Interview: Detour's Andrew Mason

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As part of KQED’s continued pursuit of new ways to tell stories and involve audiences more deeply, we’ve partnered with Detour — a city guide app (for iPhone now; Android version expected in early 2016) that reimagines audio tours — to create location-based documentaries about three of San Francisco’s most iconic neighborhoods.

KQED’s first tour, available now and narrated by the inimitable Peter Coyote, takes you through the history of the Haight-Ashbury. In the pop culture version of the 1960s, the “summer of love” is all tie-dye, peace and free love. But in reality, things got dark. Very dark. On the Haight-Ashbury tour, Peter Coyote tells both sides of the story. Walks through the Mission and Chinatown are coming in early 2016.

KQED spoke to Andrew Mason, Detour founder and CEO,  about the history of the project and plans for the future.

Andrew MasonWhat's the story of how Detour came to be.
It's something that I've been thinking about since I was in my mid-20s and was traveling with my now wife. We wanted context for the places we visited. We wanted to connect with the people somehow, but we didn't like the options that were available. Going on a guided walking tour put us in a group with a bunch of other tourists on somebody else's schedule and made us feel like we weren't really getting an authentic experience.

While I was running Groupon, the iPhone came out, and I started to think about what you could do with that supercomputer in your pocket. Audio tours can be cinematic experiences that get you closer to the feeling of walking in another person's shoes than any other medium can. It becomes a really powerful way to connect with other people, using place as the conduit, and I got really excited about Detour's potential to take people on journeys in a way that permanently affects their point of view.


Why did you want to partner with KQED?
KQED has a long-standing reputation for documenting the Bay Area and for great storytelling, including great audio storytelling. Partnering with KQED was a way to get some of the best storytellers in the world creating for this new platform.

What do you see in Detour's future?
We really think this is how people want to travel and connect to places. They want to feel an authentic connection with an understanding about what makes a place different from all the other places they could visit in the world.

With Detour, the layers of a place's history are brought to life. You're walking around inside a movie. I hope we can make Detour something that starts to feel like an essential companion for people when they travel.

Do you have a favorite San Francisco tour?
My favorite, at this point, is probably a little bit unexpected. It's our walk through the Tenderloin. What I love about Detour San Francisco is that not only do we go through the places that make this city famous, like the Haight and the Castro, but we also try to take people places that are perhaps a little bit gritty — where you wouldn't likely go on your own because you wouldn't know what do to when you got there. This walk gives people something to do in the Tenderloin. It’s narrated by people who live in the neighborhood, who call it home and love it for what it is. After the tour, there's no way you'll ever think of the Tenderloin quite the same again.

I love it when a Detour can do that — take you somewhere that feels unfamiliar or toward which you feel judgmental and give you an experience that opens your mind.

When you are approaching a new city, how do you find the people who help tell the stories?
We first try to figure out what you need to know in order to understand a city. We usually have a local who's overseeing that process, and we're combining their insights with the stuff we know people want to see when they visit.

Then we ask: who is the right person to tell this story? We love it when we can find somebody who has a personal connection. That's why we have Cleve Jones taking you through the Castro and Peter Coyote taking you through the Haight. They give you a version of the story that you just couldn't get anywhere else.

At other times it's better to get a journalist or a producer to tell the story. We just try to find somebody you're going to want to spend an hour with, someone who feels like a good fit for the story we're trying to tell.


Anything else you'd like to add?
I'll just say that we look at Detour San Francisco as a documentary of the city in multiple episodes. Our hope is that in taking this collection of Detours, people will gain a perspective of and connection to the city that even longtime residents might not have.

Having lived here for a couple of years now, working on Detour, I know infinitely more about San Francisco and feel more of a sense of connection with and reverence for the city than I ever had in Chicago, where I lived for 15 years.

The other thing I haven't talked about is just how fun Detour is to do with other people. One of the key things that we built into Detour is group synchronization. Multiple phones can sync up, and you can have the experience socially. It's like seeing a movie together. It's a really, really fun thing to do. For tourist and locals. I’d say it's the most fun you can have in your own city. But I'm biased, of course!