It is a Damon Runyon story, but without the character voices
A labor of love and a tribute to Senate staff
A 27-hour audiobook that took more than 100 hours to produce
I just completed the narration of the Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election, Volume 5: Counterintelligence Threats and Vulnerabilities. The narration was an opportunity for me to explore some of the most troubling aspects of the current administration’s direct and indirect connections with truly malign actors here in the U.S. and overseas — mostly in Russia and Ukraine.
The long and winding road
Patient readers and audiobook listeners will travel the report’s long and twisting road that is paved with obvious and not so obvious evidence, cross-wired and sometimes confounding testimony, clandestine operations, botched plans, subterfuges, oligarchs’ legerdemain, unbridled greed, a suspect dossier, and general ineptitude on the part of many players on both sides.
What began as a desire to pay homage to my former Senate colleagues, turned into a 27-hour audiobook (after about 100 hours of studio time, not including prep time). I like to think I did the Senate staff justice in my narration even though news media, pundits, and politicians do not agree on the Report’s conclusions and recommendations.
Fidelity to the Report was paramount
My goal was to narrate the full Report with as much fidelity to the text as possible, and to avoid imbuing the narration with any bias. That is not always easy when it comes to material that is so filled with a multitude of characters, unstable conditions, hidden agendas, and downright fabrications.
I believe a narrator has to have some connection to, and experience with, this kind of material in order to commit to a project of this scope. Because I was once a Senate committee staffer, a Senate investigator, and the editor of a major Senate report, I had a personal appreciation for the staff work behind the Russia Report.
Many hands on the written product, but one narrator in the studio
This kind of public domain material, which is often quite lengthy (the report is 952 printed pages including more than 6,000 footnotes), filled with hundreds of quotes (all read) from dozens of men and women of varied nationalities, challenges a narrator to stay on a steady course. The temptation to add color to the narrative was ever-present.
Fighting temptation to act all the parts
The temptation was all the greater in this particular document because the source material — the quotes from key malign actors — screamed at me to use my bag of accents and inflections. For instance, I’ve listened to audio of Maria Butina — the Russian spy who joined the NRA — and the desire to perform her testimony in my narration was almost overpowering. I leave it to you to imagine how much fun it would have been to take on the roles of all the other players in the Senate’s script (seriously, what narrator wouldn’t want to play with Michael Cohen’s voice?).
The art of audiobook narration
Preparation is key
The art of narrating an audiobook, like the art of a theater or movie performance, begins with a script that becomes a part of the narrator’s (actor’s) every waking moment. While it is possible to narrate a book manuscript or report like this one without preparation, the result is all too often a confusing mess of starts and stops, flubs, mispronunciations, and overlooked details.
The best audiobook performances, like the best performances on stage or screen, come after hours of rehearsal and thorough familiarity with the script’s every nuance. In short: the book or the script must be read from cover to cover before the narrating/acting begins. Given that the finished audiobook version of the Senate Report comes in at a bit more than 27 hours of narration, it was not surprising to me that I put in more than double that in preparation time alone.
In the case of the hard-copy Senate Report, the 952 pages of main body text and footnotes first needed to be edited down, in a Word document from the Senate PDF, to account for the several hundred pages of redactions and footnotes (more than 6,000) that would only confuse — not advance — the narrative.
Pronunciation can be tongue twisting but it has to be right
I’ve lost track of all the Russian, Ukrainian, Greek, and other challenging names (people, places, and businesses) that populate the Report, so I was grateful to friends and former colleagues who were linguists or native speakers and who helped me with pronunciation. In a few instances, I had to drill down through YouTube videos and archives of news reports to get certain names right. I’m sure I slipped now and then…my apologies to my listeners.
The footnote issue: to read or not to read?
Because the Report was produced in outline format, I made the decision to ignore citing the subheads, and sub-subheads and simply read the report from the main section headlines and all the text beneath them, which resulted in 524 pages and 129 “chapters” of text. That also meant making the decision not to read all the footnotes (which comprised nearly one-fifth of the total length of the Report).
[There were exceptions to my footnote rule: in a few cases, the narrative required the clarification contained in the footnotes, so I let the listener know that there was a need to insert the footnote in the narration.]
Dealing with redactions
There is a lot of redacted material in the report, and oftentimes the redactions are so significant that multiple pages are completely blacked out. In other cases — more common — portions of a page, or bits and pieces of sentences are redacted. The best way to help the listener through those unseen parts was to let them know either by saying “redacted” for the shorter redactions, or by describing the length of the redacted portions. I also explained my strategy in the preface to the audiobook.
Examples of redacted material
I also had to make decisions about describing some of the images of art or screenshots that were included in the Report. In some cases, I simply read the email messages or other reproduced notes. But when it came to describing three paintings sent to Donald Trump by his admirers, Aras and Emin Agalarov, I was flummoxed and ended up reading only what was in the Report.
How to describe artwork?
Quotes, and how not to get carried away
With respect to the many quotes within the Report — quoted material from Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Trump’s sons, Russian operatives, FBI agents, political leaders and so many more individuals — I tried to give the quotes some extra “body” while sticking to the linear quality of the Report’s narrative. When it was clear that a speaker was dismissive, introspective, deferential, bored, or reluctant, I shifted my formal narration tone to add inflections, pauses, uncertainty, resignation, or bluntness. That was a tricky path to navigate, and I have only myself to blame if the finished narration is criticized for my license.
At times, I felt I was reading from a Damon Runyan short story — the musical Guys and Dolls, the most Runyonesque of the demi-monde genre, came to mind. Around every corner — with the turn of every page of the Report — a new character emerged, sometimes playing the heavy, sometimes playing the chump, sometimes playing the operator of The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Spy Game in Moscow.
What the Report does and does not say
There is no doubt the Russians were playing a long game
What the Report confirms is that the Russians were playing Donald Trump, his family, and his bag men long before the 2016 election — and continue to do so to this day. That much, and more, is made clear as the Report unfolds and develops the dark story of Russia’s polygonal attempts to taint with doubt, if not all-out disrupt, the U.S. electoral process and elevate Donald Trump to the presidency as a proxy for Russian influence.
That the Russians were relatively unsuccessful in achieving their specific aim — the co-opting of a major political candidate in the person of Donald Trump — does not diminish the Russian’s long game at all. The Report shines a cold hard light on the machinations of the Kremlin’s organized crime regime and its ability to leverage the greedy desires of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs to become political gold miners for Vladimir Putin.
Putin will keep on trying
From my perspective as a former U.S. Senate staff member and investigator — the Report makes it inescapably clear that Vladimir Putin, through his army of oligarchs, his network of spies, operatives, and provocateurs, all boosted by his devoted influencers across the world, was (and still is) eager to infiltrate, deceive, and disrupt the American electoral process to benefit the Trump campaign and sow political and social chaos across our nation. If not for the fact that it is all true and frightening, this audiobook would be a blockbuster spy thriller.
Spies and schemes around every corner
From Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and NRA-infiltrating spy Maria Butina, to Russian financiers, real-estate moguls, and entertainment stars like the father-son team of Aras and Emin Agalarov, to Oleg Deripaska and other Russia-aligned oligarchs in Ukraine, the narrative of Russian duplicity and manipulation fills every minute of this Report.
With the eager help of Trump advisors like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, George Papadopoulos and Trump family members, Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik and master oligarch Oleg Deripaska sought to gain influence within Trump’s sphere.
Kudos to the men and women who prepared the Report
The audiobook team
This important audiobook, produced by Mike Vendetti and published by Spoken Realms— who also produced the audiobook of the Mueller Report (part of which I narrated) — delivers a nearly minute-by-minute account of Russia’s duplicity and eagerness to subvert our Nation’s most sacred right.
My link to the Report’s authors
As I note in the audiobook’s preface, I once was a House committee staffer, a Senate committee staffer, a Senate investigator for a Special Investigations Unit, and a report writer of a report much longer than the Senate Russia Report (and, after that, spent another 20 or so years in various Cabinet staff positions). Like all of my Senate, House, and Executive branch colleagues, I took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. I have always felt that I am still bound by that oath even though I retired from government service in 2013.
When I took on the challenge to narrate the Senate’s Russia Report, I knew what kind of work the staff put in, how they must have spent countless after-midnight sessions working on transcripts, scraps of intel, recalcitrant witness testimony, wrangling with each other and across the aisle to prepare what is one of the most thorough reports I’ve ever read (or narrated).
The Senate staff
The drafting process had to be a nightmare — because it always is on the Hill. No matter how “bi-partisan” a committee report might aspire to be, there are always competing interests, overt and covert agendas, bickering, hurt feelings, frustrations, stylistic issues and myriad details in which the devil always resides. And that is just at the staff level! Once you get the Senators involved…all bets are off as to how much more pain will be passed around. It is a rare Congressional report that flows effortlessly from first draft to final copy. This one must have been a doozy.
And that is one of the primary reasons I wanted to get it right. I’m sure there are flaws I missed. And I’m also sure that not everyone who reads or listens to the Report will be as impressed by the gravity of its message. But it was a privilege to put a voice to the work of men and women, who, a few years ago would have been my colleagues.
To the Senate Intel Committee staff, I sent my highest regards. They did a hell of a job on this one, and kudos to them and patient families for getting this important document out to the American public.
[NB to Medium writers who like to create their own artwork: During one of my personally enforced breaks from the narration, I designed the audiobook cover, using a photo that I’d taken years ago on assignment. Keep your old images…you never know when you might re-purpose them.]