Download a tour, then tour downtown

Tourism is getting a digital redesign. Many young travelers are tired of the cheesy guided walks and the slow, sometimes pretentious audio tours that have become the staples of urban tourism.

So instead, many Gen-Xers, interested in history but used to the History Channel, are plugging into podcast audio tours - entire self-guided tours that can be put on an iPod.

Travelers need only download and head downtown. Once they get to a certain street or building, they hit "play," and the music files deliver a digital dose of history.

Audissey, a CD- and MP3-based travel guide company, recently released a 27-track Boston tour laced with sound effects, theatrical readings, and a pack of local celebrities ready to describe "their" Boston.

Along the trail, Michael Patrick MacDonald - author of "All Souls," a book about growing up in South Boston - paints a picture of Paul Revere before his famous midnight ride. In addition, local cafe owner "Big Lou" DeMarco serves a slice of the Italian-influenced North End.

"We view our tours as the anti-tour," says Robert Pyles, Audissey's 20-something founder. "You get off the main streets, take an alley, walk through a building, get a real sense of the city."

The flexibility of an MP3 guide allowed Jon Petitt to choose the order and pace of his tour. When the editor took the Audissey tour last December, he started one track but got distracted. No problem. He just hit "pause" and picked up where he'd left off a week later.

"It was great. I didn't have to worry about leaving the tour guide behind or losing any money," says Mr. Petitt. "I just had it on my MP3 player for when I wanted to start again."

Podcast walks also protect the self-conscious sightseer from looking like a tourist. All the outside world can see are the headphones, Petitt notes, which "makes it easier for someone taking a tour in the city where they live."

Audissey is only one in a quickly growing pack of companies riding the digital airwaves.

MP3 museum tours, both authorized and otherwise, have started to replace those telephone-like portable gallery guides.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis offers iPod docks, so patrons can download the audio tour right in the lobby. Students at Marymount Manhattan College published an unofficial tour of the Museum of Modern Art, complete with context and critiques, calling art bad when they think it stinks.

In 2002, Soundwalk tapped into a generation of travelers demanding more color with the CD release of its New York Chinatown romp and recently joined the podcast age by converting its 15-tour library to MP3 format.

Focusing on New York City, Soundwalk's tours throw listeners into a neighborhood and let them steep in its culture for an uninterrupted hour. There's no changing tracks - no hitting "pause." Narration and music are timed to match how long an average person takes to walk the path. "The point is to immerse yourself and let you be somebody else," says founder Stephan Crasneanscki. "You forget yourself and forget you have any earplugs. The idea is to let people go to Chinatown and be Chinese for an hour or go to Williamsburg and be Jews for an hour."

Mr. Crasneanscki, a French immigrant living in Manhattan, came up with the idea when his European friends came to visit. He wanted them not just to see the city but to experience it. So he took out a tape recorder, walked his favorite streets, and narrated everything his guests should take in.

This philosophy of immersion runs throughout Soundwalk's studio-produced titles, Crasneanscki says. During the Bronx River Hip-Hop Walk, host Jazzy Jay instructs listeners how to look native. "Put a little cool in your step," he says to start off the tour. "Yeah, don't walk so uptight. Yeah, relax a little. Yeah, just like me. Yeah, walk just like me."

This award-winning series has sold more than 100,000 CDs and 25,000 downloads.

But podcast producers are not all profit-driven. Frank De Graeve launched the user-based The Belgian site invites anyone with a computer to record, narrate, and publish tours of their own neighborhoods. Mr. De Graeve predicts that as the podcast movement gains traction it will play a major role in tourism. The Ghent tourism office approached him after his audio guide of the Belgian city, and De Graeve says he knows several other producers talking with travel bureaus to make podcasting a tourism tool.

"I believe podcasting is still in a beginning phase," says De Graeve. "But already you can see the big media houses getting a bit restless."

Slate Magazine has fully embraced podcasts. Since July, the online magazine has published a daily stream of free downloads, including political discussions, readings of Slate articles, and an unofficial tour of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's modern art collection. The magazine has rereleased its walking guide of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in time for cherry-blossom season.

"I just love the idea that your eyes are free to do other things," says Andy Bowers, who has worked in public radio for 20 years and leads Slate's podcast series. "If you have a guidebook, you are looking down. But with podcasts, you can look at what's going on - walk around it while you learn about it."

Mr. Bowers promises future tours of museums and cities and says he wants to roll out a California-by-car podcast.

All this buzz has convinced Boston's official Freedom Trail Foundation that it needs a face lift. On April 1, the city released a portable audio version of its classic walk through Revolutionary War history.

While the self-guided trek will not replace the Freedom Trail's usual lineup of docents in period dress, Audissey's Mr. Pyles expects the podcast movement to lead traditional tourism into the digital age. "This is really the democratization of traveling and tourism," he says. "I mean, this is an audio renaissance. This is a huge trend in the travel industry and it's not going away."

Here's a selection of downloadable audio tours

Audissey Guides - - targets Generation X travelers with an irreverent blend of dramatization and local celebrities. It currently offers a walk through Boston and will include guides to Seattle (April 15), Chicago (May 1), Hollywood, and Miami (TBA). $13 to $20 per download.

Soundwalk - - lets listeners walk in the shoes of locals for an uninterrupted hour. Soundwalk's 15-tour library includes many New York neighborhoods, as well as Paris and Varanasi, India. $12 to $25.

Slate Audio Tours - - delivers an articulate history and analysis of the major Washington monuments from architecture critic Witold Rybczynski. Free.

Art Mobs - - compiles the work of Marymount Manhattan College students as they look at New York's Museum of Modern Art in critical, cynical, and comical lights. Free (go to "browse audio guides")

iJourneys - - stays away from studio effects so listeners can hear the natural ambiance around them. Narrator Elyse Weiner leads travelers through a selection of European cities. $15.

Apple's iTunes Music Store and also offer a wide catalog of audio tours for purchase and for no charge.

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