[We are reposting this article with permission of TEDxNavesink. It originally appeared here.]
TEDxNavesink’s Tom Adams spoke with upcoming speaker Don Katz, founder and CEO of Audible, Inc., the world’s largest seller and producer of downloadable audiobooks and other spoken-word content. The company commercialized the first portable digital audio player in 1997, and it is the exclusive supplier of audiobooks to Apple’s iTunes store worldwide and operates 12 global outlets. Acquired by Amazon.com in 2008, it is now an Amazon.com, Inc. subsidiary. Check it out here!
Prior to founding Audible, Don was a journalist and author for 20 years. His work won a National Magazine Award, an Overseas Press Club Award, and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction. He was also nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
In 2007 you made the decision to move Audible from Wayne to Newark, NJ. How easy or how difficult was that decision to make?
I consider the Newark move one of the best decisions we’ve made as a company. Conventional wisdom at the time we were contemplating the move indicated that by moving more than 25 miles from Wayne to a city some considered less than safe, we could lose up to 25 percent of our workforce. In fact, not a single employee left the company because of the move. Moreover, the move to Newark also precipitated more press than anything we’d done before. Since then, Audible’s commitment to Newark has become a centerpiece of company culture and something I am asked to describe to other CEOs and public policy experts often.
What aspects of Audible’s impact on Newark’s revitalization have been the most meaningful to you?
Audible’s commitment to serving others in the Newark community first took shape most prominently with an internship, mentorship and college scholarship program with North Star – a school rated as one of the top ten in the world due to its amazing ability to teach children without privilege in a way that changes their lives. I have served on the board of Uncommon Schools, the charter school management nonprofit that runs North Star, since the organization was founded in 1997. Audible’s partnership with North Star has become the focus of shared company pride.
Audible interns from North Star and other schools begat the Audible Scholars program that offers guaranteed part time employment, mentors, and financial assistant to Newark’s new generation of college entrants. Being an active participant in the Newark Renaissance and making this effort a centerpiece of our company culture has produced measurable elevation of our employee attitude survey scores. Employees enjoy NJPAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center) events as well as Devils games and other events at the Prudential Center. Internal wikis track the consistent opening of new restaurants and other facilities, and we maintain involvement with our next-door neighbor, the Newark Public Library; Newark’s Operation Santa effort, and much more. All of this before we began to focus on economic and social transformation through connecting Newark to the tech economy.
In your conversation with Uzoamaka Maduka of The American Reader, you said that when you decided to move to Newark, you would “try to play, live, eat, and serve in Newark…” and “…try to be as involved in the Newark renaissance as we could.” In your conversation with Steve Adubato on One-on-One, you even mentioned your softball team plays at Newark Bears stadium. Why is that level of involvement in all facets of Newark life so essential to what you and Audible are trying to accomplish?
Beyond taking part in an inspirational urban turnaround, we believe there is synergy between our cultural ethos and the transformational things happening in Newark every day. We strive to be a company that is part of the improvement of people’s lives. We wanted to combine our missionary, disruptive, technology-driven company culture with a great city’s transformation – and the experiment insofar as our internal culture is concerned has been a success.
Before becoming a businessman, you were a writer for nearly 20 years – a passion I’m sure endures to this day. How cool is it, and how blessed do you feel, to now be in a position where your love for the written (or spoken!) word is tied so closely to the work you do each day?
My literary mentor was the American novelist, Ralph Ellison, and Ralph was a student of the richness of our oral and vernacular traditions. I’m extremely proud that we have already turned listening to well-performed literature into a habit enjoyed by many millions of people around the world, and I am really proud of the decision to draft some of our finest actors to join in the fun. But we are still growing and inventing and have a long way to go to fully propel the spoken word into the cultural mainstream.
The TED community has been called a “community of curious souls,” a label that I find parallels the immersive learning experience of which you’ve previously spoken. Can you share your thoughts on the concept or importance of immersive learning experiences?
To have well-composed words professionally intoned and interpreted by a skilled actor adds an intellectual and emotional dimension that actually enhances the experience of a text. Scientific research we commissioned two years ago to gauge the neurocognitive and behavioral characteristics of listening to words indicated that subjects obtain an equivalent, if not superior, level of comprehension through listening to a book versus reading it. This has huge implications for learning at all levels of the spectrum, and beyond our Immersion Reading product, which synchronizes text and audio on Kindle tablets and has been roundly embraced by parents and educators, we have only begun to crack the surface of the potential here.
What appealed to you about speaking at TEDxNavesink and what do you hope attendees take away from your talk?
The event’s focus on accelerators ties to a critical need we must address in Newark—to help foster new company generation and the attraction of young companies that grow jobs, to help us recast the growth infrastructure of this great city and create those job growth amenities and clustering of street level destinations that we need to build creative economy jobs in Newark. Accelerators are one powerful way of achieving these ends. The challenged American urban core will, arguably, only make a comeback if it is tethered to the job growth and wealth-creation aspects of the economy – and this means connecting to tech.
Finally, what do you ultimately hope Audible’s role in Newark’s legacy will be?
I’d like to see an influx of other tech-driven, job growth economy companies like Audible in Newark, and measurable creation of the kinds of jobs that young graduates like our Newark-born Audible Scholars, who worked for us as paid interns before going to college, will actually want. It is imperative that we sustain the human capital we’re generating in Newark through the tremendous and measurable gains made by our urban education reforms. If Audible can show other companies the value of deeply embracing the American city, and integrating a company culture with a city’s success, that would be satisfying and lasting indeed.
Don will present his talk, “Early-stage Tech and Urban Renaissance,” on April 11 at Monmouth University. Don’t miss out, get your tickets here! For a discount, enter the code NJTECH for 20 percent off general admission or premium seating.