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.

Tour stops #4, #5, #6, and #7: From the college towns: “Come and couch-surf Kansas!”

Students at Topeka's Washburn University await Rolf's After a somewhat lonely showing in the Salina Central Mall, I took my book tour east on I-70 for a series of events on college campuses in Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence, and suburban Kansas City. It was here, amid college students who were keen on the message of Vagabonding and intrigued by the tales in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, that I feel like my book tour finally hit its stride.

I suspect that university campuses will always be my bread and butter when I tour for books — if nothing else because of the “time-is-wealth” slant of Vagabonding, which college students are always keen to hear. My tour of northeastern Kansas colleges started at Kansas State University in Manhattan, where I was slated to give keynote address to the Kansas International Educator’s conference. The word “keynote” was slightly intimidating (it made me feel like an adult all of a sudden), but I decided to keep the subject matter of my speech close to what I know best — travel, and the gut-level lessons you learn when you live in unfamiliar cultures. Since these concepts are easily applicable to international education, this led to a great post-talk discussion of living overseas, including safety issues and how to best motivate students to leave the comfort of home and study/travel abroad.
After my speech for the KIE folks, I jogged over to the K-State student union building and gave an International Coordinating Council-sponsored talk to 20 or so students, including hitchhiker extraordinaire Aaron Bell (whose hard-won hitching strategies I will blog about later this year at Vagablogging). Several members of the audience were members of Couchsurfing.com, and they all had a common refrain for would-be USA travelers out there: “Come to Kansas and stay with us!”

I say right-on to that, since a place like Kansas is off the beaten path in the truest sense of the word, and the student-couRolf champions the vagabonding ethic for a noontime crowd at Johnson County Community College in Kansas Citychsurfers there seem keen to show travelers the best of what the state has to offer.

Once I’d finished in Manhattan I continued on to Topeka, where I spent a day at Washburn University speaking with the writing students of novelist Thomas Fox Averill and memoirist Sarah Smarsh. None of these classes dealt with travel writing per se, but even among the fiction students I was able to generate some great discussions about how travel can sharpen your sense of place as a writer (and I’ll share some of these specific tips in my next post).

After an open-to-the-public Marco Polo Didn’t Go There reading at Washburn Union, I made a red-eye drive to Kansas City, where I was slated to give a noontime vagabonding talk the next day at Johnson County Community College. JCCC is one of the largest and wealthiest community colleges in the United States, and as a venue it reminded me of my talk at Google’s New York office: It was very organized and high-tech, with a sharp and engaged audience. As was the case at K-State and Washburn, a few of the students in the audience had been Vagabonding fans for years, and they brought in yellowing first-edition copies (some of which had traveled around the world with them) for me to sign. It’s always awesome to meet people who not only have read Vagabonding, but have already put it to use, and traveled around the world and back with stories to tell.

My final stop on my tour of northeastern Kansas was the classic college town of Lawrence, where my cousin Dan and several other old friends live. There I made an appearance at the River City Reading Festival alongside Kansas authors like American Shaolin author Matthew Polly, River of Doubt author Candace Millard, and Ice Harvest author Scott Phillips. I had a small but lively crowd at my reading, but the real spectacle was the author signing tent afterward, where a long line of people was stretched out along the library waiting to meet — no, not me — What’s the Matter With Kansas author Thomas Frank (who was there promoting his new book, The Wrecking Crew).

I managed to attract a dozen or so Marco Polo Didn’t Go There fans during my hour-long stint in the tent, but Thomas Frank’s mob of admirers was a reminder that other authors certainly have a more high-profile manner of promoting their books this year.

After Lawrence, I headed off to London, England of all places — to record voice-over for a Travel Channel special I’ll describe in a future post. [Photos by Jeffrey Couch.]