TV, staycations, and “selling out”: A short list of Rolf’s missed mass-media opportunities

Hours after completing the Kansas leg of my book tour I flew across the Atlantic for a whirlwind two-day visit to London, England. This had nothing to do with Marco Polo Didn’t Go There; I was there to dub voice-over for a Travel Channel special I’m hosting this fall.

I’ll talk more about this Travel Channel show in my next post, but for now I wanted to note that this TV hosting opportunity is the result of a long process of near-misses that goes back a couple of years.

In truth, I never set out to host a TV show, but I started to get attention from production studios in late 2006, when — apparently — the Travel Channel sent out a memo expressing a desire to have “qualified insiders” as show hosts instead of air-headed actors. This was the result, no doubt, of the fact that Anthony Bourdain — himself a qualified insider — had become a big star for the Travel Channel, and the network wanted to recruit more people who knew what they were talking about when it came to travel. Hence, thanks to my decade of experience as a full-time travel writer (and my pouty, cheek-boney author photo — an anomaly I’ll discuss in a future post) I got a lot of attention from TV production companies last year.
The problem was that, despite all this interest, I didn’t have much TV experience, nor did I have a “reel” of on-camera clips to show. One company flew me out to Los Angeles to shoot an audition tape (they didn’t cast me); another company wanted to put me under an exclusive “development contract” to create shows for me (the terms of which would have cut into my other pursuits as a writer, so I declined); another studio flew me to New York to shoot some “talking head” interviews (which can still be seen on Travel Channel shows like “21 Sexiest Beaches”).

Unfortunately, after tons of emails and flying around, nothing ever worked — until this spring, when Pioneer Productions of London (the company that flew me to LA to make the audition tape) decided I would make a good host for a travel-history show called “American Pilgrim.” The rest is, well, history — and I’ll talk more about that in my dispatch from London.

For now, however — having talked a few of my “near misses” from the TV world — I wanted to share some other media opportunities that never quite worked out for me in recent years. These are the kind of interesting opportunities that I never end up talking about because, well, they didn’t work out.

Here goes with a quick top-five:

1) Writing a TV segment of This American Life

Like many public-radio-loving Americans, I’ve been a fan of This American Life for years, and in fact I used to listen to shows on my dial-up internet connection when I was living in Thailand writing Vagabonding. I started pitching show ideas to TAL producers sometime around 2002, and I finally got a spark of interest in 2007, when they expressed a desire to use one of my stories on air. As it turned out, they didn’t want my idea for radio, but for their Emmy-winning TV series on Showtime. Last November I traveled to Ontario with a couple of TAL producers on a “scouting trip” for my story; unfortunately, the Showtime folks didn’t think it was “visual” enough for the show, and my idea got killed.

2) Talking about “staycations” on The Daily Show

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the “staycation” concept.

Earlier this year, one of my bloggers wrote a post about the “staycation” phenomenon, and how this stay-near-home approach to travel might be implemented from a vagabonding perspective. For some reason, this post attracted the attention of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show producers, who queried both me and my blogger about a possible guest appearance on the show. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the “staycation” concept — but, in keeping with the principles of Vagabonding, I am an advocate of using the attitude of travel to explore your home area. The Daily Show folks, who perhaps wanted a more earnest staycation-pundit to poke fun at, never called back.

3) Appearing as a travel commentator on Fox News

Two summers ago, while I was writing a weekly travel column for Yahoo! News, I penned a quick top-10 list of my favorite USA travel destinations for a July 4th column slot. This list was unambiguously and unapologetically subjective, but for some reason it caused a huge stir when Yahoo posted it on their main page. New Jersey residents sent me hate mail (because they thought I’d insulted their state), New York Yankees fans sent me hate mail (because I’d stated, quite flatteringly, how I hated the Yankees for always beating the Royals), and a number of publications in Kansas reported that the “Yahoo search engine” (as opposed to me, a subjective writer) had declared the Flint Hills to be the “fifth best destination in America”. Amidst this madness, Fox News contacted me about appearing as a “USA travel expert” on their “Fox & Friends” morning show. As it happened, I was off teaching my Paris writing classes at the time, so it didn’t work out.

4) Selling film rights to Vagabonding

Earlier this summer a representative from one of the “Big Five” talent agencies in Hollywood contacted me about the possibility of selling film rights to my first book, Vagabonding. Of course, Vagabonding is not a narrative book, but I could see how its themes might be worked into a TV series or motion picture. I told the talent agency to send me more information, but to date nothing has come of it.

5) Becoming a spokesperson for Rockport shoes

Way back in 2004 a marketing representative contacted me out of nowhere and offered me an eye-popping sum of money to serve as a “spokesperson” for a new line of Rockport travel shoes. I’d always thought Rockport shoes were great — and the price was definitely right — but perhaps out of principle or foolishness I told the marketing rep that, while certainly interested, I didn’t want to put myself in a position that would contradict the anti-consumerist slant of Vagabonding. This gave the rep cold feet, and I never heard from Rockport again.

In retrospect, I should have simply accepted the offer and just quietly towed my anti-consumerist line (which I’m sure is possible to do, even as a spokesperson, since it’s certainly possible to sing the praises of a product without insinuating that it’s the only option in the universe). As it turned out, this gave me my punk rock moment — I didn’t sell out! — though under the right circumstances I reserve the right to do some kind of spokesperson gig in the future.