In the 25 years since Don Katz launched Audible as a pioneering audiobooks service, the audio space has become flooded with content. It’s easier than ever to record a podcast in your bedroom and reach a large number of listeners over social media.
Rather than try to chase the widest possible audience, Audible—which was acquired by Amazon for $300 million in 2008 and now reaches millions of listeners around the world—is doubling down on creating exclusive, prestigious content that users won’t be able to get anywhere else. Case in point: this week, Michelle Obama announced that she will adapt her book The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, into a podcast that will debut on Audible on March 7, with guests like Oprah Winfrey and Conan O’Brien.
“When you look at professional-grade, profound storytelling, I’m more comfortable with how Audible Originals has cherry-picked that world than a world of millions and millions of personalized options,” Katz says.
In a Zoom interview, Katz reflected on the last two-and-a-half decades: from leaving a writing career to kickstart an audiobooks industry that did not yet exist; taking Audible from a public company into an Amazon subsidiary; and moving the company to Newark at a time when other companies were fleeing the city. Each of those moves has paid off: Audible consumers consumed nearly 4 billion hours of audio in 2022 across audiobooks, podcasts and theater productions, according to the company.
Here are excerpts from the conversation.
TIME: You wrote for Rolling Stone and other magazines for years. How did your background in journalism influence your approach to business?
Don Katz: For years, I have said that probably the best entrepreneur startup background you could have is being an inquisitive, worldly journalist. Because you have to have a big idea that preferably someone else hasn’t had, and then you pursue it by persuading people to give you insights in ways they haven’t in the past.
You need a business plan that’s disruptive, and you need to convince people to believe in your mission. And then the main thing is that you have to be incredibly honest about what you don’t personally know—and then supplement that with people who do.
In college, you took a class with the renowned novelist Ralph Ellison on America’s long-held traditions of oral storytelling. What impact did he have on you and Audible?
It’s pretty rare that a great American writer is the godfather of a large American corporation. But Ralph Ellison showed me that if any society should have had storytelling and verbal tradition as a mainstream media type, it was the United States of America.
From him, I understood that the reason that Stephen Crane wrote like an American was because he listened to this incredible polyglot storytelling that brought together so many voices from so many worlds. Mark Twain wrote like an American because of his understanding of that culture.
When I started Audible, there was criticism that I had abandoned a good literary career for this inferior form of audio transmission. And I would basically give mini-lectures on the fact that the Greeks were dead set against text in every way. Everything that made the difference intellectually, for thousands of years, was oral culture.
This fall, Spotify launched its own audiobooks wing. Are you worried about them cutting into your market share?
Spotify is one of dozens of companies who have come into the space over the last 25 years since our launch. For years, we didn’t have very much competition, and that meant that we had to create all of the global awareness of how powerful this medium is. So on one level, it’s “welcome to the party.”
But on another level, we’ve been at this a long time. It’s harder than it looks to help people integrate a habit into their lives. They’ll certainly find this out.
Another thing that I think of, when you bring up Spotify, is how happy I am that my era of being a public company CEO—and my responsibility to sell our stock price—is no longer. While I enjoyed running a public company in many ways, it is also a reality that the responsibilities of stack-ranking the shareholders can skew a company’s long-term purposes.
I’m a really deep student of American corporations and the victory of Milton Friedman’s view on shareholders. To his credit, he did say that caring for your employees was part of your fundamental responsibility. But what also basically said was that the private sector had no business trying to impact society, let alone redress societal inequalities. That was not something I ever bought into.
The other thing that hugely affected me was the way people like Martin Luther King talked about what became the go-to move for corporations exhibiting any kind of social caring, which was to write a check to nonprofits and charities. The charity is fine. But if you don’t look at the headwaters of the cause—which we know now is institutionalized racism and a whole lot of other inequities—then you’re just going to be papering over core problems.
One of the ways you attempt to change a core problem with Audible is with your paid internship program for students from Newark public schools. Do you feel that program has debunked perceptions about the need for companies to hire from prestigious schools?
Yes. We have been gifted by these kids. They raise the quality of our culture and they make us better in every way.
But what they didn’t necessarily grow up with is the background conversation of resumes and organizational language. That led to some fairly dire pre-COVID statistics of Black college graduates’ employment having a massive disparity to white college graduates. So now we’ve now gotten to the point of “curricularizing” organizational vocabulary.
And that led to another program, Cornerstone. We’ve had so much success with these amazing students. What if we hired people in Newark who, on paper, were the least employable? People without degrees, single parents on public assistance, people who just got out of prison: Could you change your learning style teaching to get them to be part of a successful tech-driven customer care organization?
The answer is yes, you could. What I said at the beginning was simply, ‘you just have to be native-smart and outgoing. And we’ll take it from there.’ And these people coming from non-obvious backgrounds are some of the highest performers in the company.
What advice do you have for early-stage entrepreneurs?
If you want to operate a business and be good at managing people, that’s great. But if you want to be entrepreneurial or inventive, it’s kind of a gift to be able to step back; to connect multiple dots and think of what something could be in the biggest way.
There are many, many successful businesses that are basically problem-solving, or productivity enhancements. Uber is clearly a better, faster, cheaper way to get from here to there. But I’m always constantly telling people, ‘Don’t look sideways. Don’t just solve the problem at hand. Step up to a more inventive level of what something could be.’ And you’ll start to see things that excite you and make you want to do all that you need to operationalize something big.