Is Andrew Mason creating the future of audio?

Audio–from Serial and Startup to Radiotopia and Reveal–is having a moment. There’s no doubt about that.

Over the last two years, documentary audio (and all spoken word) has finally been dragged into the 21st century. First, broadband collapsed the weight of downloading big audio files. Then, LTE connectivity (not to mention more rational data pricing) made streaming audio feasbile in cars. Finally, Apple made the Podcast app mandatory.

And suddenly–bam–podcasting is everywhere.

Audience numbers are up. So are CPMs. New businesses are being formed and they’re banking on some pretty steep trendlines.

So is this the future of audio?

The podcast revolution (if that’s what’s happening) is not transformational change. Yes, the basic tools are much cheaper and so anyone can make a podcast now. Digital funding opps like Kickstarter have further democratized things. And audio-on-demand does have disruptive potential.

But what we, audio producers, are doing is more or less the same thing we’ve always been doing: reporting, having interesting conversations, telling stories and making shows.

Over the last, say, 5 years, what we’ve finally figured out is how to take all that and repackage it for digital devices. In other words, we’ve exported our content for digital distribution.

Sure, we can leave the swears in now and do throwback-1950s-style ad pitches. But most of my favorite podcasts exist as broadcast shows too, with few, if any, additional changes.

So here’s the question we should be asking: when will audio have its transformational moment? When will mobile technology wrap audio in the same chrysalis it used to transform all other mass communications? And what, then, will emerge?

* * *

Detour.comOn a gray day last month, I met up with Andrew Mason outside of Cafe Bean in one San Francisco’s last-surviving shabby parts of town. We went inside and ordered two espressos.

Andrew Mason, formerly of Groupon, has a new thing. And he wanted me to see it … or rather, hear it. And it’s something that at first glance sounds a lot like audio’s past.

I had to admit to him that I was skeptical. I’d heard about him lurking around public radio circles since founding his new startup, Detour. I knew he’d somehow convinced two of public radio’s top producers, Marianne McCune and Jorge Just, to go to work for him. But still, I was confused.

“Andrew’s trying to reinvent the audio tour,” PRX’s Jake Shapiro, a friend who knows a thing or two about new technology, told me last summer. “You should check it out.”

But audio tours? Really? As in, put on your headphones and walk around? I’ve never been an audio tour guy. I mean, c’mon, I rarely even read the plaque.*

Andrew has an unassuming air about him. His meteoric rise and fall probably have something to do with that. He loaned me a phone and a pair of headphones and asked me to put them on. “Let’s give it a try,” he said.

And what happened next was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Detour hasn’t “reinvented the audio tour.” No, not at all. It’s created a brand new way of experiencing the world.

Over the next two hours, as we walked in and out of antiquarian bookshops, slinked into an art gallery’s secret backroom, thumbed through forgotten cultural artifacts–even wound our way into an adult movie theater’s “history room”–I was simultaneously immersed in story and connected to the brick-and-mortar world like I’d never been before. I heard the voices of past combining with my real life present in a way that felt almost like magic, in that way that new technology sometimes can.

It was breathtaking.

At the end of our walk, we found ourselves sitting in a couple of loungers on a deserted motel pool deck. How’d we even get here, I thought.

Andrew turned to me and said, “So, what’d you think?”

I thought about everything I’d seen, everything I’d heard and experienced and … I didn’t know quite what to say.

* * *

A few weeks later, I’d sort of figured it out. Here’s Detour’s secret recipe:

1. Take the best documentary storytelling, done by some of the most creative people working in film, tv and radio (the tour I took was made by the award-winning Soundwalk collective).

2. Add, immersive sound design, borrowing heavily from interactive non-linear video games.

3. Combine and feed into what may be a revolutionary audio CMS.

4. Distribute to an app that’s somehow made wearing headphones into a cool social experience you can do with friends (as well as real headway in location and battery management).

End result: an incredibly seamless user experience that marries audio, story and the real world in a completely new way … where the places you go, the things you see and everything you encounter take on added depth, increased vibrancy and new meaning.

On a Detour, you walk with and through the stories. Through the past, the present and into the future.

This to me feels like 21st century audio–what’s supposed to happen when audio and mobile really start working together. You enter a magical space where real life and narrative seamlessly combine.

It’s a very exciting time to be working in audio and creating new technology. I think we’re just now starting down a path towards something very different. And who knows where we’ll end up?


* You should always read the plaque.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *