One day during my boyhood, I became curious about the 16 rpm speed setting on the family’s record player. It was a question my parents couldn’t satisfactorily answer. So, I asked my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Ogan. He said that he would show me and the class the following day.
The next day, one of the school’s record players sat on the table at the front of the classroom. Mr. Ogan placed a record onto the turntable. Then, he told us that he needed to play the record at 16 rpm. The record was one of the school’s tools to help blind kids learn their lessons. That was the day the class was introduced to the “Talking Books for the Blind” program.
We learned that records without music, recorded at 16 rpm first appeared in Germany and England just before World War Two. They were often used to play propaganda over the radio before the invention of tape recorders. Later, in North America, some radio stations used the 16 rpm setting to record public meetings as a way to provide “delayed broadcasts” to their listeners. Then, in 1957, the US Government began distributing 16 rpm records to public libraries and schools in its “Talking Books for the Blind” offerings.
Of course, spoken word recordings were available before 16 rpm records came about. Recordings of poetry, stage plays and books have been offered for sale ever since records became commercially available. The most common spoken word recordings were on the standard 78 rpm records used in schools and many public libraries.
The spoken word recording market exploded shortly after the invention of compact cassette tapes in 1963. The Library of Congress began distributing “books on tape” by 1969. Soon, commercially distributed “books on tape” began appearing in specialty mail order catalogues and on retail shelves. The format became very popular with the availability of small, pocket size players and Japanese made automotive cassette decks.
At first, the most widely sold cassette audio was recorded by companies like Nightengale/Conant. They provided sales and marketing lectures for salesmen and corporate executives. Soon, more popular recordings were produced by professional readers and actors performing abridged versions of current best-selling books.
It was only a matter of time that specialized companies began producing and distributing high quality studio unabridged recordings of a wider range of books to consumers in the general marketplace. By the mid 1980s there were nearly a dozen specialized audiobook publishing companies. Then, by the 1990s, most of the major paper and ink publishers had their own audiobook divisions. Retail sales figures approached nearly $2,000,000,000.
I cannot remember when I first fell in love with the audiobook format. I was exposed to recorded storytelling at a very young age. Certainly, my first exposure was long before Mr. Ogan’s fifth grade class demonstration of 16 rpm records. I’ve enjoyed listening to them on records, tapes, Compact Discs, and on my iPod. They’ve accompanied me on long journeys, during workouts, and in my darkened living room. Friends have told me I should use my broadcasting experience and provide my own voice for audiobooks.
Audiobooks are increasingly attractive now that I’m getting older and my eyes become strained easier. On those days when I restrict my screen time, I let audiobooks transport my mind into alternate worlds. June is Audiobook Month. During the next few weeks, I’m going to replay several of my all-time favorites.