Jamie Dupree 2.0:How a radio reporter lost his voice (but found a new one)

June 3, 2019 11:00

A journalist should never be the story. That’s journalism 101, right? Especially so for journalists like radio reporter Jamie Dupree, who cover Capitol Hill.

But then something happened to Dupree that needed to be heard.

He lost his voice.

Following an illness in 2016, the WSB Radio Washington Correspondent found himself unable to speak, and a year of testing yielded a diagnosis – an extremely rare neurological disorder – but no treatments. It looked like Dupree might never be back on air.

But, one year ago this June, listeners finally heard Dupree back on the radio with a new voice: “Jamie Dupree 2.0.”

WSB’s Murrow Award-winning work sharing Dupree’s story is innovative not only in multiplatform storytelling, but in the use of technology at the heart of the story.

With the help of years of recordings of his reporting, a software company was able to create a custom text-to-voice program dubbed “Jamie Dupree 2.0” using Dupree’s actual voice to electronically read text into audio.

Prior to his return to air, WSB decided to let audiences in on what had been happening. “The listeners obviously knew something was very wrong when I disappeared from the radio, and I felt it was important to let them know what was going on – and especially important to let them know that I wasn’t dying,” says Dupree.

WSB’s Chris Chandler says, “We also found that listeners seemed to genuinely appreciate the effort at telling them what was actually going on; many of them only knew ‘Jamie lost his voice’ and had no idea about his actual ordeal.  That transparency was also key in these suspicious modern times; unfortunate as it is, it felt necessary to prevent conspiracy talk that Jamie had been ‘silenced’ for political or other reasons.”

WSB used on-air news stories, a video documentary, articles and a radio special to tell the complex story of the rare medical condition that silenced Dupree, and the technology that gave him a new voice, from multiple perspectives, including Dupree’s.

Chandler described the process:
The nascent technology wouldn’t have allowed Jamie to record a long audio essay, and a couple of quotes from him in a news story didn’t seem sufficient, so letting him tell his own story through text was the best option.  His first-person participation also signaled to the audience that he was “on board” with the release of information about his health. We left the technical aspects and chronology to the more formal news pieces. The long saga was also so elaborate and involved that a commercial radio format clock couldn’t do it justice.  So with this story--probably more than any we’ve ever attempted--it was crucial to use every platform to get as much info and explanation “out there” as possible, especially as the initial “2.0” voice was so obviously electronic. 

Chandler says while it’s easy to simply repurpose on air content into various digital formats, this project needed “a much more personal effort,” which came, in part, from a video documentary “whose work gave the story more emotion and depth than [anything] else we did,” including through showing Dupree hear his new voice on air for the first time.

Videographer Jesse Brooks talked about the challenge of creating a compelling video story based largely on audio content, which makes effective use of on-screen text along with Jamie’s voice – natural and electronic – in the background:
Turning Jamie’s story into a compelling video documentary took a bit of artistic liberty, because so much of what he does is audio. In addition to his years of archived audio, Jamie was also willing to provide an archive of photos from his work in Washington and on the road dating back to the early 90s, which helped to illustrate the story of his career. His radio reports, which the viewers will likely be most familiar with, are used in the beginning, middle and end to track where his voice started, where it was lost, and how our listeners now hear him.

Archived video clips of Jamie, both from our radio stations and from his appearances on C-SPAN, were also used for a bit of “character building” – to illustrate the kind of person he is. I used text slides as “chapter markers” in some places to bridge the gaps between the most important parts of his story.

We also thought it was important to hear Jamie’s current natural speaking voice, so to help the viewer understand, I supplied subtitles during his interview segments, as well as for our contact at CereProc [voice-to-text software firm] in Scotland, who is only heard via phone and Skype.

Interestingly, when WSB decided to use the documentary to create a radio special, it still worked, for the most part – only requiring “voiceover” storytelling between interviews, supplied by our own Jay Black.

Since its initial version, the digital Jamie Dupree 2.0 has been improved to sound more natural and less electronic, and regular listeners have gotten used to it.

Not all of the feedback has been positive. “In today’s world of social media, I routinely get nasty messages each week from people who celebrate the loss of my voice, tell me that I should lose my job, and more. One of the weirdest things has been the accusations by people that since I lost my real voice, I’ve become biased. I think that’s just a sign of the current political times we are in right now,” says Dupree. 

But the supportive feedback has outweighed the negative, and WSB has continued the strategy of transparency, says Chandler. “We’ve learned to just tell the listeners what’s going on and why—they appreciate the openness, and it leaves us less vulnerable to uninformed criticism.”

And how is Dupree? “I did not imagine this type of detour in my life, or my career,” he writes. “I am fine physically – I just can’t talk for any more than a word or two.” He continues to hear from people “sending in ideas on treatment, telling their similar stories of medical troubles, and offering their prayers for my recovery,” but “the cause is unknown, as are the solutions.”

Dupree’s condition persists, but thanks to an innovative software and storytelling, he’ll remain on air, reporting on the news from Washington and serving as an example of persistence and determination.


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