Tales of the City: Can Broadcastr Become Foursquare for Audio?

“I’m a bit of a klutz, and I was working at the Metropolitan Opera opening gala at Lincoln Center,” a stranger’s voice says in your ear. You’re walking down Broadway, passing Lincoln Center.

You don’t know the man, but he lives in your city. He’s telling you a story. It’s about the time he was waiting on Barbara Walters and accidentally whacked her in the face. “I hit her right on the bridge of her nose. Right on the bridge of her nose, with a heavy, heavy salad plate.”

The story is about a minute long. Then it’s over. You’re at Columbus Circle now. The boyish voice of MTV host Andrew Jenks starts telling you about the time Dennis Rodman was late for a CNN appearance. You can see One Time Warner Center from where you’re standing. You walk to the corner of Central Park, where an actor’s voice starts precisely enunciating the history of the nearby Maine Monument, “The sculptural program figuratively represented America’s new position as a dominant world force,” he says.

The voices in your ear are from Broadcastr, a collection of brief stories mapped across the world. The Brooklyn-based startup hit the Apple App Store last week, giving users a new way to access the 6,000 or so stories uploaded already through Broadcastr.com. You can now listen to the recordings as you move through the city, your phone feeding you stories based on your location, your interests—sports, history, travel–and what stories have been highly rated by other users.

Broadcastr also offers up service content, comedy and audible art. At Columbus Circle Fountain, musician Geoff Dugan has planted an ambient composition incorporating bass strings with the sounds of the city.

Broadcastr launched in private beta in December, aiming to fill a missing dimension in the social media landscape. We tweet, we blog, we post photos to Flickr and video to YouTube, Broadcastr’s pitch goes, but what about our voices?

Broadcastr was founded by Scott Lindenbaum, 26, and his business partner Andy Hunter, 38—two poetry-reading, coffee-swilling, fiction-writing “M.F.A. kids,” as Mr. Lindenbaum puts it.

The pair runs Electric Literature, an online literary magazine, and the offshoot Electric Publisher, which produces iPad apps for books.

“Our mission is to bring narrative into the digital age,” Mr. Hunter said. “So we were thinking about using mobile phones and using GPS in some way. Maybe having someone like Jonathan Lethem write a story that refers to 30 different locations in Brooklyn and have people be able to walk around and once they get that location, it triggers that part of the story to play.”

Then one day Mr. Hunter was walking through the East Village, looking at the flyers advertising bands, poetry slams, lost cats, guitar lessons—the usual messages staple-gunned to telephone poles. “It just hit me that instead of curating from the top down, what we should really do is allow people to use their cell phones to call in stories anywhere they are,” he said. Users would simply record a short audio clip and pin it to a map.

They raised something in “the low six figures” from some of the Electric Literature investors, Mr. Lindenbaum said, and have been working with a Bulgarian development shop. And that’s how the M.F.A. kids found themselves building a social network.

Mr. Lindenbaum and Mr. Hunter actually have experience in the whole social media thing. Electric Literature used Twitter to publish a story by author Rick Moody in 140-character bursts, which gained them more than 150,000 followers. They’re also behind the YouTube video, “Can a book save your life?” in which a marksman shoots a gun at the top ten books of 2010 and at a Kindle, which reaped more than 65,000 views in less than a month.

But this time, rather than using social media as a promotional tool, they’re repurposing it altogether. They’re trying to create a new kind of social media.

“How do you take oral storytelling, which is like, the oldest, probably most out-of-fashion form of storytelling,” Mr. Lindenbaum said, “and give it a new life? Bring it back to the popular conversation, put it into pop culture?”

Broadcastr was seeded with more than 3,000 stories from comedians, artists and writers, as well as the New York Parks Department, Fodor’s Travel Guides and The National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The startup has about 30,000 active users, they said, and about 2,000 of those post content. The stories are spread across the globe but there is a concentration in New York, where the founders hope the app will get traction first. “We want this to be the spring of Broadcastr,” Mr. Lindenbaum said.

Their timing is excellent, with Foursquare and other location-enabled apps already on the up. Broadcastr’s challenge is to capture that momentum, and do it before anybody else. A few similar apps already exist (like Voxora, a New York hacker side project), and Foursquare could easily add audio clips to check-ins the way it added photos at the end of last year. “The longer we wait, the less of a chance we’re going to have at the exact moment it needs to be delivered,” Mr. Lindenbaum said.

Broadcastr became available in the App Store a day before South By Southwest, and an Android app is coming soon. The website will continue to be in public beta for a while as the bugs are ironed out, hopefully before the start of the tourist season. Then comes the full-court press: street teams, band tour diaries, guerilla promotions, more partnerships, and a social media blitz.

The app will also market itself. One of the goals with Broadcastr was to make it “super shareable,” in Mr. Lindenbaum’s words. Users can follow individual broadcasters, rate broadcasts and embed them on other sites. Eventually there will be Twitter-esque features such as re-broadcasts and third-party apps.

People seem to love the idea of Broadcastr. But without a critical mass of users to listen to stories and add new ones, it’s sure to flop. “Just having the tool is not enough. You need the army with you,” Mr. Lindenbaum said.

People use Twitter to talk about the news, create inside jokes, have conversations, make art and foment revolution. Something similar could happen with a lightweight and flexible app like Broadcastr. It could also become the primary outlet for the hours of recordings sitting on hard drives at universities and other archives. Only a tiny fraction of the 60,000 American voices recorded by StoryCorps have made it onto NPR, for example; the rest are at the Library of Congress.

It could just as easily be relegated to the ghetto of still-popular but decidedly second-tier services like Posterous and Myspace, or be buried in the social network graveyard with Bebo and Yahoo! 360. But there are 8 million stories in the naked city, give or take, and Broadcastr is worth a listen even if it captures a small fraction.

Tales of the City: Can Broadcastr Become Foursquare for Audio?