Duvall Hecht: A pioneer in the world of audio books | Sunday Observer

Duvall Hecht: A pioneer in the world of audio books

20 March, 2022

Nowadays, audio books are very popular, even the avid readers tend to listen to them. Why are they so popular? Because audio books provide some dramatic enjoyment to readers, where they cannot have from general reading.

How does this scientific advancement come through? Who was audio books’ founder? Audio books came to the world thanks to the digital technology. But before that there was another kind of audio book: cassette tape. In that, books were recorded and, offered as cassette tapes to listeners to have an audio experience like radio drama.

In fact, harnessing still-new technology of cassette tapes to offer bibliophiles is not an easy task. But one man could do this difficult job. He is Duvall Young Hecht. On last February 10, this great American book lover died at the age of 91. So it is noteworthy to discuss his immense service to the literature.

Early life

Duvall Young Hecht was born on April 23, 1930, in Los Angeles. His father, John, was a stockbroker, and his mother, Clarabelle (Young) Hecht, was a homemaker. His high school was Beverly Hills where he was named ‘Most Popular Boy’, and he was an indifferent student. After graduating from it, he attended Menlo College in Atherton, California for a year before transferring to Stanford University.

While studying at Stanford for the bachelor’s degree in journalism, he hoped to make the football team. But at 6 feet 1 and 185 pounds, he was deemed too light. So a coach suggested he try rowing instead. Hence, instead of foot ball, he joined the Stanford rowing team.

Soon after the graduation, he excelled at rowing with such a high feat that he could earn a spot competing for the United States in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. He and his teammate James Fifer competed within the coxed pairs, through which every rower makes use of one oar on both aspect of the boat, which is steered by a coxswain. They didn’t win a medal.

Olympic Gold Medalist

The same year, he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Stanford. After college, Hecht joined the Marine Corps Reserve, where he was a fighter pilot, but continued his training in rowing. With Jim Fifer, he once again represented the country in the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, and defeated the favourite Russian team by eight seconds to win gold medals in pair-without-coxswain rowing.

He served in the Marines for another year, and then flew for Pan American World Airways, but quit after a year. It was like driving a bus, he later said. Next, he taught English at Menlo, where he also started a rowing team and coached it. He also served as a rowing coach at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Soon after earning a master’s in communications from Stanford in 1960, he began to work in marketing for the investment banking firm Bateman Eichler, Hill Richards in Los Angeles. There, he had to commute between his home in Newport Beach and his office Bateman Eichler.

Arising a new concept

It took at least two hours to travel during which he had to hear the same song for the third or fourth time, and the daily news reports from radio stations had also grown stale and repetitive, while the commercials were numbing and endless. It was, he told The Times years later, the most “deadly two hours” in his day, a grinding commute devoid of any intellectual stimulation.

So he started to take him with a reel-to-reel tape recorder on his Porsche car and keep it on the seat beside him and play recordings of books that had been made for blind people.

But the selection was limited, and he wanted more. So he decided to record books himself. He, first, sold his 1975 Porsche car, hired a college drama coach and created ‘Books on Tape’ company. In that, they built their catalog by recording books that were in the public domain, and by negotiating with publishers for the sublicensing rights to make unabridged recordings.

‘Books on Tape’

He was helped by his wife at the time, Sigrid (Janda) Hecht. He started releasing ‘Books on Tape’ four titles, together with ‘Paper Lion: Confessions of a Final-String Quarterback,’ George Plimpton’s 1966 account of making an attempt to play for the Detroit Lions, and ‘Zelda,’ Nancy Mitford’s 1970 biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. They worked from their living room of the house in Costa Mesa and later from a former sail maker’s loft. At their headquarters in Costa Mesa, a dozen tape decks busily duplicated titles from master cassettes.

Recording a book is not an easy job. “You can’t ‘announce’ a book,” he told The Times in 1983. “You have to read it with feeling, yet you don’t want to dramatise it.” However, he was successful in that, and by renting and selling cassettes through the mail to individuals, schools and libraries, the company expanded bigger and bigger. The venture made him, in the description of the trade publication Publishers Weekly, “the first great purveyor of full-length recorded books on cassette.” Anyhow, this hooked customers.

“One customer called our tapes ‘the best invention since sex’; others say they’ve even missed appointments while trying to finish a whodunit,” he told The Detroit Free Press in 1984.

There, he had some tactics too: Aside from selling, he also gave book tapes for customers on rent for 30 days. Since Hecht didn’t charge a deposit, they were on an honour system to return them. For the most part, he said, customers held up their end of the bargain and mailed back the tapes.

And to make recordings affordable, Hecht’s company offered them for mail-order rental. Books on Tape catered to libraries and schools but also cultivated a base of private renters that reportedly grew to reach 85,000.

“We have weavers and sculptors who rent from us,” Hecht had told The Wall Street Journal in 1986. “There’s even an undertaker who listens with a tiny earpiece during funerals.”

Hecht’s daughter described the operation as a family business, with her parents working together and the children duplicating tapes and preparing them for shipment to customers.

Just as readers nurture special affection for certain writers, some ‘Books on Tape’ listeners declared themselves loyal to particular narrators. Hecht, in fact, hired actors who were well trained but not necessarily the costlier marquee names that other publishing houses engaged for mass-market audio books.

Not the only one

According to Washington Post, Hecht was not the first person to record audio versions of books. At the time, besides books for the blind, there were book recordings which offered instruction in foreign languages, recitations of the Bible, inspirational and self-help manifestos and advice for salespeople on closing a deal. But “I wanted something that would help me get through life today,” he told the Times. “I wanted modern, current literature.”

Hecht insisted that customers of ‘Books on Tape’ receive no abridgments, only the full works of authors. At the time, most publishing houses offered abridgments of new releases such as Elmore Leonard’s thriller “Glitz” and Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca’s best-selling autobiography.

This took low cost and labour. But Hecht continued to release full length works. So he produced Winston Churchill’s long 1899 book ‘The River War: An Historical Account of the Re-conquest of the Sudan’. In fact, a recorded reading of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” was 70 hours long and consisted of 47 90-minute tapes, more than enough to fill a glove compartment.

“We’re over here in this meadow cutting tender succulent grass, and they’re over in a field,” Hecht told the Times in 1985, “cutting each other’s throats and fighting for shelf space.”

However, over the years, ‘Books on Tape’ did also provide such crowd-pleasers as the legal thrillers “The Burden of Proof” by Scott Turow and “The Client” by John Grisham. And, although his business offered recordings of books across genres, he was also partial to some authors and genres as well: works of history, especially World War II, and accounts of the life of Churchill.

Another of his pleasures was the Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian about the British navy during the Napoleonic wars.

‘Books on Tape’ advertised in highbrow publications including the New Yorker Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the Smithsonian Magazine. By Hecht’s account, the company catered to “the absolute upper 5 percent of the socioeconomic structure.”

As mentioned in the Washington Post, naysayers griped that recorded books were no substitute for bound ones and that audio books would bring about a cheapening of literature. Hecht harbored no such fear, and reminded skeptics of the long oral tradition of literature.

“Listening is just returning literature to its original form, before Gutenberg got into the act,” he once told the Journal, referring to the 15th-century craftsman regarded as a father of modern printing.

Selling the business

By 2001, ‘Books on Tape’ reached its peak and he said, “It never once seemed like a wacky idea to me.” And in the meantime, the market also moved from cassettes to CDs to digital audio books, which now make up almost 96 percent of the $1.3 billion industry in the United States. That year, with Books on Tape’s catalog at 6,000 titles, Hecht sold the company to Random House for an estimated $20 million.

After selling it, he worked as a consultant to Random House for about a year. But then quit the job. Next, he had trouble finding another job that interested him. The solution was to revive a boyhood dream and learn to drive long-haul trucks. After a six-month course, he began driving for a haulage company in his mid-70s and later bought his own Freightliner truck. He spent seven years as a truck driver.

Driving a truck “is my meditation,” he told the Orange County Business Journal. “It’s solitude. You can hardly find that anymore.”

It also gave him more time to listen to books.

Private life

Hecht’s marriage to the former Sigrid Janda ended in divorce. In 2002, he married Ann Marie Rousseau of Costa Mesa. Survivors include his wife of 19 years, Ann Marie Rousseau; three children from his first marriage, Katrin Bandhauer, Justin Hecht and Claus Hecht; a daughter from his marriage to Rousseau, Oriana Rousseau; and three grandchildren.

Duvall Young Hecht was not just a man, but also a pioneer in literary field.