Friday Blog Mar 30 – Audio book narrators have never had it so good

Today’s blog is from Robert Kirkwood, producer and presenter of Talking Books on Insight Radio

I love audio books. Be it in the car, out with the dog or even in bed, I’ve usually got a Talking Book on the go … which is just as well as they also happen to be my day job too.

For the past decade and beyond I’ve been involved in making them, be it as an engineer, a producer, an occasional narrator and latterly the presenter and producer of an audio book show on the radio, and it was during the research for a documentary I put together that I came to an important conclusion …

Today’s book narrators don’t know they’re born!

In fact not just narrators, but producers and even listeners all have it so easy these days. We’ve never had it so good.

The convenience of the format nowadays has of course had a direct influence on its popularity. It’s so easy to record, edit and indeed buy a book that the market has exploded. I can click on book name on an online shop and be listening to it in seconds on my phone. A current bestseller, a biography, or a huge epic all available instantly.

Compare that to the early days of RNIB’s Talking Book service where the books were delivered in a large, heavy, box containing up to twenty LP’s, each with around 25 minutes of audio per side. Before the introduction of vinyl, theses discs were made of shellac, and you were lucky if one or two of them didn’t shatter in transit. Even when the service moved to tape in 1960 the multi-track cassettes were so heavy they had to be delivered separately to the normal mail.

Postman hernias aside, I think the people who had it hardest in those days though were the narrators. Today most studios are comfortable, silently air-conditioned and beautifully soundproofed. An engineer sits at a PC or Mac running state of the art recording software and if a stumble or mistake is made it can be edited on-the-fly and the recording almost never stops.

The first proper audio books to be recorded in the UK were mastered to wax. Yes, wax. A large disc was warmed up, put on a recording turntable and you were off … for the next 25 minutes. A mistake or a stumble, a page that wouldn’t turn or an errant noise meant that the whole recording was scrapped and the engineer would start heating another disc with a heavy sigh. The narrators in those days weren’t so much chosen for their voice, although in the main they were BBC radio newsreaders with that classic ‘wartime’ delivery, but chosen for the ability to cover over mistakes and make stumbles sound as professional as possible. One narrator’s favourite tale from those days was that if he saw a word approaching that he had no idea how to pronounce he said it with such volume and confidence that people who had always said it correctly started doubting themselves.

This didn’t take place in a comfortable studio with coffee on tap, this was in someone’s converted shed, and conditions didn’t improve when they eventually moved to a dedicated studio building. The year was 1940 and the place was bombed in the blitz. Twice.

So I’ll say it again, narrators these day don’t know they’re born! And let me add an addendum to the first sentence of this blog. I love audio books … audio books on mp3.

The Talking Books show is on RNIB’s Insight Radio every weekday at 3pm with a repeat at 10pm and has a children’s classic every Sunday at 1pm.  The 75th Anniversary show mentioned above is free to download or listen directly from  iTunes. Talking Books are part of the RNIB National Library Service. Listen to a  clip of one of the first ever Talking Books here.



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