, I was able to pass a writing test with the National Captioning Institute and was offered a job in Northern Virginia.
I worked in-house at NCI captioning live national and regional television for several years. Over time, the option to work remotely became available and I moved to Portland, Oregon, working from home for several more years. During my time in Portland, I made two separate trips to work in Australia for several months at a time, captioning for three main television stations in Sydney.
In 2006, I found my way back home in Phoenix. That is when I met and began working with Jen. I was still broadcast captioning from home but began covering on-site CART at a local high school for Caption Pros. I loved having the opportunity to get out of the house (it forced me to take showers on a regular basis!), and I learn so much captioning in an educational setting.
Q: What are some of your favorite events to caption? Any favorite industries?
Liane: When it comes to broadcast captioning, I would say sports in general. Football is probably my favorite. In CART, I love captioning in educational settings. I have captioned from eighth grade to doctorate level courses. I have covered majors from art history to computer science to biogenetics. I learn something new every day. While I like the excitement of captioning a high-profile broadcast that millions of people are watching, I find it more rewarding to caption one-on-one or for a small audience where you have that personal connection with the consumer.
Q: What is the most challenging event you’ve ever captioned?
Liane: This is a tough one. The answer depends on how I define “challenging.” If I define it purely as content, I would say the Olympics. There is so much preparation involved and, oh, the names to remember! It’s high profile so the pressure is really on! Also, medical school courses usually result in me going home and eating a pint of ice cream! Some of the most challenging work, no matter what the content, are remote jobs with poor audio. If I can’t hear what I need to be captioning, my hands are just frozen above my keys, and it’s a very helpless feeling.
The most emotionally challenging event I’ve ever captioned was 9/11. I was actually in Australia at the time, putting my equipment away at the end of my shift at 11 p.m. All of a sudden, all the television monitors switched to U.S. feeds of a smoldering World Trade Center tower. As it sunk in what was happening, I took my writer back out of my bag and went back to work. I captioned straight through until 6 a.m.
Three events that stick with me that were challenging because of the pressure or gravity of the situation were — captioning the O.J. Simpson civil trial verdict. It was the first live news event that was being broadcast live on the Jumbotron in Times Square. Periodically throughout the newscast, they would cut to the Jumbotron, with pedestrians at a standstill watching my captions. I hadn’t been captioning that long at that point and it was extremely nerve-wracking!
Second would be the two Super Bowls I captioned. Third was captioning President Obama’s announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden on NBC. I received a phone call and was informed they would be making this announcement but they had to wait until all members of Congress had been notified. I was told to connect to NBC and not move from my chair! It took 45 minutes before they finally cut to the breaking news. Sitting there, knowing what was about to happen, was surreal.
Q: Tell me about a “day in the life” of a captioner. What is your work schedule like when you are getting ready to caption an event? How do you prepare?
Liane: The days can be so different. If I am captioning for a broadcast such as a sporting event, I will enter the names from the team rosters, the coaches’ names, the venue. Often, you can even find the names of the umpires or referees ahead of time. The internet is a wealth of information! If I am providing CART for a class, hopefully, I have access to the lecture PowerPoints ahead of time. Having the lecture material beforehand is a life-saver, especially for those really tough technical or medical classes.
I would estimate 80 percent of my work is from home and 20 percent is on-site. Some events have several days of preparation. For example, if there is a large convention or college graduation, I will hopefully get scripts from the speakers several days before the event which I will use for prep. Being able to have a list of terms and names ahead of time makes for much cleaner captions. Many times, there is a set-up day before the actual event where the entire tech team runs through setting everything up for the event, including the captioning. Then on the day of the event, we show up at least two hours early to set up our equipment and make sure everything is working and the captions have the correct placement. I’m fairly new to large venue captioning, but I have been really enjoying it!
Q: What does it take to be a good captioner? How do you learn to type that fast?
Liane: I am kind of a hyper, fast person in general. I type fast. I just knew when I watched somebody on TV write on their little machine, it fascinated me.
The dropout rate at school is 90 percent; it is pretty tough to get through the program. I think there is some natural ability. I think if somebody can type really fast on a regular keyboard, they are a good candidate to try it.
When you go to school, it’s like trying to learn how to play the piano and learn French at the same time. If someone is talking super-fast, you just have to close your eyes and focus as hard as you can. It takes concentration, the ability to hold onto sentences and good short-term memory. Definitely grammar, English, and spelling skills are huge.
Sometimes it can be challenging when it’s really emotional or major things are happening in the world. I would turn the TV off and step away, and, as a captioner, you can’t. You have no choice; sometimes that can be really hard.
Q: Do you have any hobbies outside of work that you’re passionate about?
Liane: I have two kids who are adrenaline junkies, and I have always loved adventure. We spend our time together traveling, snorkeling, water and snow skiing, ziplining, obstacle courses, escape rooms. I also love musicals and occasionally, I can convince them to slow down and go see “Hamilton” or “Les Misérables” with me. Do naps count? I am very passionate about naps!
Q: Why is captioning so important? It seems like there are so many applications for it in today’s world that people overlook.
Liane: One thing I find, I have captions on my TV all the time. I don’t feel like it is just for people with hearing loss. It’s good for people who use English as a Second Language. I catch so much more when I have the captions on. If the acoustics aren’t so great, captions are helpful. For people with a hearing loss, it’s vital to be included in what the rest of us take granted.
Q: Why should people care about captioning?
Liane: Captioning provides an essential service to people who otherwise would be excluded from fully participating in certain events or receiving important information. Captions are important because it allows someone with hearing loss to learn there is a tornado headed towards their town. It allows a student access to the same information as the hearing students around them. It allows individuals to participate in an ever-growing digital world where important content is shared online. Captioning helps lead to empowerment, inclusion, and independence.
Q: What do you feel is the biggest challenge for the captioning industry today?
Liane: I believe the biggest challenge for the captioning industry today is a lack of understanding regarding the crucial services we offer. Our services provide accessibility to enhance inclusion and diversity and help fulfill legal requirements under the American with Disabilities Act.
Q: Any final thoughts?
Liane: This job is so perfect for me. I love it; I love my machine. My goal is to have a 100 percent perfect broadcast or class, and it never happens, but there are days you are just “turned on.” I learn so much, and I help people, and they are so appreciative. It’s an awesome career. I love it; it was made for me.