I’m a radio journalist who is passionate about sound. Now I’m losing my hearing

This First Person article is from Jennifer Chrumka, a radio journalist based in Kamloops, B.C. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

It was a cool morning early last spring and I was interviewing a rancher about her concerns surrounding the upcoming wildfire season in the B.C. Interior. We walked through patches of snow and across a pasture of bunchgrass when we noticed a meadowlark sitting on a fence post. She commented on its beautiful song and we stood in silence as I held out my microphone to capture its voice. But as I turned up the volume on my recording device, I heard nothing.

The moment solidified something I’d long suspected: I am losing my hearing. And it marked the moment I started fearing the looming end of my vital link to the world I love — that of radio journalism.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a deep relationship with sound because I know how precious it is. Since childhood, I’ve been deaf in my left ear, a rare side effect from a commonplace infection. I miss a lot in casual conversation, and have learned to lip-read and manoeuvre my way through social settings as friends and family take part in choreographed dances to get on my “right” side. 

In part, that’s what drew me to a career in radio. I spend my workdays with headphones on and when I’m out in the field, I gather sound with a shotgun microphone and control the volume closely. I can lose hours in the studio mixing and layering the audio, creating documentaries that bring stories to life for listeners.

I’ve developed a reverence for the sounds I’ve collected: the voices of the last few nuns of a dying order singing songs of worship in a hospital chapel; the bellowing of cattle being moved up a mountain by a young woman whose dream is to take over the family ranch; the deep voice of the former Chief of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation standing on an ocean inlet calling the scant run of sockeye salmon home. These recordings come layered with a range of human emotions, along with deep breaths, sighs, and awkward laughs that reveal as much as the words they punctuate.

LISTEN | Jennifer Chrumka’s audio documentary on the decline in salmon population

Unreserved24:03First Nations try to turn the tide on ‘heartbreaking’ decline in salmon population

2020 saw the lowest return of sockeye salmon in B.C.’s Fraser River since record keeping began in 1893. The Pacific Salmon Commission reports that only 288 thousand sockeye returned. That compared to peak years where upwards of 20 million salmon would return, has many people concerned. 24:03

A disorienting racket

A few months ago, I visited an audiologist who confirmed my single-sided deafness. She also said the hearing in my right ear was mapped across the lowest point of the normal range and could continue to decline. She suggested a type of CROS system (contralateral routing of signal) hearing aid that would cost several thousand dollars.

I didn’t pause a beat before saying, “Yes,” dreaming of not having to hunch over to hear my daughter’s voice and hoping it would allow me to hear the world in all the depth I wanted.

But when I finally got fitted with hearing aids, the world didn’t become crisp and clear. Instead, it was enveloped in static with sharp, tinny accents, as if I was sitting in an airplane ready for takeoff.

A new hearing aid turned the world into a chaotic mess of noise, writes Jennifer Chrumka. (Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics)

My audiologist told me my brain would get used to it and to come back for more adjustments. I walked out of her office altogether disoriented by the racket in my ears.

Over the past several months, I’ve been trying to get used to the new way things sound but it’s exhausting. Although I’m more adept at catching conversation in small groups, it’s a struggle to sort through the symphony of chaos that comes through my headphones when I’m out reporting. A voice no longer holds prominence over a set of keys jingling in a hand; the sound of my shoes walking on a sidewalk echoes back to me unnaturally.

This is changing my journalism, too, as I transition from audio to writing.

In radio, there’s an intimacy that goes with hearing another person’s voice or the quiet wash of the ocean directly in your ear. It can transport the listener to another world. Now, I’m trying to recreate these moments with words — the pauses and silences, the way the wind rustles through trembling aspens when the leaves are dry in the fall, or how with the first major snowfall there comes a sense of muffled stillness. My reverence for sound is still there, but I’m learning to express it differently. 

And just as losing the hearing in my left ear as a child made me appreciate the world of radio, coming to terms with its decline in my right has made me hold tight to all that I can still hear. I listen more carefully than ever, taking in the precious connections to the world around me.


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