By ELAINE GLUSAC
In a commissioned episode, Nate DiMeo, creator of the podcast the Memory Palace, invites guests of the Freepoint Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., to cross the street and wander around Fresh Pond while he tells a story. It’s a dreamy story that reaches well into the pond’s past in the 19th century when the entrepreneur Frederic Tudor managed to create an empire in the ice trade, shipping frozen blocks from the pond to distant, sweltering climes. The ice found its way into “the drinks of Maharajahs, of men and women in waterfront bars in midsummer in Martinique,” he says, over soft music that mixes in sounds referencing the industry and export geography. “He had turned pond water into a luxury item.”
The 14-minute recording, available free from the hotel, represents the vanguard of engagement in the travel realm long saturated in the written word for practical advice and increasingly reliant on video to provide a you-are-there simulation. For travelers in situ — versus armchair travelers — listening can stimulate the imagination to make the leap from present to past.
“People like finding things,” said Dave McCaslin, the executive vice president of H.H.M., which owns the Freepoint and worked on its podcast portfolio available on RadioPublic, a mobile app for podcasts. It also includes a fitness channel with an episode on the Boston Marathon and a bedtime channel featuring relaxing jazz music and a discussion of how dreams work. In the Memory Palace commission, “We wanted something hyper local that people can’t really get anywhere. The ideal is to experience something that isn’t canned.”
Taking travel to another dimension — in a way that may encourage positive reviews and build a brand — is the goal of many podcasts now proliferating across the web, and mostly free to access. The Carlyle, a Rosewood Hotel in New York is launching a podcast in January featuring interviews with celebrity guests in advance of the 2018 movie Always at the Carlyle on the subject. The Detroit Foundation Hotel, opened last spring, houses a podcast studio where Hillary Sawchuk, the host of A Drink With podcasts, has interviewed Detroit personalities, entrepreneurs and artists, sessions that are available on the hotel website. In its first episode released in October, the new travel podcast Unmapped offers the aural travel diary, complete with bumps in the road, of the blogger Angelina Zeppieri.
In an age when virtually every smartphone has a voice recorder, podcasting is a cost-effective medium, which could help explain its surge in listeners. In its 2017 report, Edison Research, which tracks digital audio and podcast consumption among other new media, found that 40 percent of Americans over the age of 12 have listened to a podcast, and 24 percent have listened to one in the prior month, up 21 percent versus the year before. Six in 10 respondents said they were familiar with the term “podcasting,” a 22 percent increase over two years.
When it launched its World Nomads Podcast earlier this year, the travel insurance company World Nomads spent less than $4,000 to construct a professional recording studio. The podcast, which has covered topics that include how small towns in Croatia are being overrun by tourists, costs under $200 a month to edit and $20 for podcast hosting.
“There will always be a place for a few friends sitting around a kitchen table with a USB microphone and a laptop, as long as they talk about interesting stuff. It’s the wonderfully democratized end of broadcasting,” wrote Phil Sylvester, the communications manager for World Nomads, in an email.
Podcasting, of course, isn’t new. In the world of downloads, there are lots of prescriptive podcasts, from tips on how to travel more on a tight budget (Extra Pack of Peanuts) to touring by motorcycle (Adventure Rider Radio). The host Chris Christensen has offered destination advice via interviews in more than 580 episodes of Amateur Traveler since launching in 2005.
There are location-specific podcasts such as Londonist Out Loud and others devoted to forms of travel like the RV Family Travel Atlas. This Week in Travel explores current events and No Vacancy with Glenn Haussman focuses on the travel business.
Travel-related companies are hopping onto the podcast platform as a millennial marketing tool. In addition to publishing a travel magazine, the luggage company Away has a podcast, Airplane Mode, that explores “the reasons we travel and places we find ourselves.” A recent episode covered “narrow brushes with danger, souvenirs with a back story, and trips that end in unexpected situations.”
Among newcomers putting story ahead of service, hotels have been especially active in the podcast arena; some of the best have used the contemporary medium to explore the past. Originally opened as a men’s sports club in 1893, the Chicago Athletic Association hotel has used its Storytelling Series of live interviews as a way to examine the history of the building and the culture of Chicago. With many episodes newly available on iTunes, the series includes conversations with a Great Lakes surfer and local artists and musicians.
Some audio tours have also taken a more sound-rich approach to storytelling, including a new series that Mr. DiMeo of the Memory Palace did at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As an artist in residence, he produced eight compelling recordings available on the museum’s website that provide the back stories on objects ranging from early American portrait paintings to the Egyptian Temple of Dendur. There’s even a scavenger hunt that includes directions to “find me a picture of a child and wonder for a moment who she or he grew to be.”
The audio tour company Detour has used film and television producers to capture and mix place-specific sounds on its walking tours, now available in 17 cities. Most are narrated by experts and figures associated with the locales, including the documentarian Ken Burns on the Brooklyn Bridge tour, the comedian Jenny Zigrino on a pub crawl around Faneuil Hall in Boston to taverns associated with Revolutionary War plotting, and the novelist George Dawes Green, also the founder of the Moth storytelling series, on the squares of Savannah (most downloads cost $7.99).
“The technology allows you to have an immersive experience,” said Stacey Book, the director of content for Detour. “You get something unique from someone speaking who you wouldn’t have access to.”
Professionally mixed sound and scoring enrich the stories and help create Detour’s aural landscapes. As Ms. Book said, “You can shoot a blank wall and still have an interesting story to tell with audio.”