Amid audio boom, magazines hire actors to voice their work

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The New York actor William DeMeritt spent the better part of 2017 as William Shakespeare, portraying the poet in the US premier of Shakespeare in Love, a play adapted from the Oscar-winning film of the same name, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The run began in February and ended in October, and included more than 120 performances. During the summer, DeMeritt also starred as Fenton in a shorter run of The Merry Wives of Windsor. At the height of the festival, he was performing in five shows a week, on some days playing Shakespeare for a matinee performance and Fenton on the outdoor stage the same night.

Between performances, he would often pick up work in a recording studio at Blackstone Audio, one of the biggest publishers of audiobooks in the country. Blackstone also happens to be headquartered in Ashland, just three miles down the road from one of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s main theaters. It was there that DeMeritt recorded the narration for a number of magazine articles, including “The First White President,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The Atlantic published the article online in September, along with an embedded link to the audio version of the piece on SoundCloud. The same day, the piece was published on Audm, the mobile audio startup that had commissioned the recording and hired DeMeritt to read it.

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Since it launched a year and a half ago, Audm has been quietly adding a variety of leading publications to its subscription-based distribution platform, which is available on a mobile app. The concept is so simple—professional voice actors read longform magazine articles—that it’s sort of surprising it didn’t already exist. The service distributes articles on a rolling basis, with contracted publishers often sending pieces out for narration well in advance of print or Web publication. Users can browse offerings by title, and choose whether to simply listen or read along with the self-scrolling text. The service launched in the summer of 2016 with about 10 publications, and it now offers pieces from about three dozen titles, including The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Outside, BuzzFeed News, World Policy Journal, Marie Claire, and The Times Literary Supplement. It costs $6.99 a month. There’s no free version, and no ads.

Audm has appeared at a moment when magazines are experimenting with a diverse array of new products, from audio and video to live events and “branded-content studios.” In one sense, Audm is just another experiment. But in its focus on producing high-quality readings of marquee stories, the very product that gave magazines their stature at a time when print advertising paid all the bills, Audm is a sort of respite from the Twitterization of journalism. It remains to be seen whether it can achieve the kind of scale and staying power it would need to become a lasting audio magazine stand.  

Ryan Wegner, who co-founded Audm with fellow Columbia alum Christian Brink, says they made the app simply because they wanted to use it.

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“We were both heavy consumers of longform journalism who didn’t have enough time to get through all of the stories we would have liked,” Wegner says, in an email to CJR. “My experience with this was particularly acute after moving from New York to LA, where I was spending a whole lot more time in the car.”

It’s no secret that audio is an increasingly common way for Americans to consume news. According to a 2017 report from Edison Research and Triton Digital, 61 percent of Americans had listened to online radio in the previous month, a figure which has grown every year for the last decade. The number of podcast listeners has also been steadily growing, with an estimated 24 percent of Americans over the age of 12 having listened to a podcast within the past month, according to the report. And audiobooks are more popular than ever: Sales topped $2 billion in 2016, an 18 percent increase over the prior year, according to the Audio Publishers Association.

Magazines are looking for the best ways to capitalize on the trend. The New Yorker has not one but six podcasts available on iTunes. Slate has at least 15. The Atlantic launched two just last year. Clarissa Matthews, director of product management and planning at The Atlantic, says 2017 was “only the beginning” of the magazine’s audio experimentation, and it’s planning to do even more podcasting in the new year. The magazine began publishing its articles on Audm at the end of 2016, and now sends virtually all of its features out for production weeks in advance of publication, Matthews says.

Audm shares subscription revenue with publications in proportion to their performance on the app, Wegner says, similar to the Spotify model. He wouldn’t say how many subscribers Audm has. Publishers, who don’t pay any upfront costs for the partnership, weren’t specific about the revenue they get, though they suggested that direct revenue isn’t really the point.

“So much of this is about making our pieces as accessible as possible, and having as wide of a reach as we can,” Matthews says in an email. “One of the great benefits [of Audm] is giving people the option to experience our articles in situations where they previously couldn’t: while driving to work, doing dishes, or out for a walk.”

“We always want to see new revenue,” says Liz Maynes-Aminzade, senior Web manager at The New Yorker, in an email. “Whether from partnerships like this, from direct licensing, from the things we produce on our own—chief among them the magazine and newyorker.com. We hope that listeners who first encounter us on Audm will want to expand that experience to include a subscription to The New Yorker.”

Audm, which is pronounced like the season (“Start-up names are tough,” Wegner says), hasn’t reinvented the wheel. Audible, the popular audiobook service owned by Amazon, has been offering short-form news content through its Channels feature since 2016. Audible also offers a variety of publications, including The New Yorker, The National Review, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Apple’s iTunes carries “Spoken Editions” of several titles, but mostly focuses on short content.

“Audio is hot, and only getting hotter, but no one seems to be taking the exact approach we are right now,” Wegner says.

Audm also prides itself on working with top-rated voice actors. Wegner said he and Brink have listened to “thousands” of audiobook narrators and selected a handful that they think work best for the content, which he described as “longform, prestige journalism.” When they were still building the app, the two tried recording pieces themselves, he says. He wouldn’t specify how much Audm pays its narrators, only saying that it’s “at the very high end of the market for this type of audio production.” DeMeritt, who was nominated for an Audie award for his narration of the alternate-history novel Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, says Audm pays above the SAG-AFTRA minimum rate per finished hour.

DeMeritt has become a regular narrator for The New Yorker in the few weeks it’s been available on Audm, and says the magazine is still trying to figure out its narration style. The experimentation is mostly unnoticeable, though in the Audm production of a profile on the painter Peter Doig, by Calvin Tomkins, a two-chord swell of ambient noise periodically fades in and out behind the narrator’s voice. It was Audm’s idea, says Maynes-Aminzade. They wanted to experiment with using sound design to signal section breaks. The technique doesn’t seem to have been used for any other pieces so far.

DeMeritt has also recorded pieces from Esquire, Foreign Policy, and ProPublica, along with three of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s pieces for The Atlantic. His reading of “The First White President” is the magazine’s most-streamed audio recording on its site. (Another Atlantic piece, “How to Build an Autocracy,” is the most-listened-to article on Audm, according to Wegner.)

“I try to treat each one of these assignments as special and meaningful,” DeMeritt says. “Not all of them immediately have resonance for me, but it’s someone else’s art. It’s a huge responsibility, no matter if it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates or someone I’ve never heard of.”

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Writers, for the most part, seem pleased with the Audm treatment, though several said they had no idea their pieces were produced for the service until they were contacted by CJR. Jack Murphy, a writer and artist who’s currently in a master of architecture program at Rice University, says he listened to his own piece from Places Journal, “Surface to Unlimited,” while walking around his Houston neighborhood. It was exciting to see his work featured alongside publications much bigger than Places, which is one of the smallest publications on Audm, Murphy says. It doesn’t bother him that listeners might be doing something else at the same time they’re taking in the piece.

“It allows longform writing to compete with the podcast as an extended audio experience that overlays onto a commute, a walk, or tedious types of work,” Murphy says in an email. “I think people are mentally multitasking even when they read print or read online.”

“I come from a long line of storytellers,” says Shane Mitchell, who won a James Beard Foundation award for food and culture journalism in 2017, and whose Bitter Southerner piece “Who Owns Uncle Ben?” appeared on Audm in June. “And down south particularly, oral storytelling is considered an art.…I’m strongly focused on the rhythm and dynamic of what I write, so I often will read a piece aloud to myself before I hit send to get it to an editor. I think it’s a great way of telling a story.”

Thomas Chatterton Williams, whose New Yorker piece about white nationalism in Europe was narrated for Audm by William DeMeritt, says he listened to the first half of the piece while sitting at his desk. But he found his attention slipping when he got up to get dressed for dinner.

“It’s certainly better than nothing, but not as good as reading,” Williams says in an email.

A handful of literary standard bearers are notably absent from Audm’s roster. But the app is already sort of unwieldy—you can’t sort by topic, author, or narrator, and pieces are simply loaded in reverse chronological order—and it’s hard to conceive of how publications that rely heavily on art and photography will make great use of it. City and regional magazines might have a hard time standing out on the service as well, if Audm would even want to work with them. It’s not hard to imagine how things could get more complicated. How will writers feel if publications start pulling in significant money from their narrated pieces? And what if Amazon comes knocking?

But for now, even if nobody is listening all that closely, publications have little to lose on the deal.

Nancy Levinson, the editor and executive director of Places Journal, says Audm has only turned down one piece she offered during the year that the journal has had a contract, a piece she says the platform may have considered to be of interest primarily to readers “in the discipline.” Places is an independent nonprofit that is funded by a network of more than two dozen universities; its core audience is people who work in design fields. But there’s always room to grow.

“We simply thought of this as a way to attract more people,” Levinson says. “Not so much readers as listeners. A new category of audience.”  

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Jared Brey is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and a contributing writer at Next City. His work has appeared in Philadelphia magazine, Grid magazine, PlanPhilly, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications.