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Festival of Books: In San Francisco, sightseeing by ear

If you're in San Francisco, these people want to whisper in your ear

Headed to San Francisco soon? The people at Detour.com have no hotel or restaurant reviews for you. But they would like to whisper in your ear all the same.

Why? Because they’ve just entered the audio tour business, and, as senior producer Jorge Just said recently, they’re eager to give travelers and locals in that city a different sort of audio tour — “location-aware audio walks” that are reliant on GPS technology, long on history and real people and storytelling, short on conventional travel tips.

Just, who has contributed to “This American Life,” will be interviewed (by me) on the Travel Smart Stage of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC at 1 p.m. this Sunday. The festival begins a day earlier and includes travel programs that day as well.

“I’m going to take you where the tourists don’t go,” says a young, confident voice as Detour’s promo video begins. The Detour people hope to go global eventually, using Android and iPhone formats. But for now, the team is mostly exploring the Bay Area and Detour is strictly an iPhone app. Tours are priced at $4.99 each.

There is plenty of precedent for using sound to explore travel. The first museum audio tours were unveiled in the 1950s. The audio tour on Alcatraz uses the voices of former inmates and correctional officers. Companies including MyTours, PocketGuide, Soundwalk and TourPal offer smartphone tours in many cities. 

Detour’s strategy, Just said, is to make the walk a storytelling experience that's more like a radio documentary, with narrative tension, atmospheric music and a variety of approaches.  Co-founded by former Groupon CEO Andrew Mason, the company has several key employees with radio backgrounds.

Detour has nine Bay Area walking itineraries so far and has been adding another one every month. Most are about an hour long. One covers Fisherman’s Wharf and another covers the haunts of the Beat Generation. There’s also a walk through the Tenderloin (produced by Soundwalk) with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow; and an essay on the city’s tortured relationship with its trash cans. 

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