Reading’s For Suckers

George Costanza

Remember the episode of Seinfeld where George tries to get out of reading an anger management book by pretending to be blind and having it read to tape just for him? Well I think he was on to something, only now you can now do it for free using Apple’s Automator.

Maybe you have a backlog of emails you have to read, or a line of articles that have popped up in your RSS reader, or you’ve bookmarked a few cool articles that you planned to get to earlier, but never did. Rather than trying to read them all before leaving for work, why not convert them to an audio file and have them read to you as you drive. It’s like your own personal podcast.

Text-to-speech software is nothing new, but it’s only recently that it has become powerful, affordable and practical enough to be a viable solution to this problem. There are many shareware applications, which I will review in time, but if you’re using Mac OS X you can do it for free.


VoiceOver + Automator (free from Apple, OS X 10.4 or later)

This method is free, but does take some setup. I have provided pre-made apps at the bottom of this post.

1. Turn on assistive devices

In order for this method to work, you will need to turn on support for assistive devices. Go to the Control Panel and choose Universal Access. Check the box Enable access for assistive devices.

Universal access panel

2. Open Automator

Automator icon
You will find Automator in the Applications folder of your OS X hard disk. If you are using OS X 10.5 (Leopard) you will be asked to choose a starting point when you open the application. If this is the case, choose Custom and then click the Choose button.

3. Setup the workflow

OS X has a number of built-in automator actions. What we want to do is create a workflow which first asks for text, then outputs that text as an audio file you can use on your MP3 player.

Find the action “Ask for text” either by searching through the Actions library at the left (should be under Text or TextEdit), or by entering “Ask For Text” in the search box at the upper-left. When you find the action, click and drag it over to the right side of the window.

Next, find the action “Text to audio file” by searching the library, or again using the search box and entering “Text to audio file”. Click and drag this action to the right underneath the “Ask For Text” action.

Fill in the fields as shown in the screen shot below (if you are using 10.4 Tiger, you will need to choose someone else instead of Alex from the System Voice drop-down. I recommend Fred.).

Automator Workflow

4. Save workflow as an application

Go to File > Save As. In the Save As window, enter a name (eg. “Text To Audio”) and choose a location, then choose “Application” in the File Format drop-down menu before hitting the Save button.

Save as prompt

5. Try it out!

Close Automator and find where you saved the file from step 4. Double-click it and you should be prompted with a text area that looks something like the one pictured. Find the article you want to convert to an audio file, select the text and copy it. Then place your cursor in the text area and paste it, then click OK.

text prompt

Note for 10.4 Tiger users: I found that I was unable to paste text in the box using the usual Cmd+V method in Tiger. Not sure why this is, but you can work around this by right-clicking (or Control+Clicking) in the text area and choosing Paste from there.

output file
What you should end up with is a new .aiff file on your desktop with the name “output.aiff” (or whatever you specified in the Save As field in the “Text to audio file” Automator action. You can now move this file onto your MP3 player.

6. Step it up a notch

The method described above is just one way of converting text to audio in OS X. There are in fact more powerful ways you can do this by playing around with the Automator actions available to you. For example, you can create an automator application that gets articles from an RSS feed and converts them conveniently into separate audio files by using the following workflow:

RSS workflow

When run, this script will first ask you to supply an RSS URL. WHen you do that and click OK, it will go out and get all the articles in the RSS file, then dump each as an .aiff to the desktop.

WARNING: You may want to hover your mouse over the stop action button, though, because if the RSS feed is large, it will take a long time to convert every single article. You probably will want to stop it after it converts the first few articles.


Only OS X 10.5 Leopard has the cool Alex voice, so I’m afraid 10.4 users will need to settle for the old Stephen Hawking-style voices that come with Tiger. Also, although you can change pronunciation in the VoiceOver Utility (found in Applications/Utilities) which allows you to define how the program pronounces certain words or acronyms, these settings are ignored when using the automator script.

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  1. […] were in a rush and didn’t have time to read those emails, or that article, or that report. The solution was to use Mac OS X’s in-built text-to-speech technology to convert those words to an audio […]

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