I was saddened recently to read of the death of Duvall Hecht, founder of Books on Tape, because our family had one particularly memorable experience with his product.
In 1975 Hecht had an hour-long commute in each direction between his home and his job in southern California. Dissatisfied with both the music and the news on the radio, he settled a reel-to-reel tape machine on the passenger seat of his car and listened to books that had been recorded for blind people while he drove. Thinking that other people might share his desire for something better to listen to, he founded Books on Tape.
Several features distinguished the company’s offerings. Hecht hired professional actors—though not the big-name stars—to provide high-quality narrations. He insisted on recording only complete books, not the abridged versions that some other companies offered. He kept the cost for consumers down by renting the books in packages that were used for prepaid returns. He also sold to schools and libraries.
Hecht had been a Marine pilot, and his favorite books to record were histories, particularly those about World War II. He eventually expanded to include current popular literature, which is what my family mostly rented.
Our daughter was a competitive swimmer from the age of about 10 through high school, and we spent a lot of time in the car traveling to swim meets. One summer when our daughter was about 13, we drove from St. Louis to a meet somewhere in Florida. We brought along Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novel Clear and Present Danger for company.
At one point we exited the highway to stop for a bathroom break and to stock up on drinks and snacks. But we were at the point in the story when a group of American soldiers were preparing to go out on a mission. This was an elite group whose motto was “We own the night.” When we reached the service station we were heading for, we pulled into the parking lot and sat in the car for about 10 minutes until we finished the chapter before running for the restrooms.
We still sometimes talk about that experience and joke about owning the night. We were then just at that sweet spot in life when our daughter was old enough to understand a political thriller and we could all enjoy getting lost in the experience of listening to a good story.
Our daughter grew up, cassettes gave way to CDs, and Books on Tape finally went the way of Blockbuster—but not before Duvall Hecht sold his company to Random House for a reported $20 million.
I hope you’ll take a look at the two obituaries of Hecht linked here. He was quite an interesting guy. He earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford, won an Olympic medal in rowing, and held a number of jobs before becoming, in his 70s, a long-haul trucker, a dream he had had since age 16.
And what a visionary. He almost single-handedly created the popular market for audiobooks, which, the Washington Post reports, reached $1.3 billion in 2020. The technology has changed, but not the desire to listen to a good story.
© 2022 by Mary Daniels Brown