NJ company Audible reinvented our reading experience with audiobooks


Amazon’s Audible has unveiled an audiobook service that lets listeners jump to “the good parts.”

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America’s favorite way of curling up with a book? In a driver’s seat, of course. In rush hour traffic. 

Erma Bombeck, to start Monday with a smile. “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” to stiffen your spine for the quarterly meeting. “Dune,” for when you wish you were living on a different planet.

Which might make you wonder how the Newark-based company Audible — not least responsible for this extraordinary change in our reading habits — is faring, now that COVID has taken so many commuters off the road.

Not to worry. When the gods of innovation close a door, they open a window.

“The listening time was starting to go down, because road travel was so restricted, particularly topping out in April,” said Don Katz of Montclair, the visionary founder of Audible.

Don Katz, founder of Audible (Photo: Audible)

But of course, all those people not stuck in traffic are now stuck at home. So are their kids. And there, waiting for them, is Audible — available any time, thanks to Echo and Alexa. 

“Parents in particular began to focus their kids on Audible listening because no one was very happy with the idea of kids having school screen time, social screen time, and TV entertainment,” Katz said. “Focusing on an audio experience became very powerful.”

It’s one more example of the striking adaptability of Audible — the company that, since 1995, has made audiobooks and other spoken-word content available on multiple platforms to people who didn’t know they needed it. And now can’t do without it. 

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“I often say to people, if you want to understand Audible, think of the pleasures of being read to as a child,” Katz said.

Did you love bedtime stories as a kid?

Well, how would you like it if Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet or Samuel L. Jackson read to you? 

And if you like stories, how about nonfiction? Current events? Self-improvement? Get-ahead-in-business books? And if you like listening in cars, and while you jog, how about airplanes (Audible has kiosks in many major air hubs)?

“The Sandman,” from Audible (Photo: Audible)

And if you like books, how about podcasts? Radio programs? Newspapers and magazines, read to you as you drive? Original content, like the new 11-hour audio version of Neil Gaiman’s classic graphic novel “The Sandman,” with Gaiman, Riz Ahmed, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis and many others? And if you like that, how about new works — specially commissioned by Audible, featuring local authors, read by local actors?

“I was invited by Audible to write a play for their online platform,” said Chisa Hutchinson, a Newark playwright whose “Proof of Love,” performed by Maplewood’s Brenda Pressley, dropped in July 2019.

“Audible, I feel, is really doing the work, as far as trying to make its presence a benefit to the people who work here,” Hutchinson said. “They’re the real deal.”

In this, as in so many other things, Audible is thinking innovatively — and thinking big. “Positively disruptive companies tend to come from new models,” Katz said.

A new approach

“Positive Disruption” is Katz’s favorite term of business art.

It’s his phrase for upending — in a good way — the status quo. Challenging received wisdom. Casting overboard those sandbags called The Way Things Are Done. 

It’s what has enabled him to turn what used to be a niche market — recorded books, once confined to a few highbrow enthusiasts and educators for the blind — into a powerhouse corporation that was sold to Amazon, in 2008, for a reported $300 million (it’s worth much more now, Katz says).

Audible is now the world’s largest producer of downloadable audiobooks. It is also, along with Prudential, Mars Wrigley, PSE&G, and a few others, one of the anchor corporations that are investing in — and betting on — the new Newark.

“It wasn’t about saving the audiobook business,” Katz said. “Basically I thought, when I started the company, there are 93 million Americans who drive to work alone. It’s about time arbitrage. How do you make value of time? I focused on the 93 million people and the hundreds of millions of hours a week that was not considered valuable time.”

Now, to many of us, the commute is our golden hour — the moment when we can breathe a sigh of relief, crank the air conditioning, and get back to “Into Thin Air” (read for you by author Jon Krakauer) or “Pride and Prejudice” (read for you by Rosamund Pike). 

And Katz’s vision embraces something larger than spoken words. Audible aims at nothing less than to remake — with some help — the city of Newark, its corporate home since 2007.

“Audible is the way we probably want most corporations to operate,” said Aisha Glover, president and CEO of the Newark Alliance. “In collaboration with the community, and really thinking about their impact.”

And beyond Newark? The rest of the world could also use some help. And not just with its reading.

“I just thought, what if we actually took the concept of a business, and the capitalist system that underwrites it, and what if we could be an active catalyst for social change?” Katz said.

A classic character

Katz — the classic visionary businessman — might almost strike you as a character out of one of Audible’s books (there are 550,000 titles in 38 languages).

“Dodsworth,” for instance — the auto magnate in Sinclair Lewis’ 1929 novel (read for you by Grover Gardner) who dreams of motorized summer camps to caravan kids across the U.S. Or Undershaft, the munitions tycoon in Bernard Shaw’s 1905 play “Major Barbara” (read for you by Kate Burton, Roger Rees and others) who builds an entire model village for his workers.

Not to mention the real-life Utopians of Silicon Valley: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and lots of other prophetic thinkers, also the subject of books available on Audible.

“To have a company that pursues meaning that can transcend what we do is kind of core to why I’m still working,” Katz said.

He is, these days, executive chairman of the firm — Bob Carrigan is the CEO — but in terms of vision, Katz is still the one steering the ship. And Katz, who has lived in Montclair since 1989 with his wife Leslie Larson (they have three grown children), still delights in innovation. Apparently, it’s in his DNA.

“I grew up with a very progressive entrepreneur father, who died when I was still in my formative years,” Katz said (his father Sidney M. Katz owned Kay Musical Instruments, an originator and leading maker of electric guitars). “I was only 19. There are a lot of studies that say that entrepreneurs have various characteristics. One of them is a level of fatherlessness.”

Happily, Katz found a second father. And that’s where the story of Audible really begins. 

Ralph Ellison is one of the giants of American literature. His 1952 novel “Invisible Man” was a game-changer: one of the first widely-read books to put readers of all backgrounds into the shoes — and the soul — of an African-American narrator.

And he just happened to be teaching at New York University when Katz came there from his Chicago home, in 1970, to major in English. By 1972, Katz had become one of his special proteges. “He was a part of my life in so many ways,” Katz said.

Ralph Ellison (Photo: XXX PBS/PHOTOFEST)

From Ellison, Katz learned about the cultural debt America owes to its Black writers, storytellers, musicians  — something he already had an inkling of from his Chicago years, and which stayed with him when, years later, he chose Audible’s corporate headquarters (Newark is 49.7 percent African American).

“Ralph was a master student of American culture, and particularly how Black culture is deeply entwined in the best of who we are,” Katz said.

The other thing he learned from Ellison was the primacy, in American literature, of the spoken word.

Americans, characteristically, write the way we talk. “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter,” is how Mark Twain begins “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Or this, from Ellison: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

“I knew the reason Stephen Crane and Mark Twain wrote like Americans, versus Henry James — who is a contemporary,” Katz said. “They listened to this rich polyglot storytelling culture that was very singular to the American experience.” 

The telling, and hearing, of stories is the very essence of Audible. And it’s as old as Homer. Older. For most of human history — until the invention of the printing press — human beings took their literature, like their medicine, orally. Ellison himself, who died in 1994, was a great storyteller. He had, Katz said, a voice that sounded “like a coal car coming out of a mine.”

“He had this beautiful Oklahoma way of diction.” Katz said, “Ralph is sort of the intellectual godfather of Audible.”

A new idea

To the study of literature, Katz added economics (at The University of Chicago and the London School of Economics). Also practical journalistic experience, as a writer for Rolling Stone and Esquire. 

“Rolling Stone was not just the rock and roll magazine of my generation,” Katz said. “I was part of a very disruptive journalistic institution.”

With this equipment, he was ideally suited to write books that celebrated the rebels and trailblazers of corporate culture: “The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears” (1987), and “Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World” (1995). But it wasn’t until 1995 that he himself became a large-scale disruptor.

“My wife called it a non-toxic midlife crisis,” Katz said. “I was 43 years old when I started it. The weird thing is, there is now a lot of evidence that over-40 entrepreneurs have a better batting record.”

It was a simple thought he had, while jogging in Riverside Park in New York, listening to a cassette player. What if there was a better way to listen to books? One that incorporated the newest technology, rather than clunky tapes? 

The result — a combination of his inspiration and some of the best technical know-how in Silicon Valley — was the original Audible Mobile Player.

It was a digital audio device, predating the iPod by more than four years, that could store up to two hours of proprietary content — the equivalent of two cassettes, with no rewinding. It went on sale in 1997 for $99. 

“We invented this player before the term MP3 players was even a thing,” Katz said. “It was a very early-stage, relatively primitive device. The iPod was what broke out this category.”

Now, 23 years later, Audible content is available on a broad range of platforms: Android and iOS smartphones, desktop computers, iPads, Amazon Fire tablets, smart speakers, on Kindle (some models) and elsewhere.

Growing up

Having reinvented the reading experience, Audible went on to reinvent itself.

Beginning in a small doctor’s office in Montclair, the company enlarged and migrated to a building across from Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, and then finally — in 2007 — to Newark. And not by accident.

“We went to a city that had decades of structural deprivation, Katz said. “I mean, Newark is the story of the fix being in, frankly, for Black people and immigrants in particular, going back to Reconstruction … We came with about 120 people, and the first thing we did, we decided we could have our paid interns all be students from Newark.”

Today, there are 1,800 local employees working in their three downtown sites. Audible has made a $500 monthly housing subsidy available to those who move to Newark — and thus choose to become an active part of the city’s rebirth. In 2015, Katz founded Newark Venture Partners, which is working to transform the city into a tech hub.

In 2019 they opened their “Innovation Cathedral,” an 80,000-square-foot headquarters retrofitted from the 97-year-old Second Presbyterian Church on James Street. Since April, Newark Working Kitchens, a project they spearheaded in collaboration with other Newark companies, has been taking the city’s COVID crisis by the horns — by funding 25 local restaurants, many economically hurting, to make free meals for some 10,000 local residents who can’t leave home. 

“This is keeping the lights on, honestly,” said Sean McGovern, third-generation co-owner of McGovern’s Tavern on New Street. “If we weren’t doing this, in terms of our bottom line, we’d be completely boarded up … Audible is a tremendous corporate citizen.”

Behind all this is an invisible man.

The ghost of Ralph Ellison, who taught respect for the spoken word — and for the unsung, underserved communities who brought it to life in America — must be smiling. At any rate, Katz hasn’t forgotten to leave offerings for his guiding spirit.

A conference room, dedicated to Ellison, can be found at Audible’s One Washington headquarters. In 2016. Katz presented a “Jazz in the Key of Ellison” program at Newark’s NJPAC. And of course, “Invisible Man” is available as an audiobook. Read for you by Joe Morton (“Brother from Another Planet”) a Montclair neighbor. 

“Joe Morton is a terrific actor and a friend,” Katz said. “He’s fantastic.”

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com Twitter: @jimbeckerman1 

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