They say that clichés are clichés for a reason – sort of the original cliché itself, right? – meaning that, sometimes, wincingly trite and overused stereotypes really do capture the essence of a group.
Take public radio listeners, who self-identify as highly educated, liberal-minded, intensely curious and occasionally righteously argumentative appreciators of fine art and even finer music. Take them, in fact, on a vacation to intriguing foreign locales, traveling together in semi-confined spaces – bus, river boat, train, quaint B & B, everything short of a Volvo with the bass-heavy voice of Terry Gross throbbing from quad Bose speakers – and you might wonder what would happen.
No, neither blood nor soy lattes get spilled. Noses do not ascend to the stratosphere, nor are brows raised ever higher.
These fellow travelers have – dare we say it? – fun, raucous fun, and bond well beyond their shared passion for “All Things Considered” and rock-star adoration for Sylvia Poggioli.
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A recent reunion at the Capital Public Radio studios for “members” who took part in group tours to Cuba over the past two years – courtesy of a partnership between Sacramento’s NPR affiliate and Seattle-based Earthbound Expeditions – showed that some of the clichés held and some were obliterated like so many shattered pledge-drive travel mugs.
“I liked this group to travel with because they were NPR listeners and knew things,” said Pat Collier, a retired nurse from Stockton. “It was a thoughtful group interested in the culture. It wasn’t like people were looking for a Hilton hotel or something. They wanted to experience the place. That’s what NPR listeners are like.”
Robin Berrin, of Carmichael: “It was an intellectual group – political, environmentally aware, worldly.”
His partner, Susanne Leitner: “If you talked about what was going on in the world, people didn’t look at you cross-eyed.”
“Snooty?” repeated Fran Eldredge, a kindergarten teacher from Natomas. “No. Not that. It has nothing to do with intellect; it was interest.”
“And we drank a lot, too!” interrupted Lorraine Greco, a rice farmer from Lincoln, clutching a tote bag bearing the bereted image of Che Guevara.
Indeed, the mojitos and stories flowed at the reunion, tales of visiting a Havana elementary school and music conservatory, trekking to a rain forest in the middle of the island, catching a baseball game where the guide got “pinched” for trying to sneak alcohol past the turnstiles, touring examples of the country’s medical system and just chilling along the Malecón.
“I’ve been on two of the trips myself,” said Arla Gibson, Capital Public Radio’s director of development, “and there’s this connection among public radio (people) that is really strong.”
Since 2012, the station has offered several tours a year to foreign locales, arranged and led by Earthbound Expeditions, featuring station “celebrities” such as local “Morning Edition” announcer Donna Apidone, health reporter Pauline Bartolone, “Insight” executive producer Jen Picard and music host Nick Brunner. Groups have traveled to Spain to privately tour the Prado and Franco’s controversial Valley of the Fallen memorial and to Italy to visit the Vatican, the Pantheon and a castle in Tuscany. Twice, a group has gone to Cuba and a third trip is planned for January 2016.
The next excursion, which sold out its 40 spots quickly, is a cruise down “The Blue Danube” in October with news anchor Steve Milne, stopping in Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Salzburg to commune where the great classical composers lived. Cost for the Danube trip might seem steep – $5,999 for a suite, $3,950 for a cabin – but it includes airfare to Prague, 12 days of touring and 24 meals. The Cuba trip, for example, cost $4,375, including airfare, lodging and meals.
“We think it’s pretty reasonable,” Gibson said.
It’s also a fundraising tool for the nonprofit. Capital Public Radio receives about $100 per passenger, which goes back into the station’s general fund. But, Gibson said, “It’s really not so much about the financial. We want to make long-term connections with our listeners.”
Knowing the ardent devotion of many public radio listeners, Matthew Brumley, founder of Earthbound Expeditions, conceived of the pairing shortly after starting his company in 1997. Brumley, 50, is a self-dubbed “NPR junkie” who was a guide for high-end erudite travel companies such as National Geographic-Linblad Expeditions and Rick Steves’ Travel before venturing out on his own.
What started in 1999 as a European trip with members of Seattle’s classical public radio station, KING-FM, is now a thriving business in which Brumley and staff escort “NPR junkies” from stations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington on as many as 60 trips a year. Capital Public Radio and independent KDFC, a classical station in San Francisco, are the only California stations on his roster.
“It just makes sense,” he said, reinforcing the truthful cliché. “These people are well-traveled, very educated and serious about the world. The stations like to build community and, frankly, spend some valuable time with top donors.”
But Brumley prefers not to dwell on monetary concerns. He said the pleasure of accompanying public-radio groups to foreign hot spots is that they shatter the “Ugly American” cliché.
“It’s about experiencing the world and seeing that everyone’s not that different than us,” he said. “They are great ambassadors, curious, super polite, generous and eager to understand the culture and history of a people. These are trips geared toward the experience, as opposed to booking the Hyatt and (dining at) the fanciest restaurant. They want to stay in a family-run (hotel) and dine in, like, a 300-year-old wine cellar underneath Havana where tourist aren’t hanging out. Our whole focus is insider access.”
Often, it’s access even insiders rarely experience. On the “Blue Danube” trip, Brumley has pulled strings and given classical music fans the treat of a private tour, followed by a concert, at Mozart’s home. He’s also staged concerts for groups at Schumann’s residence in Leipzig, Germany, and Chopin’s birthplace in Warsaw.
“We closed down the whole museum in Leipzig,” Brumley said. “And we’ve also arranged the trips (to attend) jazz and classical music festivals.”
It attests, perhaps, to the aging demographic of NPR listeners (baby boomers and beyond) that the travelers’ tastes run toward classical and jazz. But Capital Public Radio’s Gibson said the on-air personalities are not the only “youngsters” who sign up.
“We get across the board, age range, but, yes, the biggest number are those (who) are retired,” she said. “They have more time to travel. But we do get singles in their 30s, too.”
No matter their age, public-radio-listening travelers share an intense fascination with NPR foreign correspondents, Brumley said. He takes advantage of that.
“We’re having lunch with Sylvia Poggioli (NPR reporter in Italy) next month,” he said. “The NPR junkies will love that. Last Saturday, my wife (Danna), who was guiding a Wisconsin Public Radio trip, met up with (NPR reporter) Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. It’s one of those things where it’s a win, win, win for everybody. It’s a win for Sylvia Poggioli because she needs NPR to survive for her livelihood, and everyone’s crazy to meet her, and it often attracts (the) big donors stations want.”
But even meeting a local NPR person, say, CPR’s “Insight” executive producer Jen Picard, who accompanied a Sacramento group to Cuba, is appealing.
“They are all so nice and know everything,” said Collier, the Stockton nurse. “And the people in Cuba didn’t mind us asking questions and interacting with them. It was almost like we were interviewing them.”
For Cuba, at least, one of the travel restrictions is that trips must be deemed educational.
“Which is fine by me,” said Eldredge, the kindergarten teacher. “I would’ve chosen educational visits anyway.”
Of course, she would. After all, clichés being clichés for a reason, she’s an NPR listener.
For more information on Capital Public Radio’s group tours to foreign destinations, go to capradio.org