Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Speak to Me

As a longtime fan of spoken-word audio, I’m thankful to be alive in the digital media age. I was born in the era of reel-to-reel tape, and I have been a dabbling musician and a recording enthusiast since I was old enough to depress the Play and Record buttons simultaneously. In the early 1980s, I trained in audio engineering and worked as a second engineer in a busy recording studio on Nashville’s Music Row. At the end of that decade, I entered the book publishing industry and stayed there, and I have spent the better part of that career editing and publishing books about music-related technology and the recording arts.

As much as music has always meant to me, over the years spoken-word audio has come to mean even more. My love for the medium has grown hand-in-hand with my subject-area interests, which are mostly a humanities grab bag of literature (fiction and non), history, philosophy, and religion, along with a smattering of layman-level science and nature topics. Our house has always been stuffed with books, but in recent years, well over half my intake of literature, entertainment, and news has been in audio form. Why? I count three primary reasons.
Curiosity. According to Aristotle, “All men by nature desire to know.” Amen, I say. And as one of those men eager to learn, I read books. The printed book is a lovely thing; my life has been shaped by and devoted to books, and I still manage to get through one or two a month the old-fashioned way. But for those who want more, those whose curiosity outruns their time available for applying eyeballs to page (or screen), spoken-word audio is the answer. Those formerly fallow periods of the day when you were mentally unoccupied but not in a position to read a physical book can now be filled with all manner of good things.
Convenience. Today, audio is one of the few areas of publishing that can legitimately be said to be booming. Thanks to lowered costs of production and the ubiquity of devices for downloading and listening, publishers are publishing, podcasters are podcasting, and consumers are consuming more spoken-word audio than ever. The amount of high-quality, niche-interest audio content available at a click is prodigious and growing fast.
The pure pleasure of being read to. I assume most book lovers have happy memories of story time in elementary school, bedtime reading with mom or dad, and the like—powerful moments of human bonding and the early kindling of imagination and intellect. Spoken-word audio marries that most purely social act, one person speaking to another, with one of our species’ oldest and most enduring expressions of culture: storytelling. We seem to have been built for this. 
 My first experience with audiobooks was through the Radio Reader, a serialized, syndicated radio program produced and hosted by Dick Estell, a Michigan-based broadcaster, from 1964 to his death in 2016. The show's concept was simple; each day, Estell read a thirty-minute installment from a newly published book. The next day, he'd pick up where he left off. As I recall, the show had few frills, but the readings were clear and engaging, and it was one of public radio’s most listenable programs. I have distinct pre-teen memories of occasionally staying in the car to catch the end of one Radio Reader program or another while my mother did her shopping.

Duvall Hecht (left)
A few years later, books on cassette entered the market, primarily through two pioneering companies, Books on Tape, founded in 1975 by Olympic gold-medal rower Duvall Hecht, and Recorded Books, begun in 1978 by Henry Trentman, a salesman who longed for good listening material on his frequent road trips. (We have Trentman to thank for giving us one of the audiobook world’s first star narrators, actor Frank Muller.) With books on cassette, you were in control; you no longer had to be near the radio at specific times in order to catch the latest installment, and you could take the tapes with you when you traveled.

I listen to a lot of spoken-word audio. A quick calculation puts it at significantly more than a thousand hours a year. I work from home, and when I'm not with someone or actively engaged in job-related tasks—for instance, when I'm shaving, showering, exercising, walking the dog, doing laundry, making lunch, doing yard work, driving, etc.—I am usually listening to spoken-word audio of some kind (unless, of course, I'm ready for a little silence, which happens). I have also been a habitual walker for many years, and the audio nearly always goes along for the hike. I used to carry a Sony Walkman cassette player on my walks; before I headed out, I would make sure I had the right cassette loaded and the next one in my pocket. In hindsight it was a little cumbersome, but it did the trick, and it was miles beyond relying on a portable radio to deliver something engaging, or even tolerable, that happened to coincide with my walking schedule. When Walkman-style CD players became available, I had one, but using it while walking was even more cumbersome than juggling cassettes. I was delighted by the arrival of MP3 players at the end of the 1990s.

The essential advantage of the digital media age has been an increase in choice. My MP3 player these days (I am not a smartphone user) is a seventh-generation iPod Nano—the final model in Apple's Nano series, which has been discontinued. Given my iPod's capacious 16 GB memory, I always have a few dozen books, podcasts, lectures, interviews, newscasts, and other items at my fingertips, all of it closely matched to my interests; I never have to settle for whatever happens to come along on the radio. And I am free to jump around, choosing from among them as the mood strikes me. It's an embarrassment of options, really, all housed on a device smaller than my father's Zippo.

I am ambivalent at best about our ever-new, ever-ramifying communications technologies and the media they spawn, much of which panders to our worst impulses, leaves us weirdly complacent about once-sensitive privacy matters, and pickles us in an all-day brine of advertisements and celebrity buzz. Of course the web and its related tools are too useful, not to mention too entrenched, for us to think about doing without them entirely. But we owe it to ourselves to sift and sort, to be discerning and disciplined consumers of culture and technology, seeking out those elements that are of value to us and giving the rest a firm pass. Thankfully, in spoken-word audio, the options are nearly endless, and good things aren't hard to find. There is more high-quality content available now than even the most avid listener could get through in a dozen lifetimes; and thanks to the web's inherent cataloging abilities, the sifting and sorting are pretty straightforward, too. It makes me happy that spoken-word audio, the medium I have loved for so long, is flourishing today; it's the one of the few unambiguous blessings of the digital age.


At Audiobook Notes, I write about audiobooks and other spoken-word audio I enjoy, new and old. I’m interested in content, production, and the state of the art generally.