Just in time for the summer travel season, popular location-based storytelling app HearHere is relaunching as Autio, an audio experience that reveals the compelling stories behind America’s most interesting places.
Founded by Woody Sears, Bill Werlin and award-winning actor, director and producer Kevin Costner, Autio originally started as HearHere in August 2020 with just 1,500 West Coast-centric stories. Almost two years later, the newly revamped app features over 9,000 stories spanning the entire United States and has been downloaded over 500,000 times.
Subscriptions are available for iOS devices through the App Store – a free account grants access to just five stories while paying $36 for an annual subscription provides unlimited access to all of them.
Part tour guide, part mini-podcast, Autio delivers a combination of fun facts and deep-dive via easy-to-digest audio clips you can listen to during a road trip – geotagging lets it see where you are and share stories about places you’re driving through. The app can also be used to inspire future trips if you’re not on the road for a while; just click on the dots for the places you are interested in.
“Our main goal is to create those opportunities for discovery and to provide those thoughtful stories about your surroundings that allow you to really explore them and engage with them,” Sears said. “We originally created the app to provide these user-friendly audio programs to all travellers. True to this, we wanted to expand our offering so it could be used in more places – traveling virtually from home, during walks , trips where you fly and drive, and trips where you fly and don’t drive – then it really opens it up to a variety of uses and has a wider scope.
While many of Autio’s stories are told by Costner and other celebrities, including actor John Lithgow, legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson and musician Chuck Leavell, others are told by prominent historians and native leaders, offering educational information as additional context for more complex topics such as the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota and the treatment of Japanese American soldiers during World War II.
Autio also partners with The Moth, a nonprofit storytelling organization that focuses on sharing underrepresented voices. $1 from every Autio subscription purchased will go to The Moth community engagement program in support of efforts such as the Black Voices Project and the Veterans Voice Project, among others.
I spoke with Sears and Costner to learn more about how they came up with the idea for the app, how road trips at an early age helped shape their desire to learn more about places they were visiting and the importance of not shy away from stories about America’s dark past.
For Sears and Costner, it all started when their children started playing together at school, which prompted the two parents to meet and eventually become friends. Costner’s wife later encouraged him to learn more about Sears’ idea for the app, as he likes to stop to read historical markers on road trips. The prospect of digging into the stories of the places you visit without having to be glued to technology was particularly intriguing.
“The app supports this type of disconnect where you don’t look at the clock anymore, you put miles there, you go places, and you have a chance to settle down and figure out that there’s this mammoth story,” Costner said. “There is blood everywhere and there is drama everywhere. There was as much loss as gain, and every inch [of land] was fought. And you honor it when you know a little more about it.
Both Sears and Costner said going on a road trip early helped instill a love of adventure and a desire to learn more about the world around them.
“Growing up, our family trips were high in adventure and low on budget, so it was normally by car,” Sears said. “We were driving all over the West and along the Pacific Coast and taking road trips all the way to Mexico, so there were a lot of dull moments, but the stories that filled in some of the gaps always intrigued me.”
Costner recalled some of his early adventures, including camping trips in Yellowstone National Park and how, at age 18, a chance encounter with fellow travelers led to an unforgettable summer he spent working on commercial fishing boats in Alaska.
“What happens is that the scales come off your eyes when you go off the beaten track or talk to strangers, people from other places,” Costner said. “And so the road is not bleak. It’s like looking at nature. Sometimes you think he’s not moving. If you’re there long enough, you see the movement. You hit the road, okay, it looks like a long way to go, but if you relax, the scales come off your eyes.
In addition to stories about major landmarks and popular national parks, Autio focuses on lesser-known places and the story behind them.
“Information is really sparse for places in between and less traveled roads in more rural areas outside of national parks and on the way there, so it felt like there was so much interesting content here that was untapped,” Sears said.
Clicking through the app will reveal a variety of stories focused on various topics and interests spanning all 50 states. It’s especially refreshing to see that the app doesn’t shy away from stories about some of the darkest times in American history, especially those that affected the country’s indigenous people.
“I’m just hammering, and I will continue to hammer Autio’s culture to continue there because those stories aren’t good,” Costner said. “They are vicious. And they are repetitive. And you stop seeing the freeways and you start seeing these places where there was big drama and you think, oh my God.
For Sears and Costner, learning the history of the places we visit — or hearing more stories about the places we think we already know — offers a whole new layer to the experience.
“We expand our world when we go out. We are not necessarily explorers but when we do, we come back bigger. When you see him on horseback, when you see him from a car, you add to your Rolodex what you know, what you’ve seen, and you can become a more expansive person just by going on a road trip,” Costner said. . “And with the app, you don’t have to trip over those round markers, you don’t have to stop, you can keep going. You can simply have a richer experience.