Don Katz Built Audible to Keep Us Telling Campfire Stories

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty

This is an excerpt from the book The Moment: Changemakers on Why and How They Joined the Fight for Social Justice, edited by Steve Fiffer and published by NewSouth Books. The author of more than a dozen books, Fiffer most recently collaborated with the late civil rights icon Dr. C.T. Vivian on his memoir, It’s in the Action. For The Moment Fiffer interviewed more than 35 activists of all ages, backgrounds, and professions. Among those featured “in their own words” are Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative; Don Katz, founder of Audible.com; and award-winning writer Edwidge Danticat. Excerpts featuring Jackson, MS Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and Professor Ebony Lumumba, Zev Shapiro, Renee Montgomery, Doug Glanville, and Christian Picciolini appeared here earlier this year.

Don Katz, 70, is the founder and executive chairman of Audible, Inc., the leading creator and provider of premium audio storytelling. Prior to starting the company in 1995, Katz was a globetrotting, award-winning journalist and author. Audible is widely considered one of the most socially responsible “corporate citizens” in the country, and Katz has been recognized by Living Cities as one of America’s “Top 25 Disruptive Leaders” for his work on behalf of urban transformation in Newark, where Audible has its headquarters.

I was politicized and, in many ways, radicalized by the character of my upbringing and by my understanding of history and the times in which I came of age. I knew there were profound moral underpinnings to my father’s sense of patriotism when he chose to take huge personal risks to enlist in World War II—running away from home at seventeen and ending up becoming a scout behind enemy lines. He was a highly decorated hero fighting murderous fascism in Europe. So I had that as grounding.

As my own perceptions of social and personal purpose evolved, the inequities of society as evidenced by Chicago in the 1960s became more and more apparent. I saw this firsthand in high school, when I was tutoring kids in the Cabrini-Green Homes on the North Side, seeing how the warehousing of poor people by government was dehumanizing and fundamentally born out of fear and racism.

I was one of those suburban kids of my times who saw himself as part of the resistance, far to the left of his more traditionally liberal parents. In 1967, at fifteen, I was going to the South Side and saw Fred Hampton up close at a Black Panther breakfast. I was teargassed and chased while protesting the trial of the Chicago 7. During my early childhood, I was aware that black people still couldn’t vote in parts of the country, and I took to heart and protested what happened to people like Hampton and the Freedom Riders down South.

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In college at NYU, I became immersed in the literature of people like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. After being fortunate enough to have an amazing tutelage by Ellison, a professor at NYU, I went to England for graduate school to study politics, economics, and international relations. I thought I might be a speechwriter, like a Ted Sorensen, who actually had power in the Kennedy administration. I think I was interested in that because I couldn’t see myself being published in any of the more serious-minded journals of progressive thinking, where you went deep and tried to tell the truth almost as if it were a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

And then, while in London, at age twenty-three, I got an assignment from Rolling Stone. I covered the death of Francisco Franco from the perspective of the Basque ETA underground, trying to make people aware that fascism was still alive and well in Europe and that the underground, which had been characterized as terrorists, actually had a nationalist cause that owned a level of historical and moral integrity.

From that point, I went from one long story to another for the magazine as a London-based contributing editor. I went to Italy and wrote about the Red Brigade. I went to Ethiopia. You want to talk about being an activist! You can organize or write about it all you want, the revolutionaries I was seeking out were literally willing to be killed, to blow themselves up, or in some cases kill for a cause. I was just fascinated by this dark and complicated world of geopolitics. I did a Rolling Stone cover story on the occasion of Jane Fonda’s fortieth birthday, and there I highlighted her activism and then-underappreciated role in ending the Vietnam War as opposed to her celebrity alone.

I was always looking to make an impact through the power of storytelling, to allow people to hold a mirror up and see themselves in the context of historical events. It wasn’t the same as becoming a full-time activist on the ground, but it was a way of trying to express a sense of differentiated ethics and ideas.

After some twenty years of writing articles, essays, and books that provided new perspectives to events transpiring everywhere from war zones to board rooms to family homes, Katz had the inspiration for Audible. A decade later, in 2007, he moved the company headquarters from suburban Wayne, New Jersey, to what some might say was a forgotten and foreboding city—Newark. Consultants told him he would lose 25 percent of his workforce; he lost none.

I wanted to have the adventure of starting this company, which I believed could have a massive cultural impact. The world of vernacular storytelling should have been a primary art in this country, but wasn’t. There was a structurally missing piece to the American media landscape. Having been Ralph Ellison’s tutee and taken his course called “American Vernacular,” I understood that American literature at its best was a function of how we spoke, how we told stories around campfires—how we bragged, consoled, lamented, and felt.

I had a pretty significant view on how business and economics worked because I had written about the subject as a journalist, including writing two books about Sears and Nike that took nine years of reporting. I knew that if you could use these new technology networks to deliver profound experiences of words, performed with skill and nuance, you could change the lives of the primary creators, performers, and listeners. It also seemed to be an amazing opportunity for me to be less of a lone wolf than I was as a professional writer, to have colleagues, and to use some of my persuasive skills that I’d employed to get people to tell me the truth when they often didn’t tell it to others.

As soon as Audible began to turn the corner and achieve success, I wanted to figure out how the company could make a societal difference,

but in a way that could promote potential alternative models for social amelioration and equality-making in counterpoint to what was not working in a city like Newark despite an elaborate philanthropic sector. As our company “People Principles” explain it: “We strive to make a positive impact on the cities we call home because we believe companies can have hearts and souls and missions that transcend financial success.”

Once we moved to Newark, we began to do things designed to get closer to the root of some of the problems. We started something as simple as paying all our employees five hundred dollars a month after taxes to move to Newark and be part of the city’s comeback, and then we would measure the small business and job impact of the spending our people reinjected into Newark. Since then, we’ve put about half a billion dollars into Newark and generated about twice that amount in economic activity.

We also said there would be no more nepotistic internships of privileged friends. You had to be a kid from Newark Public Schools to be an intern. And internships would be paid; no free internships. The city has some terrific public charter schools and public magnets, with which I have been involved since long before we moved into the city, and we began drawing these wonderful kids who had such energy.

If you look at the last thirty or forty years, the more typical model for corporate involvement was almost haphazardly giving money to charity. I knew that in the past all three sectors capable of generating and injecting money and policy into society to provide for the common welfare—the government, the philanthropic sector, and the private sector—had been too often running on auto-pilot, in particular as regards the absence of wealth as the source of so much unconscionable inequality in disenfranchised cities. We decided to be a company that, by its stated precepts, is committed to pursuing ways to redress inequality.

To do that we directly invest; we don’t do arms-length philanthropy. Philanthropy is too often giving away money by people who have earned returns through intensive and creative use of inputs and measurable outputs, and they don’t apply rigor to their giving. A glance again at our “People Principles” indicates we are in Newark, and we understand that you have to make distributable wealth in the more marginalized locations; it’s not a trickle-down process. You have to do it programmatically. We would look at what Barcelona and Berlin were doing to discern more positively disruptive models for equitable turnarounds while so many decision-makers rarely sought best practices.

As example, we started Newark Venture Partners (NVP) to plant little “Audibles” in Newark, because there is academic research that shows that a high-tech job generates five jobs at different levels, whereas a manufacturing job has minimal incremental job rub-off. I realized I couldn’t hire all of the amazing talent being created by groundbreaking new ways of teaching in Newark myself and needed an ecosystem of cooler companies to do that. The older thinking, the liberal thinking, has been to airlift the kids out of the urban corridor, but if you do that, they often don’t return after college because of their inability to envisage their hometown as a place with jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities where they can make a difference.

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One example of a win from the Newark Venture Partners Labs, an early-stage tech company incubator, which nurtures companies in downtown Newark, is 1Huddle, which markets an app that gamifies workforce training. It’s grown to forty employees worldwide, half of whom work in Newark, and it now supports Newark by offering training to not-for-profits and city residents and is actively recruiting Newark-born and -educated talent to come back and join in urban renaissance.

When COVID hit, our crisis response was a start-up called Newark Working Kitchens. From long experience of the philanthropic status quo, I knew the kneejerk reaction to food disruptions was going to be food pantry donations and food lines. But there were a lot of things that made this problematic in historically injured urban core environments. People, especially in senior or disabled housing, didn’t have cars in poor cities to get to the food. Co-morbidity and COVID infection levels worked against leaving home.

Small largely nonwhite-owned food businesses were dying at higher rates and few of them had accountants or lawyers helping get government assistance. Newark Working Kitchens would instead go to a Newark restaurant and say, “We’ll buy two hundred meals a day from you at ten dollar a piece. In return, stay open and keep your employees. We will use our Audible vans and the company food budget we’re not using—because we closed our cafeteria—and we will deliver meals in a targeted way to the people who need it, including the homeless.” So far, through this form of activated giving, we’ve served almost 1.4 million meals through almost forty local restaurants, sustaining hundreds of jobs.

Another program, Audible Scholars, grew out of our research showing many of the amazing kids coming out of the schools we work with and our internship program weren’t finishing college. They were placed in virtually lily-white schools and, despite financial packages, had a hard time affording school. So now our Audible Scholars get a monthly stipend and the opportunity to work full-time at Audible during breaks. Some return as full-time employees after college, rejoining the city’s renaissance. The disparities between standing wealth in the white part of New Jersey and the state’s largest cities, filled with black, Latino, and immigrant populations, is just unacceptable.

Not everything we have tried to do in the spirit of finding scalable new models to address urban inequality has worked, and COVID really hurt, but I continue to tell other corporate leaders that much of what we try to do is good for business. If you look at research on brand affinity and social purpose, younger people don’t want to shop at a company that they don’t think as having a societal perspective beyond money. Younger employees tend to want to work for a company possessed of an ethical lens beyond status quo giving.

It’s not risk-your-life-for-a-cause activism as I observed up close during my writing years, but I hope it’s work worthy of consideration.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Publisher</div>
Publisher

At 6:30 p.m. CST on Tuesday December 6, Katz and two other changemakers from the bookDoug Glanville and Amirah Ahmedwill join Steve Fiffer for an event on Zoom titled "Seize the Moment: Resolve to Be a Changemaker in 2023." Acclaimed author and filmmaker Alex Kotlowitz will moderate the discussion. The event is free to all, but requires registration@ https://evanston.libnet.info/event/7494399

Excerpted from The Moment: Changemakers on Why and How They Joined the Fight for Social Justice, edited by Steve Fiffer and published by NewSouth Books.

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