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AN ENTREPRENEUR WITH AN EYE FOR IDLE EARS

Are our ears ever in “down time”? Graham Goodwin thinks so.

“In journalism,” says this 55-year-old English country gentleman, “there’s what is called ‘down time,’ when the presses aren’t running. And when your eyes and hands are busy, your ears are in down time--like when you’re driving a car or doing the dishes or, heaven help you, your wife has you wallpapering a room. Why not use your ears then, too?”

Of course, you could always listen to the radio. “Yes,” says Goodwin, “but it’s mostly rubbish, isn’t it? Music, weather reports, talk shows. Why not listen to ‘Wuthering Heights’ instead?”

And that’s exactly what you can do nowadays, thanks to the booming field of books-on-tape and other spoken-word audiocassettes. “Wuthering Heights” and all the other non-musical tapes that have been filling more and more racks in bookshops lately are partly Goodwin’s responsibility. For a decade, this 55-year-old Englishman (he owns a farm near Marlborough) has been executive producer for Listen for Pleasure, one of the first and most successful of the companies that have discovered that people are looking for more than rock ‘n’ roll to play on their Walkmans and car stereos.

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Listen for Pleasure produces condensed versions of great (and some not-so-great) books, and Goodwin supervises the abridging and reading of most of them. On a recent afternoon, he was in Los Angeles to record Tom Skerritt’s two-hour reading of Saul Bellow’s “Henderson the Rain King,” one of several sessions using California actors, including Robbie Benson doing “Tom Sawyer” and Kevin McCarthy in “Psycho.”

A little after 5 o’clock, Skerritt (“Turning Point,” “Alien”) emerged from the studio looking as if he’d been through something as harrowing as the operating-tent traumas he helped portray in the movie “MASH.”

“And they thought I could read the language,” he sighed in self-mockery. The tough-looking but soft-voiced actor had just learned how hard doing one of these “talking books” can be.

“It took me half the day to get the rhythm of Bellow’s writing,” he said. “But it’s a wonderful challenge, and once you get into it, a good exercise for an actor. Next time, though, I think I’d like something a little more straightforward, like Steinbeck.”

Once “Henderson the Rain King” was finished, though, it would join the hundreds of other Listen for Pleasure tapes--themselves only part of a swiftly growing market, especially since publishing houses like Random House, Simon & Schuster, Bantam and Warner entered the field last year.

To make their impressive list of tapes stand out from the rest, Goodwin and his associates at Listen for Pleasure employ skilled “adapters” to condense the material (generally to about a quarter of its original length) and experienced actors to do the readings. “I have a steady team of seven people to do the adapting, from a published author to the woman who researches all of John le Carre’s books.”

The actors who’ve read for Listen for Pleasure include Katharine Hepburn, James Mason, Sir John Gielgud, Christopher Lee, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Dame Wendy Hiller, Alan Arkin, Paul Scofield, Claire Bloom and Lauren Bacall. They’re paid on a royalty basis, and if a tape sells especially well, Goodwin says, an actor can earn as much as $20,000 from it. (In addition, the company has some condensed books read by their own authors, including several by Le Carre.)

Goodwin is proud of Listen for Pleasure’s distinguished list of readers but doesn’t mind pointing out that even some of the greatest actors of the century sometimes need a bit of a jolt to bring out their best.

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When Scofield’s name came up, for example, Goodwin rather shockingly (or half-kiddingly) asserted: “Scofield has such a boring voice. He admits it. He’s a wonderful performer but that sonorous voice sometimes tails off. Once I just said to him, ‘Paul, you’re boring me. For God’s sake, man, you’re going to sleep . Lift your voice!’ Well, my assistant said, ‘He’s going to kill you.’ But Paul just said, ‘Yes, I know. I’m very boring,’ and promised to do better.”

Skerritt, a first-time participant in one of these sessions with Goodwin, voiced one of the worries some people have about books-on-tape. “They seem like a great idea, but I hope they don’t keep anyone from actually reading.”

Goodwin adamantly disagrees. He believes that cassettes are an aid to reading.

Books-on-tape, he maintains, can make the listener aware of certain authors he might have otherwise overlooked. For example: “We’ve recorded five of Dick Francis’ books (about the horse-racing world). But he has something like 20 others available in paperback. The cassettes might introduce someone to Francis, lead that person to his books.”

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Audiocassettes, he asserts, aren’t meant to replace books but to serve as another way of appreciating them.

Goodwin has a personal reason for loving the spoken-word approach so much. “My mother read to me until I was 14, and I think it’s one of the great childhood pleasures. But she’d do it to get me interested in an author. She’d start a book by someone like John Buchan one night and then chuck it at me, saying to finish it myself. And I usually did.”

Years later, when he was unable to find a taped “talking book” for his hospitalized father, Goodwin realized that a marketing vacuum existed. And since he’d recently quit a longtime career as an advertising representative for publications, he felt he might be the right person to fill it.

His first big break came when he was visiting his favorite Soho restaurant, a favorite with many of London’s top actors. “In walked David Niven, whose ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ was a tremendous best seller at the time. So I simply went over to him and asked him if he’d like to read his book for one of my tapes, and just like that he said ‘Yes.’ I suppose he’d seen me at this very nice restaurant before and thought I must be all right.”

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With that and a few other classy productions in hand, Goodwin was able to persuade a chain of British gas stations to carry his tapes as prizes for customers. That venture, though, quickly ran out of gas, so to speak, when the first OPEC oil-price shock brought about the end of service-station promotions and much else.

But Goodwin had enjoyed enough success with that enterprise to make a deal with British record giant EMI and its subsidiary, Music for Pleasure. In 1975 he began to produce cassettes for the new Listen for Pleasure label, with Goodwin as executive producer and business partner ever since.

In 1979, the success of his tapes attracted the attention of a Canadian named Terry Durkin, who mortgaged his house and put all the money he could raise into spreading Listen for Pleasure throughout North America. Sales rose from a half-million dollars in 1981 to $8 million last year.

Of course, with those earnings came a flood of new competitors. Isn’t Goodwin afraid the onslaught of competition will hurt Listen for Pleasure? “Oh, no,” he said easily. “The market is going to continue to grow, and the more (companies) that get into it, the better. I’ve always thought the best place to open a coffee shop is next to another coffee shop.”

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