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Howto: turn your favorite healthcare journals into audiobooks for on-the-go listening

Last week, I had a twitter exchange with healthcare geek and wonk Emma Sandoe. She was carving out some time to work through the latest edition of Health Affairs.

I’ve always been an aural learner. I find it easier to listen than to read for long periods of time. I promised Emma I’d send her my workflow for turning written text from the web into an audiobook, of sorts, for on-the-go listening.

In college, the educational support lab had a Kurtzweil Reader. The reader was a glorified scanner with a text-to-speach engine invented by Ray Kurtzweil. I’d sit in lab for hours, scanning pages and turning the reading speed up 350 words per minute. At 350 WPM, a 1990s computerized voice sounds a lot like random nose. What’s cool, is that even at that speed, our brains can actually pick out the words. It was cumbersome, but it helped me get through novels and history primary texts when I’d put off reading until the last minute.

Kurtz Reader

My preference for listening versus reading has, largely, stuck. Today, my aural obsession is less driven by a need to cram —although the underlying learning disabilities are still present —and more from how we get written text nowadays. I can’t stand reading much more than 1,500 words on a computer and e-readers aren’t much better. Since printing isn’t a very eco-friendly option, I usually convert things I want to read into audio and take them with me when I commute to work or walk the dog.

I’m a died in the wool Mac user. Here are my work flows for converting web pages, PDFs and articles into spoken text.


In recent versions of Apple’s OS, Apple have made it quite easy, although somewhat hidden to get a spoken track of text.

The built in method In OS X 10.7 (Lion) and 10.8 (Mountain Lion), it’s pretty simple.

  1. Highlight the text
  2. right click (two finger tap, or control+click)
  3. in Services menu, select add to iTunes as Spoken Track add to itunes

The benefit of this method is its extreme simplicity and iTunes integration. Within 90 seconds, you have a new track in your library with the spoken audio of the text in question.

The downside, is it lack of control. Apple’s built in service uses speech settings from your system’s preferences. prefs And, if you are fiddly like me and want something read very quickly, or in another voice, then another method may appeal to you.

The app approach

There are about 5 credible speech apps in the Mac OS X app store right now. I’ve tried them all. You are welcome. None offer a spectacular user experience. Speak It! is the standout of the lot.

Speak It! offers some different voices and enhanced settings. Speak It!’s voices are not as polished as Apple’s, although the british voices are nonetheless enjoyable. Speak It! also has the ability to adjust the speaking rate on the fly.


Speak It! now integrates with Apple’s Services architecture, so moving text into the app is as easy as using Apple’s built in text to speech.

  1. select the text you wish to have spoken
  2. right click on the text
  3. in the services context menu, select Speak It!
  4. within Speak It!, you can listen on the spot via the play button, or output to iTunes.

SpeakIt context

Tips and tricks With whichever desktop method you chose, here are some tips which may help refine the process.

  • If the website offers a print view, it may make it easier to select the entire article.
  • Once you have the files in iTunes, the easiest way to sync with your iPhone is to drag them from the library, onto the icon of your iPhone in the iTunes sidebar.
  • PDFs also work, but be careful not to get copyright and page numbering info, it may require copying and pasting text from each page into Speak It!

iOS Method

If you live on the go with your iPhone or other iOS device, you can whittle this workflow into something even more streamlined. But, it requires a bit of setup first. Voice Dream Reader is a fantastic app which allows users to open a PDF or pull articles from an Instapaper feed, and that’s where the magic happens.

What you’ll need:

For those unfamiliar, Instapaper is a fantastic tool for clipping webpages for reading later. It strips them of ads, flashing graphics and unsightly fonts. You get a very readable black text on white page. The iPhone and iPad clients are fantastic too.

You save pages from the web by clicking a bookmarklet in your browser.

pre clicking my ‘insta’ bookmarklet saves the webpage to my Instapaper feed

post Instapaper briefly paints the page black to indicate it has been saved

Once you’ve signed up for Instapaper, download the Voice Dream Reader app. Voice Dream Reader has the ability to add your Instapaper account.

  1. launch Voice Dream Reader, you may have to add the free Heather voice, which takes a few minutes to download.
  2. after the intro screens, click the settings cog in the lower right settings
  3. select Instapaper and add your account info
  4. refresh the article listing by clicking the refresh button reload
  5. you can control the voice speed and other settings by tapping the voice button settings voicerate
  6. when you are ready to listen, tap to open an article and then tap the play button.

The great thing about either of these methods is how seamlessly they integrate with how you already listen to audio. In my case, whether I use the iTunes/mp3 method or the Voice Dream/Instapaper method, I can play the spoken text back via headphones on a jog or in my care via bluetooth.