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from his home in Newport Beach to a brokerage firm in Los Angeles. The two-hour journey got to him. “I became frantic with the commute,” he recalled. “It’s such a terribly numbing experience.” Radio didn’t help. He wanted more mental stimulation than could be provided by the top 40, news and commercials; he claimed: “My brain was turning into cottage cheese.” If only there were a better way to pass the time. Hecht, a former US rower who won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics, wrote to every organisation he could think of in search of something to listen to while driving. What he found were motivational speeches, marketing seminars, meditation courses, language tutorials and poetry. Caedmon specialised in literary excerpts, and another company sold Plato’s Phaedrus, along with a handful of other classics. With a typical price of $10 for a 60-minute recording, however, these options were hardly practical for commuters. The only full-length books he could find were made by the Library of Congress, exclusively for people with vision impairments. Still, Hecht was certain he wasn’t alone. Surely other commuters shared his wish for something worthwhile to occupy their minds? Books on Tape, the company

founded by Hecht in 1975, went on to become one of the world’s largest audio publishers. It was the first to focus exclusively on unabridged recordings of books. Its catalogue held more full-length books than any other source, and provided countless hours of distraction to the nation’s drivers. The company’s founding principle was that Americans wanted to read more books but lacked the time to

An oar-some audio feat D

uvall Hecht was stuck in traffic when the idea came to him. Every day he drove 100 miles

In an exclusive extract, Matthew Rubery reveals how a gold medal-winning Olympian founded an audiobook company—and transformed the multimedia industry

do so. In response, Books on Tape came up with a way for them to read without disrupting their “readers’” busy schedules. It did so by turning the mindless activity of driving into an opportunity to hear books read aloud.

FORMS OF FLATTERY Publishers responded to competition in two ways: they either made recordings as bookish as possible or, conversely, modelled them on other forms of entertainment. Books on Tape, Recorded Books and Listening Library, among others, hewed as closely as possible to print; some publishers even packaged their tapes to resemble hardbacks.

Hecht described his subscribers as

“book people” who wanted to maintain contact with the world of letters despite their busy schedules. Many customers still thought of themselves as book readers and deliberately listened to taped books as an alternative to

Pictured above is Duvall Hecht (centre), the founder of Books on Tape, who won a rowing gold medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. He is pictured with US rowing team coach James Beggs (left) and his rowing partner James Fifer

watching TV. Books on Tape’s marketing campaign appealed to such sentiments, with slogans such as: “Let your mind make the movie.” By contrast, Random House, Simon &

Schuster, Bantam and other publishers sought to compete with screens, not books. Their tapes were similar in length to the average film and often reproduced books that had already been made into TV shows or movies. For them, the lines between media were hazy. Ben Kingsley narrated Caedmon’s Mahatma Gandhi recordings, for instance, after the actor played the Indian leader in Richard Attenborough’s film. Sound effects moved books closer to other forms of entertainment: S&S’ recording of Clive Barker’s The Inhuman Condition used stereo to attempt to enhance the atmosphere of dread. There was just one problem: the symphonic music distracted from the words. Readers worried then, as they still do today, about technology replacing

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