Audm, an app that turns long-form articles into audio versions narrated by professional narrators, has had a similar trajectory to many successful startups that have come out of Silicon Valley. To start, a passion for a somewhat niche yet serviceable aspect of the human experience: in this case, the founders’ shared love for media and journalism but the lack of time to read everything they wished to. Columbia University alumni Christian Brink and Ryan Wegner incorporated the company in 2015 and launched the Audm app in 2016.
In the summer of 2017, Brink and Wegner took part in Y Combinator, joining the startup accelerator program that helped launch Airbnb, Reddit, and Instacart. The beta version of the app included ten articles from publications such as ProPublica, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, Outside. Now, narrated articles from Audm have become an indispensable part of issues from publications such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Atlantic.
Audm is among several long-form-to-audio apps that have emerged around the world in recent years. Though their premises are quite similar—curated, professionally-narrated articles from renowned magazines and newspapers—each has its own idiosyncratic features to entice consumers. The Ireland-based company, Noa (short for News over Audio), narrates primarily shorter articles from titles such as Harvard Business Review, The Economist, and The Independent. Unlike most audio subscription services, Noa offers a free listening option with limited “listening balances” and a premium subscription. Similarly, Curio, a UK-based company whose founders include a former BBC strategist, curates content relating to finance, technology, science, and foreign affairs, as well as work from independent writers such as Nir Eyal.
Audm diverges from its competitors in that it is backed by one of the largest, most-respected publications in the world; in March 2020, the New York Times acquired Audm, and Brink and Wegner along with the rest of Audm’s staff joined the Times Company. Wegner described Audm as “a natural fit” for the Times, which already “has strong emphasis on audio as a part of their future.”
Narrated journalism exists along the same spectrum as audiobooks and podcasts but is distinctive in both its craft and form. Perhaps the most striking difference is the speed at which narrated articles are produced. Usually, Audm can produce an article’s narrated accompaniment in anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Companies like Audm can move this rapidly because many of its narrators have at-home studios (which was de rigueur even before the pandemic). Narrator Eric Jason Martin shared that “The Plague Year”— Lawrence Wright’s robust, humanizing analysis of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic that has a running time of around three and a half hours—was sent to him and recorded in a day and a half split between Christmas Eve and Day. 1 The quick split posed no problem for Martin, who added, “I come from a live entertainment background and I was used to working through the holidays, so I said, ‘Hey, I’m available.’” The article came out in The New Yorker two days later on December 27th.
Audm narrators, most of whom come from the audiobook industry, are the best quality English-language narrators working today. In addition to their many awards, they bring a profound appreciation for long-form journalism and a masterful skill for conveying both objectivity and certainty to their work. Perhaps this is because many narrators have extensive backgrounds in related fields. Martin is an Audible best-selling author, a director, and a voice actor; Emily Woo Zeller, another Audm narrator I spoke to, is a performing artist who has a background dubbing anime and voicing video games.
When casting narrator articles, Audm’s team looks for a narrator who can best capture the subject and the author’s message. These casting conversations can last hours or days, which Wegner describes as the most subjective part of the narration process. Most narrators have a wide range, but some narrators’ voices, styles, and experiences can best lend themselves to particular types of articles. As Zeller explains, “I grew up speaking Chinese, so that’s kind of a specialty that I have. They often will give me articles that are written about Chinese topics, but not exclusively.”
There’s a real sense of intimacy and immediacy when something is read aloud, especially lengthy or personal stories, which long-form suits so well. In September 2020, The New Yorker published Jiayang Fan’s essay “Motherland,” 2 a piece about how Fan’s struggle to maintain adequate care for her ailing mother during the pandemic while defending her family from a media firestorm in the Chinese press surrounding her social media posts. When approaching such sensitive pieces, narrators work tirelessly to truly embody the writer’s intentions. “As a narrator, I try to be as authentic as possible to both me and to the author,” Zeller explains. “I try to be able to deliver it as honestly as possible, so if it’s a very personal moment that she’s sharing and I try to be available for that and without adding anything extra.”
This deep engagement with the author is a true talent because writers and narrators rarely communicate directly. Contacting the author is typically infeasible given the quick turnarounds for audio drafts. Nevertheless, for some publications and pieces, the writer’s own voice is so essential to a story that writers themselves are trained to narrate. Zetland, a Danish long-form media company, has been producing its own audio versions of articles read by their writers since 2017. However, they work on a much smaller scale, only publishing three or four stories a day, underscoring their company’s commitment to not adding to information overload.
Wegner affirmed that Audm has no specific target audience. Rather, apps like Audm attract all types of listeners: from commuters to people who can’t find the time to read through their piles of magazines to people who simply like to listen to the news. Audm’s ultimate focus on making journalism accessible to all has built a large audience of over 34,000 subscribers.
Long-form journalism occupies an essential place in understanding our world. Its stories cannot be commodified into a headline on social media but abridge the multi-hour commitment of a book. For some, the past eighteen months of sheltering in place have finally provided the space and time to start reading or listening to long-form. The pandemic led to major subscriber gains for the largest publications in the country with The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times gaining 380,000 and two million subscribers between 2019 and 2020, respectively. During the past year, essays and articles like Wesley Morris’ “My Moustache, My Self” 3 and Jesmyn Ward’s “On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed By Pandemic” 4 that processed universal complexities—identity, loss, race—on the page alongside readers. Likewise, long-form reporting provided many with a fundamental understanding of multifaceted crises such as Ed Yong of The Atlantic’s reporting 5 on healthcare workers and the development of the vaccine or ProPublica’s guides to the 2020 election season, 6 how to avoid evictions, 7 and who has received PPP loans. 8 Some stories need significant space to be told; long-form gives audiences the opportunity to understand a facet of the world in its full depth.
For those who can spare the time and money to invest in long-form journalism, the benefits are immeasurably worthwhile, but the expense is unrealistic for many. Audm, for example, costs $7.99 per month or $69.99 per year, roughly on par with most major streaming services. Major newspapers, which include audio or narrated content, can run a subscription cost of over $100 each year each. The indispensable information of these outlets thus becomes inaccessible to many everyday Americans, especially those who are being reported on: refugees, the homeless or impoverished, the disenfranchised (and the list goes on) cannot afford to read articles about issues that pertain to their own lives. Some publications attempt to partially remedy this by allowing several free articles before putting up a paywall. The New York Times releases one narrated article every Sunday on their hit podcast “The Daily” that has millions of weekly listeners. Still, the most pressing stories of our time are largely unattainable. This inequity only augments the mindset of the well-to-do watching the world from above while the rest just experience it.
When I asked Wegner where Audm fits on the growing continuum of the audio industry, he described Audm as “bridging the gap between podcasts and audiobooks.” Perhaps this outlook applies on multiple levels. Not only does narrated journalism combine aspects of both mediums in terms of its length or accessibility, but also in its cost to consumers. But, Audm and similar apps’ appeal is still not straightforward convenience. Their content is selective and time-consuming. Narrated journalism does not aim to assuage our need for immediacy. Rather, it provides something that is often missing from our news consumption: space. Space to sit with ideas, to get out of our heads and into someone else’s. Just for a moment.