Let’s face it – when it comes to highlighting diverse and wonderful locations around the world, words sometimes don’t cut it. Travelers want images. They want sounds. They want local flavor. They want authenticity. They want the next-best-thing to actually being there.
A good option for expanding your travel documentation and reporting into the realm of new media – which, let’s be honest, is both the present and future of the industry – is the audio tour or podcast. The pioneer of the mp3 audio tour industry is Rob Pyles, a twentysomething whose “aha!” moment came while he was hitchhiking through the Irish countryside in 2000. As he traversed the Emerald Isle, he’d come across remote historic locations – old castles and battlefields, for instance – that didn’t even have as much as a sign telling him what happened there.
“It was frustrating because you knew these places had these incredible stories, but you had no way to connect with them,” Pyles said.
Out of this frustration grew the concept for “progressive audio tours,” and from this concept – once mp3s and iPods had gone mainstream – Audissey Guides was created. Starting with his hometown, Boston, Rob produced an audio experience that takes travelers beyond the tourist traps, guidebook clichés, and group tours to the places locals take their visiting friends. With a local narrator, hip yet relevant music, ambient sounds, and off-the-beaten-path stops, Rob’s goal is to get people involved with their surroundings.
“It’s definitely not a passive experience,” Rob says of his audio tours.
Audissey’s resume now includes five U.S. cities – Boston, Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, and Miami – with several international cities on deck. Rob was recently awarded a contract by the City of Boston to produce a series of audio guides for the many miles of pathway around the city’s harbor waterfront.
For aspiring travel journalists or amateur globetrotters, audio is one of the best and yet under-used media for highlighting great travel spots. But before you whip out your hand-held recorder and go to town, consider the following tips for producing your own travel audio tours or podcasts that don’t suck, straight from the audio guide pioneer himself.
1. Keep it real. “Stick to what you know,” Rob says. “People know when you’re talking about stuff you don’t have a clue about. So talk about what you know and what you’re interested in.”
2. Use your independence. “Take advantage of the fact that this is an audio tour by taking people where they can’t go in a group. When you’re on an audio tour, you can go down tiny alleys that you can’t go down when you’re on a tour bus, or you can actually go eat inside a bar or a café. Use that.”
3. Facts are good, but so is emotion. “When I think ‘audio tours,’ I think of something that puts you to sleep. Very dignified, but totally boring. People want facts, but they also want personality and emotion.” Tips: make the delivery of the narrator less formal and more conversational and use background music that is influenced by the city or place you’re describing.
4. Make it personal. “We like to have a very, very strong first-person narrator. It not a voiceless, omniscient narrator, it’s Claudia Verela, the bartender and bikini model in Miami Beach. It’s Kevin Coval, the Jewish hip-hop poet in Chicago. The tour is almost like an extension of them – ‘this is my town, this is my neighborhood, that bartender is a friend of mine.’ It’s a very personal experience.”
5. Get a decent mic and a quiet room. “I’ve heard audio tours where you can hear people talking behind the narrator, lots of background noise. Not everyone has access to a professional sound studio, but at least find a good microphone and a quiet room to work from.”
6. Ambient sounds are good. “We always walk through once with a microphone recording the sounds of the city. A revolving door, for instance, has a distinct sound that is really cool. There’s something about walking down Hanover Street [in Boston] and hearing Italian men yelling at each other.”
7. Music: Tough, but awesome. “Music takes the listening experience to a whole new level, and it helps capture the flavor of a city. It’s unbelievable how each city tour has taken on its own personality – the music just feels like that city. The Miami tour is a lot of salsa and meringue, but also a lot of Reggaeton, club music. Seattle’s is way more chill – a lot of down-tempo beats, some electronic stuff, experimental stuff. That’s a departure from other audio tours with canned music or no music at all.”
8. Keep things moving – short and sweet. “People have a very short attention span, and anything over an hour is completely lost on people – their eyes begin to glaze over. So you’ll have to decide which stories to leave out of the tour. Our tours are also short from a distance perspective, rarely over a mile.”
9. Surprise me. “Give me something I never expected on this tour. In Boston, we take people to the former headquarters of the mafia. In Seattle, we incorporate public transportation by telling listeners to get on a bus and get off at the Seneca stop. We don’t tell them where Seneca is; they have to ask someone on the bus where Seneca is, forcing them to engage a local person. The things you don’t expect are the things you remember.”
10. As a narrator, I am your friend. “The narrator should be casual, funny, personal, un-touristy. Our philosophy is that our audio tour is the next-best-thing to knowing someone in the city. Narrator delivery should be like it would be to a friend: relaxed, occasionally irreverent, authentic.”
To truly know where Rob is coming from, though, you have to listen to one or two of his audio guides. Rob says his guides are unique because they appeal to “travelers, not tourists.” Travelers, he says, are interested in genuinely exploring the culture. Tourists simply follow other tourists and receive a superficial cultural experience. Rob himself is an avid traveler, and his intrigue with the history and beauty of the world around him is clearly why he does what he does. In fact, when pushed on this point, the truth comes out regarding Rob’s real motives.
“This is all just an excuse to pay for our travel,” he says with a laugh.
One of Matador’s newest contributors, Steve Holt is a freelance writer living in Boston, eager to explore the world and tell its story.