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She makes live TV readable for the hearing impaired: Former court reporter transferred her skills to broadcast captioning, which she does from her home studio

January 10, 2005

If you've ever hit the mute button on your TV, you've probably seen the closed-captioning text at the bottom of the screen that's provided primarily for the hearing impaired.

For live TV shows, someone's fingers have to fly on a stenotype machine to produce those captions. The National Court Reporters Association estimates there are only about 500 people in the country who can do that, and Susie Wollenweber is one of them.

Working from her Indianapolis basement, Wollenweber provides broadcast captioning for most of WISH-TV Channel 8's news, and a variety of national and even global programs, ranging from San Francisco City Council meetings to CNN International.

There are just a handful of major captioning companies in the United States, and Wollenweber works with a number of them as an independent contractor. "She has excellent captioning abilities and is well-respected within that industry," said Tammie Shedd, president of Visual Audio Captioning in Fairfax, Va., one of the companies Wollenweber works with.

Wollenweber, 46, started her career with a court-reporting degree from the old Lockyear Business College in Indianapolis in 1980. She did court reporting for a local agency for 1-1/2 years and then started her own company, Indianapolis Reporting, which had as many as eight court reporters. She also ran a transcription company that served doctors and insurance companies.

Wollenweber then became interested in Communication Access Realtime Translation, which is the instant translation of the spoken word into text that can be read on a computer screen by the hearing impaired. CART technology is used for captioning in non-broadcast settings, such as classrooms and meetings.

Wollenweber decided she wanted to pursue realtime captioning full time, so she merged Indianapolis Reporting with the local John Connor & Associates in 1991. She worked for that company doing realtime court reporting while also doing CART work on her own, such as going to college classes with a hearing-impaired woman to translate the lectures for her. She also went to South Africa in 1999 to demonstrate realtime technology for some businesspeople there.

Wollenweber then spent about a year sharpening her skills to do broadcast captioning. "It was really hard when I first started, because there really weren't any formal training programs," she said. "I had to gather information from captioners who were already doing it."

She also attended a couple of workshops at one of the largest captioning companies, Pittsburgh-based Vitac. That's also where she learned what kind of equipment she would need.

Wollenweber invested about $20,000 to set up her home studio, and in June of 2000 she did her first captioning job for a meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Wollenweber now earns $60-$125 per hour captioning all kinds of shows, from sports to C-SPAN. "I learn so much; the programming I cover is immense," she said. And she enjoys the constant challenges, such as people with an accent or people speaking in technical terms.

It's also a different population she serves with the captioning, and that leaves her feeling good about what she does at the end of the day. "With court reporting, it could be very adversarial, and sometimes that can get to you," she said.

One downside of her profession is the isolation. Wollenweber still gets out to do some CART jobs, and she also makes a point of doing things such as lunching with other women to avoid getting cabin fever.

It can be difficult for people who work at home to maintain professionalism, said Amy Bowlen, manager of realtime captioner training for Vitac, another company Wollenweber works with. But that's never been a problem with Wollenweber, Bowlen said. "Her professionalism is always there."

The demand for captioners is expected to greatly increase, since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that 100 percent of all new programming in the top 25 markets must be captioned by 2006. For anyone interested in training to become a captioner, Wollenweber suggests visiting the National Court Reporters Association Web site, www.ncraonline.org. It can take up to four years to learn the necessary skills.

"Most of us who are into captioning tend to have perfectionistic qualities," Wollenweber said. Captioners also need to like English, be curious and have a broad knowledge about things such as public figures and pop culture.

Shedd of Visual Audio Captioning recommends getting involved in several aspects of the business to understand the needs of your clients-like the way Wollenweber's CART work has given her an understanding of the deaf culture.

Wollenweber was also the one who hooked WISH up with Shedd's company, which then got a federal grant to help cover the cost of captioning the local news. "She used her network and linked people to grow their businesses and her own," Shedd said.

Captioning is a wonderful profession, especially for women, Wollenweber said, because there's no salary discrimination, and it allows them to juggle motherhood with a career. She has no children herself, but she is married-to former Indianapolis Fire Chief Louis Dezelan.


Susie Wollenweber has her own broadcast-captioning company, FasType Inc., which she operates from her basement studio. The equipment cost her about $20,000.
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