Readers Find Voice With Audiobooks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Patrick Fraley has a gift as old as parents and bedtime. He is one of the small community of actors who can bring an audiobook to life.

The 52-year-old Studio City resident makes his living via commercials and cartoons.

"Doing ducks, dogs and villains is my day job," said Fraley, who gives voice to the parrot on the TV series "Providence" and was Buzz Lightyear for numerous Pixar/Disney projects, including about 70 talking toys.

But once a year, Fraley records an audiobook. His most bravura performance--even better than his evil Krang on "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"--may be the unabridged "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," released by Audio Partners in 1999.

Fraley re-creates Mark Twain's masterpiece in 11 hours and 23 minutes on seven cassettes.

"I do 100 character voices and 17 distinctive dialects," he said. "I do every dog, man, woman and child."

The audiobook was nominated for two Audies, the industry's highest honor.

According to the Audio Publishers Assn. in Huntington Beach, audiobooks are a $2-billion-a-year industry, with one in five American households having listened to an audiobook last year.

The perception that commuters mired in traffic are especially keen on them is correct. A survey by the trade association found that consumers spent an average of 4.4 hours a week listening to audiobooks in their cars, compared with 3.6 hours a week in their homes.

In the audiobook world, well-known actors tend to read abridged versions, while less famous performers tackle the unabridged jobs. In their dashboard venue, great readers have followings as avid as Brad Pitt's. As Fraley said, "It's the one place I can compete with Jack Lemmon and Garrison Keillor."

Among the industry's dozen superstars is Frank Muller, 50, who lives in Topanga Canyon.

Muller was an actor in Washington, D.C., in 1979 when he recorded one of the first audiobooks, Jack London's "The Sea Wolf." Since then, the two-time Audie winner has read bestsellers by Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum and Pat Conroy to millions.

Called "the first Valentino of audiobooks" by King, an admirer, Muller speculates that the magic of the form is that "it feels like the author is telling you the story. The reader has to get out of the way. He needs to be the illuminator of the author's vision."

Muller has been so successful as a reader that "it's taken over my career," he said. Working in the studio he had built in his home, Muller is currently doing a 27-hour unabridged version of King and Peter Straub's "The Talisman."

Fraley, on the other hand, likes to go out to a studio to work. The Huckleberry Finn project, co-produced with its director Ronald Feinberg, took four months, with Fraley reading for about two hours at a sitting--his usual limit.

As an actor, Fraley said, "I think about what the characters are thinking and feeling from the inside out."

But being an actor doesn't guarantee success as a book reader. "There are a lot of highly talented actors who just don't have the gene for this in their DNA," said Muller, who lists the ability to cold read and a certain kind of literacy among the requisite talents.

Incomes of audiobook readers vary widely, just as they do for authors. Readers typically make from $50 for an hour of studio time to as much as $900 an hour.

"I tell people, 'I'm not very well read, but I'm very well paid for what I have read,' " Fraley quipped.

Fraley, who conducts workshops on how to break into the business, advises his students: "Everybody has a book that needs to be read by them."

He urges beginners to find a title in the public domain that suits their accent and talent and to pitch the whole package to an audio publisher.

His own bent is toward exaggeration: "More is not enough for me." That broad style is perfect for Twain, said Fraley, who also recorded an unabridged version of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

In Fraley's view, a skilled performer brings something to the experience of a book that reading it yourself does not. "A good reader has the insightful ability to illuminate the text in a unique and specific way," he said.

He gives as an example the way he and Feinberg worked to emphasize the orphaned Huck's loneliness and isolation. The word "lonesome" appears a number of times in the book, Fraley said, and whenever he read it, "I would create that drumbeat of lonesome that would bolster Twain's theme in a substantive way."

Unlike the frantic improvisation that is the norm for cartoons, acting for audiobooks often has a slower pace. Fraley had time to rehearse before recording "Huckleberry Finn," tapping a lifetime of experience to enrich the performance.

When Huck spoke to someone else traveling on the Mississippi River, Fraley lowered his Huck voice because he knows such bodies of water are excellent carriers of sound. If Fraley's performance didn't ring quite true, Feinberg would warn, "It still doesn't sound like you're on the river."

As producers, the men had to figure out what to do about Twain's use, more than 300 times, of a particular racial epithet. "We finally decided our job is not to change history--that's Oliver Stone's job," Fraley said. Because the word is in the audiobook, Fraley warns parents to talk with their children before letting them listen.

The audiobook industry tends to reflect publishing as a whole, Fraley said. Mystery and suspense is the most popular genre, and the biggest consumers are women, outnumbering men three to one. More and more audiobooks are being released on CD rather than cassette, and Fraley predicts the business will continue to change to accommodate the technology most available in cars.

In addition to a dozen major publishers, including Random House and Recorded Books, the industry has recently seen a proliferation of small, niche publishers.

Studio City's Unique Urban Audio is one such start-up. As co-founder Shelley R. White explained, she and her two partners--fellow actor Mirron Willis and White's musician husband, Randall White--launched the company in February when they discovered there was little African American material available in audiobook form.

"We couldn't find any James Baldwin," she said. "We couldn't find any of the great classical works of African American literature."

The would-be producers are currently circulating a demo tape that features Willis reading from Baldwin's "Another Country" and her own performance of the autobiography of singer Ethel Waters.

Muller, the Topanga Canyon actor, rejects the view that audiobooks threaten the survival of traditional ones. "It's not intended to replace the experience of reading by the fire," he said. "It augments it."

Fraley, too, thinks traditional books and the people who first read them to us will always have a place. "The experience of listening to a book on audio will never successfully compete with Grandma."

Of course, Grandma never had to compete with Frank Muller before.

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