Just a few years ago, the headquarters and recording studios of Learning Ally on Roszel Road were bustling with volunteer readers. All day long the booths were full of people narrating textbooks, novels, and other materials, creating audiobooks for people with learning differences, such as dyslexia, and visual impairments. Across the country, at its peak, 19 Learning Ally studios were doing the same thing.
Today those studios are all closed, and it’s not because Learning Ally has shut down. The nonprofit organization is still going strong, but over the past three years it has completely changed the way it does business.
Instead of coming into the studio to record audiobooks, the group’s volunteers now work from home, making recordings themselves and sending them in to Learning Ally to publish.
Learning Ally COO/CIO Cynthia Hamburger says the changeover was fully completed earlier this summer, closing the last seven studios.
“It’s been a really great shift,” she says. “This way we can get the right voice for the right book, not only for literature, but for textbooks as well.”
Technological advances have allowed this change to take place. Decent-quality USB microphones are now available for less than $200, so anyone with a computer and a quiet place can make their own recordings. Learning Ally uses audio editing software to improve the quality of these recordings to nearly the same as can be had from recording in a dedicated studio.
The advantages in flexibility of this approach are obvious. Hamburger says the organization has saved “millions” by shuttering its studios. It is also evaluating whether to sell its Roszel Road headquarters or stay there now that it has unused recording space there.
It has made a difference in quality, too, Hamburger says. The group has also been able to say “yes” to more of the 100 or so people who email every month asking to volunteer. No longer does Learning Ally have to turn readers away because they are too far from a recording studio.
Hamburger says that it now only takes about a month to record a novel compared to six months to a year under the old methods.
“This year we doubled the number of books we are producing,” she says.
Not every volunteer was on board with the changes. Hamburger says many of its volunteers enjoyed the social aspect of coming to the studio to make a recording, so they left when the studios closed. Others didn’t have the tech savvy or just didn’t want to deal with a home recording setup. (Hamburger says Learning Ally offers to reimburse anyone for the cost of buying a microphone, but no one has taken them up on it.)
Overall, she says, Learning Ally lost about half of its studio volunteers. However, she says, the organization is now back up to its pre-changeover level of about 1,000 volunteers, though not all of them are active.
And there is a qualitative difference between the old and new audiobooks Learning Ally is releasing. The ability to recruit readers from wider areas has allowed them to be pickier and select the right voice for the right book. One of their recent projects was a recording of “Wonder,” a 2012 children’s novel by RJ Palacio about a boy born with a facial abnormality. The audiobook, recorded in 2017 and now the most popular in Learning Ally’s library, was recorded with different voice actors playing different characters. The book was nominated for a Society of Voice Arts and Sciences award that year. “We can really get appropriate voices that match the literature to bring the books to life,” says Cheri Lin, chief marketing officer for Learning Ally.
The changeover has also helped the textbook side of Learning Ally. Many science and math textbooks include illustrations and diagrams that must be described in detail, which is impossible for a layman to do. Lin says they have been able to recruit subject matter experts to read specialized books. “They can really bring the concepts to life,” she says.
Hamburger says that overall, the quality of narrators has gone up since they switched to home recording. But for those who don’t make the voice talent cut, there are other ways to contribute to the project. “Checkers” listen to the audio to make sure it matches the text. Their job has also been made easier by the switch to “cloud” recording.
Checkers, narrators, and project managers all use the same software platform, which makes it easy to share and edit the audio files and edit out “uhms” and “ahs.”
Hamburger only sees Learning Ally getting larger from here. “Just imagine — it’s nearly an unlimited model,” she says. “We can attract volunteers from anywhere. We have volunteers in Alaska and Italy, and even a few UK-based volunteers, who are wonderful narrators. We have built the project management process on a platform that has virtually unlimited scale. We have opened up our world to become a global platform while at the same time reducing our real estate footprint.”
Hamburger says that both teachers — who use Learning Ally books for learning disabled students — and the students themselves have noted an increase in quality in the book narrations.
In the larger picture, Learning Ally does have some new commercial competition. Amazon’s popular Audible service, for example, is of comparable cost and has a huge library of audiobooks. However, since Audible is open to the public and not just special needs students, its library is geared more towards popular tastes. Learning Ally, on the other hand, maintains its educational focus by recording textbooks and providing a suite of educational tools that allow students to follow along visually with the narration, cite evidence while writing papers, and other functions.
Looking back, Hamburger says the decision to go to cloud-based recording was the right call. “It was a strategic decision to make the shift, and sure, we were going to have some volunteers who were not happy with that. There was a sadness from some I spoke to, but almost all of them understood the reasons for the decision … as a mission-based organization, it really does allow us to serve more people.”
Learning Ally, 20 Roszel Road, Princeton 08540. 609-452-0606. Andrew Friedman, president/CEO. www.learningally.org.