Caption

Jamie Dupree, silenced by illness, harvests a new voice from old tapes

Radio reporter Jamie Dupree, 54, sat at a gate in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and downloaded his new voice.

Hampered for two years by a rare disease, unable to manage more than a few words at a time, he’d been waiting a long time to hear himself speak a full sentence. The executable program had been in his inbox all that day, but the day had been a busy one, having Botox injections in his tongue and the like.

Finally, as he waited for his flight back to Washington, he had a minute to himself.

He fired up his text-to-speech program, loaded the Jamie Dupree voice, and then stared at a blank screen.

“What do I type first?” he wondered.

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“What do I want to hear me say first?

“So I simply wrote, ‘My name is Jamie Dupree. This is my new voice,’ and hit play.”

Radio reporter Jamie Dupree, who has been covering Washington for 30 years, works at his tiny booth on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. PHOTO: COURTESY JAMIE DUPREE (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Waiting to speak

Dupree covers Capitol Hill for the Cox Media Group (which includes The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is a part of Cox Enterprises). For 30 years Atlanta audiences have heard his voice on WSB radio, reporting on Washington politics.

In the spring of 2016, during the wildest presidential primary ride in recent history, Dupree came down with a stomach bug on a trip to England. His stomach recovered, but bizarre side-effects followed.

His voice became wheezy and high-pitched, and he struggled for words. Finally, he couldn’t speak at all. For a radio reporter, it was the worst handicap imaginable, during an incredible campaign season. “It was my Super Bowl, and I missed it,” he has written.

Though he continued to gather recorded interviews with lawmakers and posted regularly on his blog and social media, his voice disappeared from the airwaves.

Dupree launched a tour of hospitals, specialists and therapists from Atlanta to Baltimore to Cleveland, and a series of ineffective and sometimes painful treatments.

Doctors were baffled. They tried Botox injections to calm the muscles around his vocal cords.

“The needle was very long,” Dupree wrote in a text-only interview with the AJC. “The doctor manually moved my voice box to the side and slid a very long needle in there. My dad was with me, and his eyes grew very wide as he watched.”

Last year, a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic diagnosed his malady as tongue protrusion dystonia. It’s a neurological condition that causes the tongue to involuntarily protrude and the throat to close when the brain sends the signal to talk. The condition is vanishingly rare. There is little understanding of the cause and no known treatment. 

“He told me that no one treated what I had, and he had no idea how to help me,” wrote Dupree. “So, I drive home from Cleveland, knowing that I’ve just seen a big-time expert, and he has no idea what I should do.”

Building a voice

Dupree took to handing out cards that were printed: “I WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK WITH YOU, BUT … I am unable to TALK at this time.” The lawmakers he’d interviewed dozens of times took turns expressing their condolences, and late last year U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Miami, Fla., went to the House floor to explain Dupree’s plight and praise his work.

“Jamie’s valiant strength in the face of adversity is an inspiration to us all,” she wrote in a recent email to the AJC. “I took to the House floor to praise his determination while he faces dystonia, but this disease shouldn’t define him. Jamie is the same professional reporter with a penchant for finding truth that we have always known.”

Her announcement from the floor ended up putting Dupree together with Scotland-based tech company CereProc, which develops text-to-speech technology. Graham Leary, head of professional services, said for 500 pounds, his clients “can record 620 sentences in English, and we’ll build a voice for them,” phoneme by phoneme.

Dupree, of course, had already lost his voice. But he had hours of broadcasts that he’d saved. CereProc had everything they’d need.

Last month Dupree opened his laptop, and typed in his first sentence. His computer read it back in the voice of Jamie Dupree: “My name is Jamie Dupree. This is my new voice.”

A few of his colleagues have heard it since then.

“I had an emotional reaction when I first heard it,” said Rich Jones, host of the morning news show on Jacksonville, Fla.’s WOKV radio. “Heck! Jamie’s back!”

A few weeks ago, Dupree was honored with the Governor Cox Award by Alex Taylor, president and chief executive officer of Cox Enterprises, at a ceremony in front of other Cox Media Group employees. When it was time for Dupree to speak, he used his new cloned voice. 

Back on the air

Jamie’s back, though he really never left. Dupree still buttonholes legislators and asks them questions by scribbling on an LCD writing tablet called a Boogie Board, and he still feeds sound to his radio stations in Orlando, Jacksonville, Dayton, Tulsa and Athens.

“They have all kept promoting my reporting,” he writes. “They have all kept my name on the air. They feature my blog. I send them info and still do interviews with their local lawmakers, and get them background on the big stories.”

But he is stymied in one of the simplest pleasures of life: just chatting with his wife, Emily, and their three children, Elizabeth, Henry and Teddy.

“For whatever reason, I’ve been dealt this hand,” he writes. “There are so many things that I want to tell my kids, or my wife. But I can’t get them out.”

On the other hand, he writes, looking on the bright side, “I am not dying.”

Dupree has tried some homemade solutions. Holding a pen or a golf-tee in his mouth sometimes calms his tongue down. But he’s resigned to the prospect that his voice might never come back.

This month, Cox radio stations will be introducing the new voice of Jamie Dupree. They’re calling it Jamie Dupree 2.0.

His reports from Washington will be pronounced by the synthesized creation of CereProc. Dupree said the voice sounds slightly artificial but is still recognizable as his voice.

“Look, the voice is not perfect,” writes Dupree. “At times it sounds robotic… But I can hear myself in those words. And I think the listeners will be able to hear me as well.” 

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