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From radio to podcasts: a brief history of voiced literature

From radio to podcasts: a brief history of voiced literature
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Palina Dolia

Let's face it: reading is not the easiest hobby. It takes a lot of time, because not everyone manages to concentrate on a book in a subway car, sometimes immersion in the world of literature must take place in very special conditions, in silence and behind a closed door. Everyday life swallows us up, but we want to read so much! So audiobooks come to the rescue. So where did they come from and where does it all lead? Let's take a look at the history of this unusual literature format – audio.



The history of audiobooks has a rather sudden start. In 1877, the notorious Thomas Edison presented his new invention – the phonograph. It was an absolute sensation: the first device capable of recording and reproducing sound – this is a miracle! But any presentation must be accompanied by instructions for the practical use of the new machine. And even then Thomas Edison recommended using the phonograph to create audiobooks for visually impaired people.

However, audiobooks at that time could only be in the project. The first recordings on phonograph cylinders were about 4 minutes long, on gramophone records that appeared later, it was possible to record almost 12 minutes of the sound track. Not enough for a book yet.


Radio active

Fast forward to the roaring 1920s – the real heyday of radio, the most affordable entertainment at the time (even more accessible than good old fashioned reading). In the end, you just have to buy a working radio just once – and now music is always playing in your house, the hosts chatting and comedians joking. You don't need to buy a new book or take a ticket to the Philharmonic every time: everything is already in this small box with an antenna, you just have to wait for the desired program. In general, just a fairy tale. Great leisure time for the whole family.

Of course, in addition to news and weather forecasts, there is space for creativity in the radio program – music and radio performances. Before magnetic recording of sound, it is still a dozen years old, so all programs have to be conducted literally from the studio, live. In radio plays, plays are read and literary works are staged. Everything is like in solid modern audiobooks – with a narrator, actors and even sound effects of rain, guns and the sound of wheels. Radio plays were so popular that they had separate advertising sponsors. By the way, this is how the term “soap opera” arose – at first, such radio performances received funds from companies producing detergents and dishwashing detergents.

In general, a lot of money, time and mental energy were invested in such audio performances, so they turned out to be very believable – so much so that some listeners generally forgot that they were listening to the production and plunged into its world with their heads. This happened with the radio play based on the novel by H.G. Wells "War of the Worlds" in 1938. You've probably heard this story: on the eve of Halloween, the artists from the Mercury Theater decided to stage a play based on the famous novel, and at the same time the whole world. They moved the scene of the book to New Jersey, announced the start of a radio play, after which they launched a weather forecast and a small performance by the orchestra, which – oh, horror! – was interrupted by an urgent message about strange outbreaks on Mars. Immediately, a certain astronomer professor refutes all assumptions about possible life on the red planet, so the concert finally continues. Not for long, though: the next message is much more disturbing. This is an urgent news release! CBS reporter Carl Phillips reports on the landing of a strange metal cylinder in Grovers Mill, from which emerges a terrible war machine that shoots out heat rays. Everything around is on fire! Earthlings' weapons are powerless! Save yourself who can! ..

Does it look convincing? And many Americans believed it. Still – the radio play was staged so carefully as to force even the most skeptical listener to look out the window with caution: are the newcomers creeping up to his green courtyard? In general, many were scared and began to call the radio station, the rescue service and their relatives in the still safe west. It is estimated that almost 6 million people listened to the production, and a fifth of them mistook it for real reporting. Someone did not have time to the very beginning with the announcement of the radio play, and someone had already forgotten about it. At the fortieth minute of the production, the announcer finally reminded the audience that this was just a performance, but many of them had already barricaded themselves in their basements with weapons, packed their belongings or flew to police stations, wanting to help in the fight against alien invaders. By coincidence, at the same time, the power plant in the town of Konkret went out of order. This, of course, was also blamed on the Martians.

As you can see, radio plays were not only wildly popular, but also had an equivalent impact on the fledgling minds of listeners. In the end, this is not a book, you cannot turn to the beginning, to the warning "not based on real events", and radio broadcasts were much more often taken for granted. The story of the War of the Worlds is probably greatly exaggerated and turned over time into an urban legend, but this is a great example of how audio versions of literary works gradually entered the daily life of a person.


Spin, record

While radio intimidates innocent North Americans, the world is exploring new ways of recording, including better LPs. Back in 1932, the American Foundation for the Support of the Blind released the first "talking books" on vinyl records. The recordings were already 15 minutes long on each side of the record and mainly contained such important works as plays by Shakespeare, the Constitution and – all of a sudden – Gladys Hesti Carroll's debut book As The Earth Turns.

The Second World War also left its mark on the history of audiobooks, and in a very sad way: many military personnel partially or completely lost their sight during the hostilities, so public libraries are increasingly beginning to organize book recordings for them. Since 1948, the number of vinyl records with all kinds of literary works has increased rapidly.

A new tipping point occurs in 1952. The American company Caedmon Records releases the first commercial audiobook on LP – a selection of poems by the British poet Dylan Thomas, dictated by him personally. The second side of the disc contains a children's tale by his own authorship "Christmas in Wales". The audiobook made a splash.

By the late 1950s, the entire world began to actively record literary works on records – although still mainly to support the blind, and not on a commercial basis. In 1961, under the auspices of the All-Union Society of the Blind, work began on audiobooks in the USSR. Since then, almost 9 thousand books have been written down – however, now they are available only to members of the aforementioned society. In addition, some magazines began to be published in almost audio format, with an attachment in the form of records. So, in the USSR they were acquired by the publications "Krugozor" and "Kolobok".


Time of cassettes

Sound recording media and all kinds of media are developing, and in 1969 a new important event happens – the appearance of cassettes. Compact and easy to record and listen to, cassettes began to supplant vinyl records, and audiobooks are finally becoming widespread not only among the blind. Audio versions of books are starting to appear in public libraries, attached to paper editions, which can be listened to right in the reading room. By the way, there is such an option in the National Library – a whole separate room with cozy booths and headphones, where you can immerse yourself in the world of literature with maximum comfort.

By the 1980s, both portable cassette players and cassettes were improving – now they can record large works, so the number of audiobooks continues to grow steadily along with their popularity. Remember: you probably also had some kind of cassette with children's fairy tales in your house, like "Little Red Riding Hood" or "Puss in Boots", which your parents inserted into the tape recorder before going to bed. Do you feel pleasant nostalgia? Or have you found audiobooks in a more modern version? Gradually, they changed cassettes to CD-disks, but from this they did not lose at all either in quality or in popularity.


Podcasts and a new era

So, to date, the voiced literature has found its embodiment in another interesting format – podcasts. In a way, this is the reincarnation of those very radio performances from the 1930s, but in good quality and with a touch of modern technology – the same radio broadcast, but recorded, and therefore you can play it at any time and from any moment. Now you don't need to run to your radio at certain hours: all recordings are available right on your computer, phone and tablet. You have to wait, perhaps, for new episodes of the podcast, but there's nothing you can do about it.

Podcasts cover an incredible amount of topics – whatever you think about now, there is probably already a podcast about it. Often these are conversational blogs on a specific topic. At first glance, they seem to have little in common with literature in general. Then what have the audiobooks to do with it?

Let's immediately pay attention to this point: not all podcasts are heart-to-heart conversations or discussion of controversial topics. Among them, there is a category that has gotten so close to audiobooks that sometimes one can only wonder that this recording does not have a printed source – and now we are talking about art podcasts. In fact, these are the same audio performances: they tell a story, act out a production, this is an audiobook that was immediately created in this sound format. It could be a mysterious thriller like "Limetown", a cosmo-opera inspired by the old radio plays "Wolf 359", or a surreal production of "Welcome to Night Vale", which features a radio show from the strangest city on the planet, where all conspiracy theories are embodied at once. This is a new way to tell the world your story – and it is rapidly gaining momentum.


Audiobooks of the present and future

As much as audiobooks have changed throughout their history, something has remained virtually unchanged: the number of storytellers. Most of the story is told by one announcer, at best a duet. This is far from the bombastic radio plays of the past: too expensive. Also, let's be honest: many storytellers are not very emotional and, as a result, a good half of the audiobooks are depressingly monotonous. Nowadays, background music and all kinds of sound effects are increasingly added to the recording, trying to diversify the story. And it's a great trend that makes audiobooks even better. Unless, of course, you overdo it with special effects.

More and more often, not only people who are ready to read "Dubliners" aloud for many hours in a row are involved in scoring literary works, but also popular actors, musicians and other cultural figures. And that's great too. A loud name in the annotation of an audiobook can attract the attention of those who in another situation would never look at it. For example, Benedict Cumberbatch voiced the book by the physicist Carlo Rovelli "Time Duration" and thus attracted more listeners to it than you might imagine.

Audiobooks continue to develop rapidly, but this does not mean that they will one day replace printed literature. After all, storytelling has always been a part of human culture – so why should it disappear now? In addition, printed books are material, and people love material things: they are much better at demonstrating what a raging reader you are and how strong your love for books is. Therefore, continue to watch how literature takes on new forms and incarnations. Who knows what else lies ahead?

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