HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — When Chris Martin was a radio DJ in the 70s, he relied on his voice. He worked at WDUZ in Green Bay, Wisconsin and was so recognizable, when he recorded a ‘guess the DJ’ segment for the radio station’s 50th anniversary, the first caller got the right answer on the first try.
“They called him the prince of radio … can you believe it?” said his wife, Mari Martin.
They’ve been married nearly four decades, but she had not heard her husband express himself with his voice in two years.
After dealing with a chronic sore throat for 12 months, Chris Martin was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014, and went through the brutal regimen of 39 radiation treatments and seven rounds of chemotherapy. He then had about six years of good health, before doctors found his cancer had returned.
Radiation and chemo were no longer an option.
“The surgery is very scary, you know they’re going to go in and extract half of your throat out,” Mari Martin explained.
The surgeons had to remove Chris Martin’s larynx, which left him with no voice.
THE GIFT OF ‘WOO’
Mari Martin has always admired her husband’s charisma.
“He could work a room like there’s no tomorrow, that was a gift of his, which I call ‘WOO,’ and it’s winning others over. So Chris has this gift of WOO,” she said.
When he woke up from his throat surgery in 2020, Chris Martin suddenly had to rely on a white board to communicate.
The first thing he wrote was, “how will I do WOO?”
His voice now comes out in a rasp, so Chris Martin relies on Mari Martin to do much of his speaking for him, which he said is “very hard, but I’m getting used to it.”
He also lost his sense of smell and taste, and his appetite. Despite those challenges, he keeps a smile and a twinkle in his eye.
“They took my voice not my life,” he wrote.
Surgical advancements kept him alive, and new technology has given him a second chance to speak as well.
The day before the surgery, Chris Martin recorded a video, which was a sort of goodbye.
“I’m recording this video for a couple reasons. One so that (Mari) will always be able to hear my voice,” he said in the video. “Without you, Mari, this would be impossible … always remember how much I love you.”
He wanted Mari Martin to have a keepsake of what his love sounded like. That decision preserved Chris Martin’s voice in a way they never imagined.
VHS TAPE, AI BRING GIFT OF VOICE
What the Martins could not have known is that an engineer in the same city was working on using neural voice technology in a way no one else was using it: to recreate an everyday person’s voice.
The same year of Chris Martin’s operation, Charles Elwood decided to take his career in a new direction and started his own data analytics company. He was tired of solving theoretical problems without seeing a direct impact on someone’s life.
“I saw how powerful artificial intelligence was and how it could merge into (data analytics),” he said.
An award from Microsoft gave Elwood access to the company’s AI data, which he planned to use to help a girl in Puerto Rico who is nonverbal.
“My vision was to create this device where she could sign to it, and then it would speak back,” Elwood explained. “I asked her mother if we could record her voice and give it to her daughter so that when she signs, it will come out in a loved one’s voice.”
He wrote on LinkedIn about his plans, and then got a message from Mari Martin, wondering if that same technology could help her husband.
“There was a sense of fear that came over me. What if I gave them hope and this expectation that this will work … and then I have to explain to Chris and Mari that I couldn’t do it?” he said.
After calling Mari Martin and explaining his concerns, she told him they know it may not work, but they want to try. Elwood used the video Chris Martin recorded the day before his surgery to create his program, but it wasn’t quite enough.
As it turns out, Chris Martin’s gift of ‘WOO’ was a game saver. That charisma led to him hosting a fashion show at West Ottawa High School in 2004.
When Charles Elwood was talking to another professional in charge of the SURGE center, the collaborative space where he works, she remembered Martin and the fashion show.
“I told her, ‘We need 300 voice samples and we only have 70 right now,'” Elwood said. “She goes, ‘I think I have a VHS tape from 2004.'”
That tape, an old piece of technology, was the key to making the program work.
On the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 15, Chris Martin typed several words into his iPad, and in his own voice he told his wife, “I love you very much.”
“That is Chris. That is Chris,” Mari Martin said with tears in her eyes.
In the days since, Mari Martin said she and her husband have sat for hours with a martini and enjoyed a real conversation, one they hadn’t had in more than two years.
‘IT COULD BE TAKEN AWAY’
As thrilled as Elwood is to see his work have such an impact, he is still fearful. This technology is very expensive; he said it costs between $50 to $100 every day to host Martin’s voice on the server and use the program, and the award from Microsoft is about to run out.
“We’ve given Chris a voice and now, potentially, it could be taken away from him at some point,” Elwood said, although he expects the cost to eventually go down.
Elwood has created a Patreon account to help cover the cost for the Martins until he can figure out a way to make it more affordable.
“I want people to join, and to be able to participate in this. This is one way people can participate … and this is part of the scary part too, is I have to figure this out. I’m paving the road for all of this technology and how it’s going to be used,” Elwood said.
Elwood has three sons, and hopes his work will be an example to them.
“I want … to show them what they can do in society, how they can contribute, give back, to add value to people’s lives,” he said.
In the meantime, the Martins are enjoying communicating with each other and living each day.
Mari Martin wrote a book about her experience as a caregiver. It’s called “Come Home Alive,” and is available everywhere books are sold.