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Audiobooks or Aural Art?

By common agreement, professionals have decided to coin the term "audiobooks" to describe spoken arts recordings. In my opinion, the neologism, while temporarily expedient, will  prove inadequate in the long run. It reflects the industry's origins in publishing and current focus on recording printed writings. I hope that this emphasis will change as the industry grows and that the art of the spoken word will eventually overtake the business of the written word.

Even now, we are seeing an incipient interest in titles borrowed from non-bookshelf sources. For instance, I was privileged to be involved in audiobook versions of the TV specials "Lewis and Clark" and "Empire of the Air." The sprinkle of audiobooks inspired by electronic games tend to make the noisiest use of audio's unique expressive potential. They harken to the genre of radio drama, my personal specialty. The '90s have produced a radio drama revival on cassette and CD that may disinter one of the century's most unique and compelling art forms.

For, radio--or let's now call it audio--drama is a special dramatic form, as different from the stage as film and television. The job of the audio dramatist is to stimulate the mind's eye of listeners. If you do it properly, listeners should see sets, costumes, make-up, lighting and special effects that defeat the best efforts of Industrial Light and Magic. Not alone that, but each listener sees his or her own tailor-made audio play.

Except for nostalgia, drama has disappeared from commercial radio. It is fighting for survival on public radio. Program directors like to joke that the best time to schedule radio drama is 1945. They are wrong. But they tend to be wrong about just about everything. Public radio broadcasters as a group are the dullest minds in mass media. Perhaps that explains why the independent producers who churn out public radio's most compelling programming remain broadcasting's most exploited underclass. It certainly explains why some of the best--Lars Hoel (formerly of NPR), Charles Potter and Toni Boyle come immediately to mind--have forsaken broadcasting in favor of the audiobook.

Most of these producers are journalists. But they also include practitioners of "audio art," the aural version of performance art, a synthesis of the spoken word, sound and music that produces a poetic effect. Others are commentators, humorists, poets, oral historians, story tellers. Commercial recordings offer them opportunities that public radio does not. I, for one, would rather succeed or fail due to direct listeners' decisions than due to brain-dead program directors second guessing their audiences' tastes.

Some audiobook publishers are already raiding the ranks of National Public Radio and Public Radio International. Audible.com, the online audiobook store, was founded by public radio refugees. Some independent producers have turned to publishing audiobooks themselves, while audio artists have always preferred the recording to the radio. Audiobooks offer, if not the economic incentive (audio producers tend not to be motivated by money), then the economic feasibility to pursue audio as a vehicle for creative expression.

In fact, I look forward to the day when the majority of audiobooks are not based on printed books, nor on anything else, when many first rate creators regard audiobooks as their primary medium, when books, TV specials and movies are based on audiobooks, not the other way around--and when spoken arts audio breaks away entirely from book publishing.

Currently, most of the audiobook trade is redundant to the printed word. As one former Simon & Schuster producer put it, they are "Cliff Notes for cocktail parties." Perhaps that's why there seems to be an inverse ratio between the quality of the audio version and the popularity of the print version. If it's already on the New York Times best-seller list, why do we need to put any effort into the abridged audio version? It'll sell anyway.

In addition, there are patrons who would rather be read to than to read. Or those who turn to audio to compliment reading, to aid their comprehension when they turn to the printed page. Or the student--For instance, recently a student friend at a community college was under deadline pressure. She had started reading the assigned book, but, in exercising a kind of study triage, found herself running out of time to finish it. So, she picked up the author-read audio version, which she could listen to while driving to and from class. Is this cheating or is it a smart use of otherwise non-productive travel time?

Whatever the answer, my point is that the market for the audiobook per se, i.e., the recording of a reading of a book, can only grow. But spoken arts audio has a growth potential far exceeding that of the audiobook strictly defined. I am looking forward to the day when the commerce and art of the discipline catch up to each other, when the word "audiobook" becomes a paltry descriptor and the industry buzz is involved in finding some new term better encompasses the creative expansiveness of our trade and the concomitant service we provide listeners.

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1986 - 2001 AudioFile magazine. Used by permission.