Joe Hempel: A Human Narrator Breathing Life into Audiobooks

Joe Hempel: Breathing Life into Audiobooks

Discover the world of audiobook narration with Joe Hempel, a seasoned veteran on a journey to deliver the best the indie horror community has to offer. Driven by a love of storytelling and a unique blend of influences, Joe lends a distinctive depth to his narrations, and has engrossed listeners with more than 500 audiobooks. He diligently works to amplify indie authors and voice actors with his audiobook publishing company, Fright Night Audio, in a time when we are confronted by the evolving threat of AI technology.


How do you believe human narrators contribute to the uniqueness and emotional depth of audiobooks?

Every narrator brings a little bit of themselves to the performance. They draw on their experiences to create a 3D picture of the characters and world the author has built. Robots can create a voice but they can’t create a human character. They basically lack a soul. And nobody wants a soulless audiobook.

Can you share some experiences that highlight the exceptional skills and artistry of human narrators in bringing stories to life?

Man, there are so many great performances out there that make me lose track of where I’m driving or what I’m doing. Scott Brick, Johnny Heller, January LaVoy, Marc Thompson for Star Wars, they just have the ability to immerse you into the world they’re creating and just BECOME the characters. They make you think you’re not listening to a book, but hearing a one man stage act.

In your opinion, what makes human narration stand out and create a profound connection with readers?

It’s the ability to be emotionally connected. Narrating isn’t just “I can do voices,” it’s the ability to bring out the emotional subtext of the authors work and to authentically create those emotions.

How can readers actively support and appreciate the work of human narrators?

Don’t buy AI work. And if they see an author talk about how great the AI narration is of their
latest book, speak out and let them know you’d never buy it.

AI audiobooks are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. People do not want AI audio, and they’re vocal about it. Keep being vocal about it and buy all the human voiced audiobooks you can! Also, leave reviews and talk about the emotions you feel while listening to the books!

What efforts are being made to promote the importance of human narrators in the audiobook industry?

SAG-AFTRA and organizations like PANA and NAVA are always actively talking to publishers and organizations about the importance of human voiced audiobooks. Fortunately, outside of a few (Apple for one) – nobody I’ve ever talked to wants to have AI audiobooks.

How can authors and publishers contribute to the recognition and value of human narrators in the storytelling process?

They can talk to about how human voices matter to authors thinking about going to AI. When you have your peers telling you, “Hey this isn’t something that’s going to work well,” it means a little bit more.

What do you think sets human narrators apart in delivering authentic character voices and capturing the essence of a book's atmosphere?

Their history, their experiences, their current life situations. These all help to inform the choices they make when creating the stories.

Are there any awards or accolades specifically for outstanding performances by human narrators?

There are two big ones – the Audie Awards and the SOVAS Awards.

How do you envision the future of audiobook narration, focusing solely on the expertise and talents of human narrators?

There are so many talented authors and so much work to go around in so many genres, I would envision the future of audiobooks as a place where people can build their business and brand and have a great shot at building a career in acting in audiobooks.

What steps can be taken to preserve the traditional craft of voice acting and resist the crippling pressures of capatilism to replace human narrators with AI technology?

I don’t know if there are any steps that can be taken, just don’t do it, lol. Just push back and unsubscribe to the email blasts, give the AI companies ZERO acknowledgement at conventions and let them know they are VERY unwanted.

Can you discuss the importance of investing in the training and professional development of human narrators?

This is an acting job. Period. If you don’t invest in acting or narration coaching you’re going to stay stagnant as a new narrator. Taking courses like Joel Froomkin’s Acting for Audiobooks can be SO beneficial. This is a business and you have to invest in the business (yourself) in order to be successful.

How does the audiobook industry plan to ensure that human narrators receive fair compensation for their contributions to audiobook production?

Robots can create a voice but they can’t create a human character. They basically lack a soul. And nobody wants a soulless audiobook.

SAG-AFTRA works very hard to make sure publishers and other distributors pay a fair wage. We wouldn’t be where we are without them.

What feedback have you received from listeners regarding their preferences for human narrators in audiobooks?

That nobody wants AI. ZERO listeners want AI audiobooks. They know…..and they get angry when they know.

Can you elaborate on the emotional impact that human narration can have on listeners, particularly in comparison to AI-generated alternatives?

I don’t know that a robot can make you cry, make you laugh, make you angry.

How can audiobook producers and platforms continue to showcase and promote the expertise of human narrators?

They can be avid supporters of a hashtag like #humanvoicesonly – they can promote the fact they’ll never use an AI generated voice for audiobooks.

Can you share any success stories of how human narrators have positively influenced an author’s work or the reception of an audiobook?

Oh, time and time again you hear from authors who are hearing their work for the first time in audio and how it impacted them in a way they didn’t expect, and so they talk about them, and they elevate the fact that the human voice made their book “better” to them.

How do you see the role of human narrators evolving and adapting to changing trends in audiobook consumption?

AI is here, it’s not going away. Right now it’s in its infancy, and honestly, it’s not good, and we need to find ways to keep ahead of it. What we can do is just be the best actors we can be. NOW is the time to invest in yourself as a narrator and get coaching from different folks. There is a saying if your setup is less than ideal, “You can out act bad tech, but you cannot out tech bad acting.” Acting is the driving force behind the book. People will put up with bad technical production if the acting brings them in and makes them forget about that.

What message would you like to send to readers about the importance of supporting and appreciating human narrators?

Talk about the narrators and how a human narrator is so important to the life of the book and the industry. And actively speak out about how you’d never buy an AI book.


This conversation with Joe Hempel not only highlights the profound impact of characters in audiobooks, but also raises thought-provoking questions about the threat of AI technology. As we navigate this ever-changing landscape, one thing remains certain: the artistry and relationships that the voice actors bring to the stories they narrate are irreplaceable and deeply resonant with audiences. Stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters at SAG-AFTRA and the WGA who are walking the picket line. Let's show a united front against the exploitation of labor by the use of AI. Writers, narrators, readers, we all deserve better than what AI has to offer.

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