Literature Music

How Bernie Sanders, Meryl Streep, and Michelle Obama Ended Up Competing for a Grammy

Viola Davis at the 65th annual Grammy Awards, 2023. Image courtesy of Chris Pizzello/AP Photo.

Scrolling through this year’s list of Grammy nominees brings forth a number of usual suspects: Billie Eilish, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift. And then… Bernie Sanders, Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, William Shatner, and Rick Rubin? The latter are all nominated in the Best Audio Book, Narration, and Storytelling Recording category. Three presidents have won the award (Jimmy, Barack, and Bill), as have Martin Luther King Jr., Orson Welles, and Betty White. It’s cinched more than a few EGOTs for multi-hyphenates as well, including Viola Davis, who won last year.

“People come to my house, they don't even really believe these are real Grammys because they know I work in books,” says Dan Zitt, Penguin Random House’s senior vice president of content production. When we connect over Zoom, his three Grammy awards stand proudly on the mantle behind him. This year, his company has three new audiobook titles nominated at the upcoming ceremony—Obama's The Light We Carry, Sanders's It's Ok To Be Angry About Capitalism, and Rubin's The Creative Act. “We're the nerdiest people at the Grammys, but we're still there,” he argues.

The Grammys are predominantly associated with the revolving door of celebrities who pose with their gold gramophone trophies. However, outside the bright lights of the main, televised ceremony, the majority of categories are awarded to industry professionals like engineers, conductors, album notes writers, art directors, and more—the same type of under-the-radar crew working to buoy the rapidly growing audiobook market.

At awards shows, stars like Meryl Streep serve as the face of an industry that is still, as Zitt put it, quite nerdy. “What an honor it is to be nominated for a Grammy,” Shatner, who’s up for his memoir, Boldly Go, told CULTURED. “Now I live a life of high anxiety about who will win the Grammy, especially given the level of excellence of the other nominees.”

William Shatner in the recording booth. Image courtesy of Variety

In 2007, producer and director Scott Sherratt transitioned into audiobooks after coming up in the music industry. Since then, he’s accumulated 16 Grammy nominations (including for Bernie Sanders's It's Ok To Be Angry About Capitalism) and one win with Rachel Maddow’s Blowout. Even among those at his level, there seems to be genuine mystification as to how the category’s nominations shake out—barring a distinct preference for memoir, music projects, and, of course, the celebrity factor.

“Every now and then, wrongly, I think I have a great handle on it, but then I don't,” says Sherratt. “I directed Prince Harry and he didn't get nominated, and it was essentially the world's first viral audiobook,” he adds with a shake of his head. (Spare, the prince’s 2023 memoir, indeed spawned a few widely shared audio clips, including a memorable frostbite anecdote where the royal woefully reports, “My penis was oscillating between extremely sensitive and borderline traumatized.”)

A decade prior, it was unthinkable that an audiobook would ever induce virality. But, for the last 11 years, the market has seen double-digit growth, transforming into an industry projected to be worth 35 billion globally by 2030. “At Penguin, when I started, we were producing about 100 books a year,” says Zitt. “Now, we’re at over 2,000 books a year. In the grand scheme of things, I think there's over 70,000 books being produced in audio every year.”

Image courtesy of Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images. 

On a surface level, the involvement of celebrity or political narrators seems as good a reason as any for the increase in audiobook listeners, especially in an era where high-profile endorsements have become the dominant form of marketing. “I think there's a general discontentment among the yeoman of the industry that work hard,” says Johnny Heller, who’s lent narration to over 1000 audiobooks, when asked about a potential rising tide of celebrity voice talent. “A lot of [voice] actors—and I may be wrong—say, ‘Why are they doing this? I finally found my career. Let them make movies. Leave me alone.’ On the other hand, every actor has every right to work in every medium they can find if they wish to.”

On his end, Zitt says the percentage of celebrity readers “feels stagnant,” noting that the majority of work they do is on their own projects, reading memoirs or other books they’ve authored. He does, however, feel like big names are crucial in drawing attention to the industry. "What ends up happening is people start listening to books because of these things," he says, "and then they jump from a celebrity recording to maybe something Johnny [Heller] read.”

The bigger shift by far is the way audiobooks are consumed: digitally. “The number one reason [for growth] is access,” explains Sherratt. “You just hear it now; you don't have to put 21 CDs in your car while you're driving.” Audiobooks are widely available, for purchase or streaming, on platforms like Audible, Spotify, and Apple Books. “I would say when podcasting started really coming to be again, there were a lot of people who all of a sudden said, ‘Oh, I can listen to content,’” posits Zitt. “It was just another entry point for storytelling.”

Another recent development is the overhaul of audiobooks’ production process. When the medium gained traction in the 1960s (with the invention of cassettes) and again in the 1980s (following the onset of CDs), it was limited by the storage capacity of its format. This led to the proliferation of abridged versions, now considered practically sacrilegious amongst readers. Modern audiobooks record the text in its entirety, regularly going beyond what's on the page to leverag the additional creative capabilites of audio.

Senator Bernie Sanders at a book launch in London, 2023. Image courtesy of Elliott Franks/Eyevine/Redux and Time.

“Consumers want to listen to everything, every word,” says Zitt, “and we love that.” Of the myriad projects they work on yearly, Zitt and Sherratt highlight instances of live performance, guest spots, sets at the LA Philharmonic, and intimate glimpses at some of the country’s biggest figureheads. “When I start to work on a lot of these projects, the printed version is just a jumping off point,” says Sheratt. “I'm interested in building on that and making the movie, the cinematic event, something more than our script that we're starting with, where it's all coming alive. I always think of it as its own stand-alone work of art and not an alternate way to consume the same material.”

In 2015, he worked on his first project with Sanders, Our Revolution. They set up a remote recording studio in the senator’s empty campaign offices. Last year, Sherratt returned to New England for a second project. “It was between Christmas and New Year's, and there was snow on the ground in Vermont. I think it was his grandkids who came by the studio to visit. It felt good, and I think he felt good about doing it,” he recalls. “In political years, which there are a lot of these days, people are also motivated to express themselves [by voting at the Grammys] in a way that aligns themselves with politicians that they're interested in.”

Zitt characterizes audiobooks as a return to the stories read to us as children, an opportunity for some fantastical world to be realized or for a deeply personal moment to be shared. “I won't tell you which, but one of the presidents that I worked with asked me at the beginning, ‘How do you want to do this, like generally? What do you want it to sound like?’” says Zitt. (He’s worked with three presidents to date.) “My advice was, ‘Forget about standing in front of 50,000 people and speaking. Pretend you're sitting across from an old friend or a new friend in a pub over a drink, telling them your life story. That will translate into the listeners’ ears when they're sitting on the train.’”