But producing an audio version of that 800-page report about the 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol was akin to the Manhattan Project.
Macmillan Audio was first. Miraculously, it released a 23-hour version of the report Dec. 28, when most of the publishing industry was still on vacation. Guy Oldfield, the head of production at Macmillan Audio, tells me: “If it hadn’t been for the Christmas weekend, I would have had it available on the 26th.”
How did Oldfield and his team manage that feat of near-instant production? After all, before the Final Report of the Jan. 6 select committee appeared, no one really knew what was in it, how long it would be, what form it would take or when it would be available.
For Oldfield, who worked for BBC News for many years, the planning started two months ago. Betting that the committee’s report would be substantial, accessible and “very narrative-driven,” he hired nine experienced voice actors, “basically the highest-performing nonfiction narrators who had read political science books or books about journalism.”
Typically, an audiobook narrator would study the text, mark it up, practice and then record. But there was nothing typical about narrating the Jan. 6. report. The only thing these voice actors had beforehand was a pronunciation guide of names they speculated might come up in the text.
Hours after the document appeared on the House committee’s website, Oldfield had broken it into parts. Leon Nixon, a narrator in Los Angeles, started working at midnight; the others quickly followed. Most of them recorded their sections at home. A team was dispatched to record special commentary written and read by New Yorker editor David Remnick and committee member Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.).
Meanwhile, instead of using one postproduction editor, Macmillan used nine, working simultaneously. They received the incoming audio files, checked for errors and quality control, and finalized each part. By 10:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve — a mere 36 hours after the report was released — the recording was all done.
But no single person had yet listened to the entire 23 hours. There simply wasn’t time. “It was a collective effort,” Oldfield says. “I just had to trust the process.” It was like no other audiobook he had ever produced. But Jan. 6 was like no other crisis the country had experienced.
“Audio is the perfect way of consuming this report,” Oldfield says. “The audio version really makes the listener contemplate the incredible events of that day and the risk that was placed to this republic.”
Remarkable as Macmillan’s herculean task was, it may soon be as obsolete as hand-churned butter. Apple Books has started releasing audiobooks narrated by artificial intelligence to avoid “the cost and complexity” of human narrators.
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