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The Big Read…or rather The Big Listen

Filed under: General, Radio Today — Charlie Summers @ 9:43 am

This morning on The Bob Edwards Show, David Kipen promoted XM’s new collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts, The Big Read. Mr. Kipen is very, very enthusiastic, and I certainly understand why since having XM promote the program dramatically increases the number of people who know about it. But let me give you the other side of the coin, one Mr. Kipen either isn’t aware of, or frankly doesn’t care about since his focus is not on the radio side.

First, let’s examine the entire idea that books-on-tape promote literacy. Horse-pucky…books-on-tape are entertaining, and great for those long commutes, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with literacy. We as a society read less and less, and salving our souls by saying, “well, I heard a book the other day…” is just plain silly.

So why would XM make this collaboration with the NEA? Oh, heck, that’s simple; they want to make money. I saw this nonsense coming long before now, ever since the marketing agreement with Audible begat the annoying This Is Audible sales-pitch masquerading as a radio program. Audible, for those who have just returned from the 1980’s, is the company that has made a fortune making books-on-tape available to the Internet masses for a fee, complete with restrictive Digital Rights Management designed to limit the freedom the customer has with the items they purchase. (I will never understand why the modern consumer is so determined to allow businesses to dictate to them what they may and may not do with the items they purchase, but there it is.) This collaboration is a method for XM to promote their partner Audible and to make money of purchases made through the company…it’s pretty much that simple.

At the same time, the current channel-runner of XM’s Sonic Theater channel (I am becoming more and more reluctant to call these people “program directors,” but then I am currently in a crisis-of-disillusionment with XM anyway) is using it to decimate what little contemporary audio theater still remains. First off, for bandwidth reasons alone, XM cut Sonic Theater over the weekends (I don’t want to get into a big discussion of this, but any time something is added something has to go, since the amount of bandwidth available to XM is completely filled so the addition of college sports over the weekend requires Sonic Theater and E! to disappear over the weekends - sometime I’ll rant about how the proposed merger will take away from your choices for that very reason, but this isn’t the time nor place), which means the available programming space has been cut by 2/7ths. And the recent direction has been moving more and more toward material supplied by Audible (remember that co-marketing agreement, kids?) and away from contemporary producers of audio theater.

Yeah, yeah, I am a pretty harsh critic of contemporary audio theater, or as I prefer to call it, Modern Audio Drama (MAD)…most of it is schlock, despite the sincerity of the producers. And the old channel-runner of Sonic Theater wasn’t pulling the best-of-the-worst, as it were, either - more attention was paid to how much the programming cost than how good it was. So you got a mixed schedule; for every extraordinary Imagination Theater, you received a sub-par Comedy-O-Rama. But even as bad as that show was, it was still audio theater, not some schlub reading a book.

Now, XM and the current channel-runner has given up any pretense of providing audio theater, instead focusing on and heavily promoting only Audible content. That XM stuck its nose into the Big Read program doesn’t surprise me, indeed it’s exactly what I would do if I wanted to sell more Audible material: convince the rest of the world that what I am doing in my own self-interest is somehow noble, and press-release the hell out of it.

Not to mention it looks good to the FCC and Justice Department that they are coupled with the NEA on this, as another reason the merger with Sirius should be approved…”look at us, we care about literacy!” never mind that listening has nothing to do with reading and everything to do with smoke-and-mirrors, just like the merger itself.

None of this changes anything - listening to a book ain’t literacy, and XM ain’t noble for using the NEA like this. Like so much that has been happening there lately, it isn’t targeted to the subscribers, it’s targeted to the shareholders and those who control the future of the merger. You want audio books? Download the free and uncrippled files at LibriVox, a site XM won’t be promoting any time soon because there’s no money in it. But trust me…it’s a whole lot more satisfying to sit down and read the book yourself.

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5 Responses to “The Big Read…or rather The Big Listen” »


  1. tfk Says:

    If I have time to read a book, I read a book. If I’m doing something that requires any amount of attention, it does me no good to listen to a book, since multi-tasking is not one of my strong points. I’m sure others get benefits from books-on-tape, but I don’t. I don’t listen to OTR when I have to do something, since I miss important parts. Reading and listening to OTR are strictly leisure activities for me.

    I agree with you, books-on-tape don’t promote literacy. Too many people I know use them instead of, not in addition to reading regular books. And I’m not to keen on people listening to a book while driving, only because of my own experience. It’s probably not as distracting as talking on the cell phone, but I would think it would take more time and attention away from driving than some mindless song you’ve heard a dozen times before.

    The book I’m currently reading (and I’m always reading at least one): “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History”, by John M. Barry.

    – Tom

    As an ironic comment, this book is available as an unabridged recording on compact disc, read by Scott Brick. –cfs3


  3. tfk Says:

    Charlie, I went to the link you provided and at least one of the readers who submitted a review never heard of the 1918 pandemic — I thought I learned this in high school!

    Oh well, when I heard the story about 1 in 4 americans not reading a whole book in the past year, I found one of my friends fit that category. I’m wondering it it isn’t more widespread than that. Maybe comic books distorted the results a bit… 8^)

    – Tom


  5. IreneTH Says:

    I’m doing a lot more listening now than reading books for a variety of reasons including eye strain issues. I have access to two databases, net library and ecalif which provide download of free online ‘rental’ of audio books through SF bay area public library online services. What makes me feel a little bad about listening to books free is that the author isn’t getting a royalty from me. I was an early and avid reader, never stopped, love to read. I find this argument about audio books strange, especially when those of us who grew up with the radio oppose audio books. Aren’t we always saying that one of the main reasons we miss radio is that it engaged our imagination. And most of us were introduced to books when they were read to us by our parents.

    Tom mentioned comic books above. When my son wanted to read comic books that was fine with me. Anything that promoted reading of books eventually was fine with me. In his case he moved on to Lord of the Rings, etc.


  7. Charlie Summers Says:

    I find this argument about audio books strange, especially when those of us who grew up with the radio oppose audio books.

    You misunderstand. I don’t “oppose” audio books; if you enjoy them, knock yourself out. They simply have nothing to do with literacy, however, by definition. I don’t remember anyone claiming listening to audio drama of any sort improves literacy either, regardless of the imagination required.

    And I assume you aren’t seriously arguing that because, “most of us were introduced to books when they were read to us by our parents,” that somehow listening to books-on-tape will make us better readers. I don’t know about you, but I was inadvertently taught to read at three because my mother used her finger to keep her place, and I associated the sounds with the squiggles on the page. That has nothing whatsoever to do with listening to a cold reading without the book in front of one.

    My argument isn’t anti-book-on-tape, it’s that XM’s Sonic Theater is changing its programming and making this bogus connection with the NEA for the crassest of reasons - money.


  9. tfk Says:

    I mentioned comic books in the context of adults counting them as a “book read this year”, not to say that they are bad for kids. I don’t oppose audio books either, but I myself can’t get any use out of them. If you can, fine. If you took offense to my remark that too many people use them instead of not in addition to reading real books, I apologize. My eyes aren’t very good, and I certainly don’t think that people who, for whatever reason, can’t read a book should be looked down upon for using audio books.

    However, I still agree with Charlie’s point: audio books do not promote literacy.

    – Tom

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