Kevin Costner knows a good story when he hears one.
That's why he said he was intrigued when he heard about an app designed to alert travelers of notable, yet often unnoticed, places of interest along their journeys.
"I'm the guy that driving around America … when you see those bronze markers along the way, I want to stop. I want to read what was there," he said. "It's something of history, and I remember being really thrilled by that. Otherwise, you're just watching the miles click off."
An app that would send compelling, timely stories straight to him was appealing, he said, since "a good story has always been something that's thrilled me."
Costner was loosely connected to the app's creator, entrepreneur Woody Sears, through their children, Sears said. While the app was in preliminary stages, Costner agreed to narrate several stories before eventually joining the company as a co-founder.
The app — called HearHere — launched in August 2020, fortuitously coinciding with one of the biggest travel trends of the Covid era: the resurrection of the road trip.
A 'road trip story guide'
Similar to the past two years, road trips are expected to dominate this summer, according to a survey by travel website The Vacationer. Nearly 80% of American adults — or some 206 million Americans — plan to take one, according to the survey of nearly 1,100 American in March.
However, HearHere — which is billed as a "road trip story guide" — was in development before the pandemic, said Sears.
"The idea of travel had changed for a lot of people," said Sears. "We happened to open our doors at the same time as the shift."
Costner said he's been involved with several start-ups, but this one "was in the wheelhouse of what I already do in terms of storytelling, and my kind of love of history," said Costner.
From "The Untouchables" to "JFK" and "Wyatt Earp," many of Costner's most well-known movies have touched upon pivotal figures in American history. A key reason for his involvement with HearHere was his desire to tell the stories of the first people to inhabit North America. It's a subject he explored in the 1990 Academy Award-winning film "Dances With Wolves," which Costner starred in, directed and produced.
"That was the fundamental for me … who are the first people? — because there's no here without knowing who was there before," he said.
The harder truths
HearHere has more than 9,000 stories to date, with topics ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Janis Joplin, and from Kentucky's National Corvette Museum to Nashville's music scene.
But to Costner, telling the harder truths about U.S. history is paramount too.
"Our story is not always a great one. There was so much violence in America. We're watching violence play out now across the globe … to think that that didn't occur here — it did," he said.
Stories about America's Founding Fathers and its Civil War battlefields are interspersed with histories of Mississippi towns settled by slaves and the disenfranchisement of Black people.
"We don't have to be ashamed about it," said Costner. "We can be a little embarrassed, but it's more embarrassing to not know."
A rise in audio content
HearHere has been downloaded more than 400,000 times and has subscribers in every U.S. state, said Sears. The company announced in February it had raised $3.2 million in seed funding, led by the American recreational vehicle company Camping World.
Though he's at the forefront of a new mobile app company, Costner indicated he's not much into tech. He said most mobile apps "fly over my head" and, of HearHere's Twitter page: "I don't even know how to get on it."
"I was really raised with wolves," he said. "If I need to expand my life … I have to open my ears, I have to open my eyes. When I'm traveling across the country, my nose doesn't need to be in a computer — it needs to be looking out."
Sears said so-called "screen fatigue" is one of the reasons audio content outpaced video content in 2021. Audio entertainment is also easier to integrate into daily life because it can be consumed while "walking, driving and doing chores, versus video which is primarily watched while stationary," he said.
Launching into other countries?
While U.S.-based stories continue to be added to HearHere, Costner said the company has a model that lends itself well to international expansion.
He said the company is still refining its business and listening to its customers, but "I like to jump off the page quite honestly … try something new," he said.
Costner said he applies a similar approach to his movies.
"It's easy to follow a trend — it's much more difficult to try to be original. Trends, or the repetition of something popular, is a way you make a lot of money," he said. "Doing something that's classic — that no one's felt like they've ever seen before — can live forever."