Gay Atlanta radio reporter struggles with voice loss

A gay, award-winning reporter for NPR’s Atlanta affiliate was back on the air Monday for the first time since losing his voice in January — but he’s far from done fighting permanent voice loss.

Jim Burress, local host and senior producer for “All Things Considered” on WABE, lost his voice following surgery to repair collapsed spinal disks in January. The surgery, which treats the issue by going through the neck, damaged the nerves in and paralyzed his right vocal flap.

Burress (top photo) said he was able to file a minute-long report on air Monday thanks to a March 6 procedure to inject collagen into the damaged vocal cord.

“Prior, I spoke with such a labored, breathy sound there'd be no way I could be on the air,” he told Project Q Atlanta. “It would be impossible to understand what I was saying. The procedure allowed my working vocal cord to come in contact with the paralyzed one; it's that contact that's necessary for one's voice to come through.”

But Burress said that’s “still only half the machinery at work” and his voice continues to sound thin and scratchy.

“On a good day, I'd say it's 70 percent of my regular tone,” he said. “Most of the time, the sound is about 50 percent.”

Burress said two of his spinal discs collapsed in summer 2016, crushing the nerves that control his right arm and hand.

“The pain is more than I could ever explain other than to put it this way — if there had been a saw within reach, I'd have thought seriously about cutting my own arm off,” he said. “It's torture.”

He began losing function in the arm and hand, leading him to have surgery. Doctors went through his neck for the procedure, and while it created scar tissue, it didn’t lead to lasting voice loss. 

The discs collapsed again in January, leading him to have the surgery a second time. But this time, the vocal loss didn’t resolve itself.

Six weeks later, he had the procedure to inject the collagen into the damaged vocal cord. Burress said the pain was “much worse” than he thought it would be. 

“But I'd do it again in a heartbeat,” he said. “And chances are I will have to do it again.” 

That time could come in about three months, Burress said.

“That's unless the nerve to the paralyzed cord decides to come back to life,” he said. “That's what we're waiting for. Hoping for. But that could take a year, if it ever comes back.”

Meanwhile, he’s waiting it out. And he said WABE has been “amazing” throughout the process.

“I was, understandably, afraid I'd be unable to continue working,” he said. “What's the value of a voiceless radio host? But management has put me to work behind the scenes as a producer and I've been able to do some ‘light’ reporting.” 

But not being able to speak week after week began to wear on him.

“I felt trapped in my own head,” he said. “Someone who likes to talk to people as much as I do — someone who even managed to fool someone into paying him to do it — who suddenly can't speak?  The irony was, at times, unbearable.”

A March 4 story about his voice loss in the AJC gave him a much-needed boost. Friends, colleagues and listeners flooded him with well wishes.

“I get emotional thinking about it. It's meant everything,” he said. “What I didn't anticipate is the support I've gotten this week after folks have heard me on-air. I sound terrible! But folks continue to encourage me and welcome me back.”

“They're kind beyond belief. It reminds me that I'm fortunate and have a lot to be thankful for. A lot,” he added.

Burress joined WABE in 2008. The Atlanta Press Club honored him in 2010 for his reporting on the Atlanta Eagle bar raid. 

The National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association honored Burress in 2016 for his work on a series of stories uncovering problems within the Fulton County Department of Health, including that officials failed to spend millions of dollars in federal funds earmarked for HIV prevention. The issue led to the resignation of the head of the department.

Photo courtesy of Jim Burress