Public radioshow Radiolab creates GPS-tracked podcast “The Year That Broke Austin”

Ellen Airhart

The new Radiolab podcast “The Year That Broke Austin” takes listeners on a walking tour of Austin that doesn’t require a tour guide. But as the story unfolds, some listeners may wish they weren’t so alone.

“The Year That Broke Austin” describes the events of 1885, specifically the mysterious serial killer “Servant Girl Annihilator” who terrorized Austin that year. The creepy details of the murders lay all over modern Austin, ready to be revealed by a narrator who directs listeners along an audio tour.

The podcast episode was created by the brilliant minds behind the show Radiolab, an award-winning radio show that explores science and philosophy. 

“The Year That Broke Austin” combines podcasting and GPS technology in a walking tour from East Fifth Street and San Jacinto to Eighth Street and Guadalupe Street. Radiolab launched the episode during SXSW, and it is now available for free in the iTunes store through an app called “Detour.”

The podcast guides the listener through a combination of history and modern Austin life. Participants must reach GPS checkpoints before they can access a new part of
the story. 

The tour takes one hour and 30 minutes, stopping listeners at places such as the Driskill Hotel, Waller Creek and the Austin History Center. The tour ends on the top floor of a parking garage, from which the participant has a scenic overlook of Austin and the famous Moon Towers.

Although Austinites can easily access the sites involved in the murder mysteries, reminders of modern life, such as Starbucks cups and dogs and their walkers, now surround these places. The narration helps obscure these modern obstructions to the mysterious past, as it details the dark story. 

In an interview with NPR, Andrew Mason, founder and CEO of Detour, said he was excited about the way the Radiolab team used the app’s platform. He hopes the episode inspires other artists to use Detour as a platform to post walking tours for cities all over the world.

Work on the podcast episode began when Mason contacted Radiolab host Jad Abumrad and proposed the two organizations work on a project together. Abumrad and Radiolab executive producer Ellen Horne went on Detour’s San Francisco walking tours and decided to take advantage of Mason’s offer.

Local talent was heavily showcased in “The Year That Broke Austin.” Austin-based actress Barbara Chisholm narrates the podcast with a distinctive Texas twang. The podcast uses the music of local Austin musician Shakey Graves to support the narration with lyrics that repeat the gruesome details of the murders.

“The Year That Broke Austin” presents a view of the city most people have never experienced before. Podcasts and books on tape have traditionally transported listeners’ imaginations away from their location, but this project presents a genre in which sound and location are inextricably linked.