It was late afternoon, and the sky over Berlin was clear: just five minutes until the weekend. But in the Audible offices, one of the world’s largest producers of quality audio-entertainment content (audiobooks and podcasts), available on Audible.it and Amazon.it, it was not a normal run-up to the weekend: “It was Friday, March 13, in the midst of the COVID-19 emergency, and we, the Audible.it team, were collecting our belongings in preparation for the self-isolation period. From Monday we were to work from home,” Maria Grazia Chetta, 42, Audible Product Marketing Manager, recalls.
A project born from the heart.
It was a bustling time, with people trying to concentrate on not forgetting anything essential while their thoughts lie with Italy, one of the countries that was impacted most by the virus and where most of the team members’ family and friends live. “We kept a nervous eye on the situation in Italy,” Maria Grazia continues. “I was calling my mother, who lives in Melissano, Lecce province, many times a day. She is recovering from an illness and is doubly fragile now, but I wasn’t able to get to her in person. Her loneliness? It weighed heavily on my mind.”
There are many difficulties in the times of COVID-19, and they come in many different forms. “Because of school closures, my sister was left having to manage a new routine with her kids,” explains Elisabetta Bottani, 36, Public Relations manager at Audible. “After homework, play and TV, we were left thinking about how we could entertain the kids.” But besides bored children, there is also the single friend who is used to a fast-paced social life, now stuck in her living room. There’s the cousin, nervously following current affairs, anxious about the future of his business. There are the two friends who don’t live under the same roof, and for whom the boredom of solitude is crushing. “The question we put to ourselves was: How can we help all these people?” Elisabetta smiles.
The speech that changed everything
The idea came that Friday, “with one foot already in the lift and our laptops under our arms,” as Gianluca Gianna, 30, Senior Retention Manager, recalls. “We thought that if our fellow Italians had to keep their front doors closed, with Audible we could open the doors of fantasy. We wanted to make it so all could benefit, at this difficult time, from the magic of an audiobook or a podcast from our catalogue, the power of a voice that could carry them far away.”
The team’s discussion continued by phone, in the colleagues’ group chat, until late at night. “There was one thing we all agreed on: this content had to be free and accessible to all,” explains Massimo Brioschi, 44, Content Acquisition Manager. The next day, the team was hard at work. It was Saturday, but that didn’t bother anyone, the desire to do something to help people was too pressing to wait. “We wanted to create a new page, not attached to the Audible.it site, completely free, where you didn’t have to register, nor did you need an account, and we wanted it to be accessible on a mobile phone,” he says.
“There were people thinking about the technical details of creating a new page, and those occupied with loading the first titles, a mix of original Audible productions and around 70 classics. Then there were those, like me, who were contacting authors and editors to clear the path so we could use their works,” Massimo continues. They all accepted. Elisabetta adds that “not only did they accept, but journalist Beppe Severgnini, well-known thriller author Barbara Baraldi, scientific populariser Massimo Polidoro and a multitude of authors lent a hand to share videos from their homes, inviting Italians ‘to stay at home with Audible,’ the hashtag which gives its name to the project.”
Mission possible: combat loneliness, create a smile
“We felt the need to get into everyone’s homes and combat the loneliness they were feeling, to alleviate their boredom, and draw a smile out of them.” “We worked in sync, each of us from our own home,” Massimo recalls. “More united than ever, and enjoying ourselves immensely, despite the exhaustion. During our video meetings, Cecilia, a colleague’s daughter, popped in to make us coffee with her little toy cups, to keep us going.”
72 hours after the idea’s conception, #ACasaConAudible was live, the page which now offers more than 200 free audio works, both stories and podcasts, but which is in continuous evolution, with new content being added every day. “We chose the titles ad hoc,” Elisabetta explains. “There is entertainment content for people of all ages, but also content dedicated to personal growth, to scientific study, to history and to current affairs, for students or whoever would like to benefit and learn something new. From Gianrico Carofiglio to Sandro Veronesi, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, read by the legendary Francesco Pannofino. In this situation hours can turn into days if we don’t keep occupied, we must use our time as best we can. My niece and nephew Greta and Davide, 11 and 7 years old, were enthralled by the audiobook of The Wizard of Oz. Knowing we’re able to bring a small piece of happiness during this dark time is all the reward we need.”
All for one, and one for all
There are many challenges for the team. “We didn’t have the chance to do many technical trials, given the need to go live as soon as possible, and not in two weeks’ or a month’s time. It had to be right the first time,” explains Massimo. “Secondly, we needed to upload content using our home internet connections, enormous high-quality audio files. We did it manually, one file at a time, piece by piece, dividing the work between us and with so many stops and starts, usually because the connection cut out.”
Nobody quit. “Even those, like me, who have no specific technical ability in this sense, had some to do. We all did everything,” Gianluca continues. “We love our jobs, first and foremost we are fans of audiobooks and podcasts and we know the importance of oral narration. It’s a unique and powerful thing, which offers an immersive, all-encompassing experience. It’s the best way to get a breath of fresh air in these times. It’s like telling a fairy tale, one is transported to another place while staying completely still.”