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Audiobooks in the White House

Political Junkie?  Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s memoirs were recorded by Books on Tape’s Director of Production Dan Zitt. But for something different, try his newest audio production, Michelle Obama’s American Grown, where the First Lady shares her thoughts on healthy living for parents and kids, reflects on her “Let’s Move” initiative and the White House Kitchen Garden – and is refreshingly free from the current barrage of 24/7 political talk. I ran in to Dan at ALA’s annual conference, when he shared his experience recording the First Lady, and an abridged version of his story, Talking With Dan Zitt, is featured in this month’s Food spotlight issue of Booklist. But if you’re like me, you prefer the unabridged version – so here’s my entire chat…

Dan, you’ve handled the recording of plenty of political superstars and celebrities. Is it a given that a powerhouse author will voice their own book? Give us a few favorite  big name narrators and compare those sessions with the experience of recording the First Lady.
It is never a given that an author will narrate their own audiobook since the recording process can sometimes take several days. Celebrity authors and political superstars do not often have that much time to spend in the booth so we spend a lot of time consulting with the authors and their staffs on who the narrator should be.  For American Grown, I spent a lot of time collecting auditions, paring those down to the number of people I thought were appropriate, and then consulting with the First Lady’s staff to find the right voice for each section.  We had one hour with the First Lady herself and then some time with each of the contributors to the White House garden.  Our narrator and other readers rounded out the recording very nicely but the highlight is listening to Mrs. Obama herself.  When she sat down and started reading, I looked at the engineer and mouthed, WOW.  I was just so impressed with how perfect it sounded and how good she was as a reader.  There are times in the studio when everything just seems to come together and you have an experience that transcends the medium; this was one of those experiences.  I had the same feeling working with  President Clinton on all three of his audiobooks, and when sitting in on some of the Harry Potter sessions with Jim Dale.

Your celebrity and superstar narrators often require the recording studio to come to them. Where are some of the most interesting locations you’ve planted the microphone – including your experience with American Grown?

The experience of recording the First Lady was unique because we didn’t utilize a traditional recording booth as I had in the past when I recorded President Clinton or President George W. Bush (in the abridged version).   After several conversations with the First Lady’s staff I realized that the White House didn’t have an actual sound booth on the premises, so I called the engineer that I had worked with three times for President Clinton’s recordings and asked if he could put together a simple remote recording set up.  Scott Cresswell, our engineer, did a fantastic job of making it work; he managed to bring everything we needed in two suitcases and it gave us as close to studio sound as we could get.  We actually recorded in the White House Family Theater which was a very quiet room. The White House staff also made the people working on the floor conscious of the fact that we needed silence in the halls whenever possible which helped tremendously. We do not often do remote recordings, but I have said to many of my authors over the past sixteen years: just tell me where you are, and I’ll find a place to make it work.
Part of the production process allows creativity in transforming the book into the audio format. What guides your choices – such as the decision to exclude the recipes from the audio or provide multiple voices?
Although this audiobook was unique because it was the First Lady’s, it didn’t really change the way we approached the production.   All of our authors are consulted before we begin the audio production process, and this was no different—although the fact that our author just happened to be our First Lady certainly wasn’t lost on us either.  I spent a lot of time drawing up my vision for the audiobook and then collaborated with Mrs. Obama’s staff to make sure that we were all on the same page regarding the execution of it.  The choices we made were all run by the First Lady, from deciding to cut the recipes to selecting which sections were more, or less, appropriate for the First Lady to narrate given the limited time we had with her.  The other part of the process was really defining to the listener when they were listening to Mrs. Obama herself.  My idea from the beginning was to have music specially composed for the book to correlate toeach season.  You’ll hear some music behind each of the First Lady’s sections, and I think it really highlights to the listener that they are hearing something special.

The audiobook has several contributors besides Mrs. Obama, so after we completed her recording it was my job to decide who was going to read these parts.  The pieces were mostly experiences that regular Americans had either starting or contributing to their local gardens.   Rather than bringing in a bunch of actors to read these sections, I thought that it would be more authentic to bring in regular people.   I didn’t want the audiobook to sound like it was being acted, I wanted it to sound true to the content and the people behind it.   What better way to get authenticity then to bring in a couple of dozen readers who weren’t professional narrators to record the remainder of the pieces?   So when you listen to the audiobook, you won’t hear something that is polished or performed, and “presented” the way a traditional audiobook is.  The voices are just people, not performers, narrating pieces written by regular Americans.   It really creates a distinctive experience for the listener, and is very true to the book.  I also spent a lot of time finding people who were geographically similar to the contributors to make the voices sound as genuine as possible; a gardner from Virginia was read by someone I knew who was from Virginia, for instance.   It was a challenge to find the right people, but one that was a lot of fun.

It’s not unusual for a major book by a famous person to be recorded in an abridged version read by the author, with the unabridged audio voiced by a professional narrator. Why make this production choice?

This, as I mentioned before, is just a scheduling issue in most cases.   Authors, celebrities, political figures, etc., barely have any spare time outside of their profession, so taking a week out of their schedule to narrate a 12 hour book is difficult.  Given the shift in what the consumer prefers over the years we are seeing considerably fewer abridgments, which makes it even more challenging to have the famous author or narrator read their own work.  There are, however, many creative ways to have an author’s presence on a recording without having them narrate the entire thing.  I will ask often an author to come in and read their prologue or, as I did in Harry Belafonte’s audiobook, narrate the first chapter.  Just having the author’s voice on some portion of the audio enhances the experience, especially with a memoir.

So I’m curious – did the First Lady offer you a taste of the White House garden’s bounty? And did you get to pet Bo?

I didn’t get a chance to taste any of the bounty or pet Bo, but I got spend a day in the White House recording a tremendous audiobook, and how many people can say the same?  It was an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
More from Dan…



About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

1 Comment on "Audiobooks in the White House"

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  1.' Diane Havens says:

    Great interview, but that’s no surprise. I am a longtime advocate for healthy eating and exercise, as well as an ardent admirer of Michelle Obama and all she’s done to promote those things, especially for children. Add to that my great respect for the fascinating Dan Zitt — this is a slam dunk, grand slam, er … any other sports analogies that fit. I am not only saying these things to have a chance to win this wonderful audiobook, since it was on my must-listen list already and I would be more than happy to buy it, (which I will either way). Thanks for the chance, Mary!

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