The audio lectures were a last minute Christmas gift for a relative. But Guy Duerbeck of New Brighton, Pa., decided to slip on his earphones and listen in before adding the holiday wrapping.
"The tapes were lectures on detective fiction," he says. "After listening to the first tape, I was hooked, and by the end I knew much more than I knew before."
What Mr. Duerbeck and hundreds of thousands of other Americans have learned in an age of frenetic TV images, sound bites, and cyberspace glut, is that old-fashioned listening to in-depth discussions and lectures on tape can be fun.
The biggest audio market these days is in best-selling books. But a handful of small educational companies specialize in audio or video tapes that explore great ideas and issues through wide-ranging lectures, courses, and interviews.
* A lineup of "superstar" university professors lectures on such topics as philosophy, literature, history, and music on tapes from The Teaching Company in Springfield, Va.
* Thought-provoking talks on contemporary culture and Christianity, from Mars Hill Audio, Charlottesville, Va., are included in a subscription to six 90-minute audio documentaries a year.
* Discover magazine has just launched "Personal Audio," a tape offering either 10 articles of your choice from a variety of upscale magazines, or pre-selected articles on a single topic. All tapes are approximately two hours in length.
* Audio classics from Knowledge Products, Nashville, Tenn. - narrated by the likes of Charlton Heston, Lynn Redgrave, Walter Cronkite, and Louis Rukeyser - offer dramatic presentations on such subjects as the Giants of Philosophy, the Great Economic Thinkers, Giants of Political Thought, and Religion, Scriptures and Spirituality.
Return to favorite topics
The prime market today is adults who want the intellectual stimulation of continuing their educations. Some may have started by listening to popular or self-help books on tape, but eventually sought more enriching and challenging fare.
"Often two kinds of people buy our tapes," says Tom Rollins, president of The Teaching Company. "One group never had a chance to study any of this as undergrads," he says, "and then there are those who did study, but their careers took them elsewhere. Now they have time to return to subjects they were once passionate about."
The convenience of tapes - listening in the car, during your morning jog, or working around the house - continues to make all kinds of audio tapes popular. "The audio approach makes a lot of sense," says Jim Heetderks, executive director of Mars Hill. "It allows you to redeem your time while doing other things."
All the companies receive occasional letters of criticism, but on the whole customers like the comprehensiveness and balance of their productions.
"Several years ago we got a letter from Milton Friedman praising our approach on an economic tape," says Crom Carmichael, founder of Knowledge Products.
Arguing with the teacher
Frank Dillingham, a nearly retired restorer of musical instruments in Redding, Conn., works on a harpsichord while he listens to lectures on philosophy.
"I let 'em lecture all the way through," he says, "and then I cut another piece of wood, and I think, 'Well that's all very well for him.' The lecturers are full of enthusiasm, but I like to argue with them. Philosophy is all about the phrase, hey, wait a minute."
To find "superstar" professors, Mr. Rollins reviewed thousands of student evaluations at colleges and universities. After he selected the "stars" according to subject matter, he began taping their lectures (audio and video) in 1990 before live audiences.
"The best professors have an almost messianic urge to explain what they know to others," he says, "and they have a gift for metaphor and analogy, to make the familiar seem new, and the strange seem familiar. When both of these things are going on every five minutes in a 45 minute lecture, it is extraordinary."
For Willard and Doris Whitman, an active retired couple in Alexandria, Va., The Teaching Company video tapes featuring Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, have "opened up music for us and allowed us to see inside."
Dr. Greenberg's introductory lectures - 48 talks of 45 minutes each - cost $295.95 for the audio version, and $549.95 for the video version. Another set of 32 lectures on "Bach and the High Baroque" is $199.95.
The Whitmans have more than 100 tapes from The Teaching Company. "The quality is so high that we have stopped watching commercial TV," says Mrs. Whitman.
Knowledge Products offers more modest fare. For $14.95 you can listen to actor George C. Scott narrate a tape about "The United States at War," and for the same price Mr. Cronkite explores and explains "The Giants of Political Thought."
Most audio publishers are hoping to expand. "I think our tapes could become an electronic library on the Internet and then be downloaded for the adult or high school student truly interested in learning," Carmichael says.
Mars Hill does little advertising but has a subscriber base of about 5,000 customers who pay $36 a year. "We hope to be on radio in some capacity five years from now," Mr. Heetderks says.
Rollins hopes to move deeper into the world of long-distance learning. "As video conferencing and other technologies develop," he says, "I think distance delivery of accredited courses will expand quite a bit, and we hope to take advantage of that."