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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

30,000 foot view: GPS-triggered audio stories

Updated: May 22, 2020

Site interpretation isn’t just about what we take in through our eyeballs. Audio storytelling is a powerful interpretive tool — especially on trails and in wildlife management areas and nature preserves, where signage is prohibitive, pacing is often swifter than reading allows, and the area being interpreted assumes fluid movement from one point to the next.

Such were the needs of one of Backstory Educational Media’s very first clients: the Birmingham Industrial Heritage Trail (BIHT). BIHT is an ambitious collaboration between several Birmingham-area outdoor venues. Their big idea is to connect six parks and green spaces.

BIHT’s method of accomplishing this goal is a GPS-triggered mobile app. There are lots of platforms out there, but they essentially work the same way: every time the app user enters a geo-tagged zone, an audio story loads. These platforms provide an intuitive way to deliver two- to four-minute stories tagged precisely to location.

The tourism and cross-promotion possibilities were quite tasty to BIHT. Birmingham is steeped in history and has long promoted the city as a cultural destination. A unified industrial heritage tour would be an easy product to promote. And, if the mobile app could persuade just a small percentage of visitors to walk, bike, or drive to a second or third site, everybody’s visitation numbers would increase.

It was a cool idea, but when BIHT came to Backstory, they didn’t have a penny. Backstory’s first task was to raise funding. Eighteen months later, BIHT had close to $300,000 in public and private funding in the pipeline. We heard this compliment often: Backstory is so successful with grant writing and foundation support because we’re good story tellers.

But BIHT and Backstory also needed to create and deliver content. GPS-triggered audio story platforms provide a flexible tool that can complement signage and give certain visitors just what they’re looking for.

GPS-triggered audio stories are hands-free. There’s no scanning of QR codes, no dialing mobile numbers. They work even when there’s no cell coverage. Turn on the tour and let GPS pull up the right story in the right place.

They are precise. Geo-tagging will pull up the audio story within about a meter or two of the object in question. If the story interprets a building or intersection, that story will load automatically within a few feet of the site.

They complement signage. Outdoor signage is expensive and not every site is conducive to it. Plus, signage assumes that readers know where they are and where they’re going. GPS-triggered audio stories, in contrast, move you from wherever you are to an interpretive site.

They serve unique segments of your public. Not everyone's a reader. The proliferation of the podcast has changed how we share information. So has Audible. While for many, audio storytelling is a preference, for the visually impaired, it can be a necessity.

They are fun and engaging. GPS-triggered audio stories combine two things people love, enjoying the outdoors with listening to podcasts on topics of interest.

Backstory can help your museum or educational nonprofit produce GPS-triggered audio stories. Email Phil Ratliff at for a free consultation and quote. Phil is happy to help you learn more about the platform and toss around ideas about funding your project.

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