Just in time for the summer travel season, the popular location-based storytelling app HearHere is re-launching as Autio, an audio experience that reveals the compelling stories behind the most interesting places in the U.S.
Founded by Woody Sears, Bill Werlin and award-winning actor, director and producer Kevin Costner, Autio originally began as HearHere in August 2020 with just 1,500 stories centered around the West Coast. Nearly two years later, the newly revamped app offers over 9,000 stories spanning the entire U.S. and has been downloaded more than 500,000 times.
Subscriptions are available for iOS devices via The App Store—a free account allows access to just five stories while paying $36 for an annual membership provides unlimited access to all of them.
Part tour guide, part mini-podcast, Autio offers a combination of fun facts and deep dives via easily digestible audio clips you can listen to during a road trip—geolocation allows it to see where you are and share stories about the places you’re driving through. The app can also be used to inspire future trips if you won’t be hitting the road for a while; just click on the dots for the locations you’re interested in hearing about.
“Our main goal is to create these discovery opportunities and provide these thoughtful stories about your surroundings that allow you to really explore and engage with them,” said Sears. “We initially created the app to provide these user-friendly audio programs for all travelers. Staying true to that, we wanted to expand what we’re offering so it can be utilized in more places—traveling virtually from home, during walks, trips where you fly and drive, and trips where you fly and don’t drive—so it really opens it up to a variety of uses and has a broader reach.”
While several Autio stories are narrated 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 Indigenous leaders, offering educational insights 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 is also partnering with The Moth, a nonprofit storytelling organization that focuses on sharing underrepresented voices. $1 from every Autio membership that’s purchased will go toward The Moth Community Engagement Program in support of endeavors such as the Black Voices Project and 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 going on road trips at an early age helped shape their desire to learn more about the places they were visiting and the importance of not shying away from stories about America’s darker past.
For Sears and Costner, it all started when their kids began playing together at school, which prompted both sets of parents to meet and eventually become friends. Costner’s wife later encouraged him to hear more about Sears’ idea for the app since he’s fond of stopping to read historical markers on road trips. The prospect of digging into the stories of the places you’re visiting without having to be glued to technology was particularly intriguing.
“The app supports this kind of disconnect where you aren’t watching the clock anymore, you’re putting miles on there, you’re going places, and you have a chance to settle in and understand that there’s this gigantic history,” said Costner. “There’s blood everywhere and there’s drama everywhere. There was loss as much as gain, and every inch [of land] was fought over. And you honor it when you know a little more about it.”
Both Sears and Costner said going on road trips early on helped to instill a love of adventure and a desire to learn more about the world around them.
“Growing up, our family trips were high on adventure and low budget, so it was normally by car,” said Sears. “We’d drive all over the West and along the Pacific Coast and did some road trips to Mexico, so there were a lot of boring moments, but the stories that kind of filled in some of the gaps always intrigued me.”
Costner recalled some of his early adventures, including camping trips to Yellowstone National Park and how at 18, a chance encounter with some fellow travelers led to an unforgettable summer he spent working on commercial fishing boats in Alaska.
“What happens is the scales come off your eyes when you get off the beaten path or if you talk to strangers, to people from other places,” said Costner. “And so the road is not dreary. It’s like watching nature. Sometimes, you don’t think it moves. If you’re there long enough, you see the movement. You get on the road, okay, it feels like a ways to go but if you relax with it, 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 history behind them.
“The information is really few and far between for the places in between and the roads less traveled in more rural areas outside of national parks and on the way to them, so it just felt like there was so much great content here that was untapped,” said Sears.
Clicking through the app reveals a variety of stories focusing on diverse topics and interests covering all 50 states. It’s especially refreshing to see that the app doesn’t shy away from stories regarding some of American history’s darkest moments, particularly those that have affected the country’s Indigenous peoples.
“I just pound, and I will continue to pound into the culture of Autio to keep going there because those stories are not good,” said Costner. “They’re vicious. And they’re repetitive. And you quit seeing the freeways and you start seeing these places where there was great drama occurring and you think, oh my God.”
For Sears and Costner, learning about the history of the places we’re visiting—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 step out. We’re not explorers necessarily but when we do, we come back bigger people. When you see it from horseback, when you see it from a car, you’re adding to your Rolodex of what you know, what you’ve seen, and you can become a more expansive person just by doing a road trip,” said Costner. “And with the application, you don’t have to stumble on those round markers, you don’t have to stop, you can keep going. You can just have a richer experience.”
All details and policies mentioned were accurate as of press time.