ListenUp Academy: Bringing out the Best Audiobook Performances

Photo Source: Courtesy Kristin Kalbli

ListenUp Audiobooks is an award-winning, spoken-word audio production company and audiobook publisher. They’re also the largest full-production audiobook studio in the Southeast, and the only one in Atlanta, Ga. Recently, they spun off an educational division called ListenUp Academy that focuses on developing talent in the audiobook industry. Their Talent Director, Kristin Kalbli, talked to us about the Academy’s goals, what she looks for in a voiceover artist, and the difference between working on audiobooks and commercials.

What’s your role at ListenUp Academy?
I’m the Talent Director, so I coach and teach audiobook narration. I was a theater and English major, so this job is the perfect marriage of the two.

How did the school get started?
We started the school a couple months ago because we know the industry inside-out and have a wealth of experience. A lot of people want to break into the field but don’t know what’s involved—like how to read into a mic while sitting in a studio for five hours.

What’s the difference between doing voiceover for an audiobook and doing voiceover for a 30-second commercial?
I use a track and field analogy—when you do a 30-second commercial it’s like a sprint. Audio books are like a marathon—it requires a different skillset and the training is different. In commercials you’re trying to sell a product. In audio books you’re narrating the product.

And there’s also the endurance factor—you’ll often go two hours in a booth before you break. In commercials you’re standing and reading lines. In audio books we have tea and a Snuggie—we like to snuggle in and get ready for the long haul.

What are some of the classes that ListenUp Academy offers?
We have Intro to Narration, which is for people who are new to the field. We also have Creating Character Voices—this is for after you’ve been cast. How will you convey all the characters vocally? There’s Non-fiction, which is research-heavy, and also heavy on pronunciation—lots of foreign pronunciation. And Auditioning for Audiobooks—what are the skills you need to stand out.

And we have advanced classes on YA and erotica. We say everything in the erotica class! “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Twilight” have made that genre so popular, and their fans are some of the most vocal we’ve come across.

What are you looking for in a voiceover artist?
I’m looking for basic skillsets like reading comprehension, but also how vocally versatile you can be. How can you bring the book off the page? How can you invite us into the work? It’s more than just reading nicely or having a beautiful voice. Can you tell a story? We had a local news anchor audition for us, but he sounded just like an announcer. He couldn’t shake that training.

Does actor training help?
In my experience, the best audiobook talent has had actor training—or more specifically, training for the stage. They have the type of training that provides a wide range of vocal possibilities. But also they’re used to using their bodies as an instrument. Even though you’re in front of the mic, you need a loose, relaxed body because relaxed energy translates on the mic. If your body is tense, then you end up with a flat performance.

How has the growing arts scene in Atlanta affected your business?
We’ve grown over the last five years as audiobooks have grown. So many of our narrators work on “The Walking Dead,” and “Resurrection,” and “Sleepy Hollow.” And although we’re a little separate from film and TV, there’s just an atmosphere here now of possibility. And the local writing scene has really taken off—there’s a synergy between local writers and audio production. We just produced the audiobook of a local playwright named Topher Payne. He had a column for years in the Georgia Voice, and we approached him about putting his essays and memoirs into an audiobook format. Now we have 37 of his stories collected in a book called “Funny Story: The Incomplete Works of Topher Payne.” It’s available on our site.

What do you hope ListenUp Academy will accomplish?
We have a terrific narrator pool and I want us to be able to compete with New York and LA. And I want our students to be able to tackle whatever job is sent their way.