Baratunde Thurston photographed at the Neuehouse Hollywood in Hollywood, California on June 7, 2022.
In so many ways, America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston isn’t your average adventure or nature series.
The PBS six-parter, which debuted its first episode on Tuesday, July 5, 2022, runs through Tuesday, August 9, 2022. The primetime series takes Thurston to diverse regions from Appalachia to LA and Death Valley to Tidewater, mixing humor and insight across a range of themes. Aside from being fascinating TV, it looks incredible.
I caught up with Thurston to discuss the show that creates a deeper understanding of our passionate yet complicated relationship with the outdoors and the difference between working with PBS compared to other media.
Simon Thompson: Something you often refer to in this series is your childhood and how much yours has influenced your inquisitive nature about life in America. So was the project something you have, in the back of your mind, always wanted to do, or was it more that the opportunity presented itself and you only made the connection while making it?
Baratunde Thurston: It’s a little more of the latter. An opportunity presented itself that revealed this was a lifelong dream. Since I was 12 years old, it’s not like I was hoping to host an outdoor show on public television. That came unsolicited, and then it was like, ‘Ooh, this is a really cool possibility.’ As we started talking about the show, developing it further with the production company and me, then starting to shoot it, all this stuff started coming back. Since the show has come out and I’ve been talking with people like you more about it, even more memories have come back, and I’m like, ‘Wait, I was a mad outdoorsy kid.’ I didn’t grow up in the country somewhere, but I did have a ton of outdoor experiences that shaped me, and that has become more obvious.
Thompson: How has that changed the way you look at the project plus the reactions from the people watching the first few episodes on PBS?
Thurston: It’s a much bigger deal than I expected (laughs). I underestimated what the show means to people and all kinds of people. Black people are excited to see this show because a black person has a show about the outdoors, which is kind of cool. People who are located in, or have a connection to, the places we featured are really excited. Fans of Death Valley are like, ‘I love that you profiled Death Valley,’ and people from there are telling us we did a great job. I was a little nervous because there’s some responsibility not to misrepresent anything or anyone. There is a bit of risk there. Also, people who never wanted to go to a place see something beautiful and valuable. I hope people feel that for their own spaces, not just the handful of places we went to across six episodes. I underestimated PBS as a network and what it means. I have not made anything with PBS before. I’ve been a guest on PBS shows for the past 15 years, but that’s different. The reach and breadth of this network are astounding. People hit me up from places in Arkansas and rural locations, and my friends are sending me photos of the PBS programs in areas I’ve never been. I’m on a printout in upper Wisconsin where I don’t know anyone. That’s kind of cool. The release of it is much bigger than I expected.
Baratunde Thurston takes a moment on location in ‘America Outdoors.’
Thompson: There is a lot of content in each of those six hour-long episodes. Have you already started planning what your next six are going to be? How did you decide on those first six?
Thurston: That’s not a solo decision, but I have some desires when it comes to where I’d love to go. I know that PBS, Twin Cities PBS in particular as they are the station that created the show, have some places they’re interested in. Every general manager of a PBS station now wants us to come to their neck of the woods (laughs). There are also places we couldn’t go in the first season; there were Covid restrictions, some people got sick, and some were just unavailable, so there’s a short list. I’m sure everyone has their version, but let’s start with the places we knew we wanted to go to but couldn’t for whatever reason. There’s the lobbying from inside the PBS family, and then there’s the viewing public. Every inbox that I have is now filled with requests (laughs). People are stalking me on LinkedIn, saying things like, ‘My cousin runs an outdoors program for kids,’ or ‘We have some awesome caves over here, so you’ve got to come and check out our caves.’ They’re all supporting their sports team, but it’s their outdoor thing instead, so we’ll have tough decisions to make. As far as the first season, some of that was baked in when I arrived in the process. The chain of creation, as I understand it was that Twin Cities created the show, it was their concept, and they titled it; they contracted with Part2 Pictures, the production company who developed it and found me. They did most of the legwork in terms of finding all the participants, scouting, logistics, and all that jazz. PBS funded and agreed to it, but they can’t make stations carry it.
Thurston: They can pitch it, and they can say why it’s important, but it’s a kind of federated universe, which is also fascinating. As I effectively marketed this internally so I could point out how it fitted in with all the cool stuff they have. It was like, ‘Oh, I see. This is like ‘Welcome to the Mob,’ but the Mob is good people who really do care about family?’ (laughs).
Thompson: You’ve been involved with so many projects and productions over the years, so from a business and industry perspective, did the PBS way feel like a very new way of doing things?
Thurston: There were many lessons on both the business and creative sides. Creatively, I like being in the world. I have been on stages doing TED Talks and public speaking. I’ve been on MSNBC a reasonable amount and became a regular on Brian Williams’ show with him and Bill Kristol, and I dubbed us ‘The B Team,’ Brian, Bill, and Baratunde. Those kinds of things are a very different energy and tone from rafting with someone. I got to be way more relaxed and just be me. The cameras happened to be there, so a lot of it feels very natural. In contrast, some of the media environments I’ve been in are literally artificial, from the lighting to the table to the books behind you. In this case, our set was as real as it could get, so it felt different physically, emotionally, and creatively. I worked with a production company for 90 percent of my hours, including making it and the voiceover sessions. All that felt like making the TV show.
Baratunde Thurston in Death Valley during the debut episode of ‘America Outdoors.’
Thompson: You mentioned that the marketing for America Outdoors felt different?
Thurston: The marketing felt better than some of my experiences before. With every PBS station, I’m getting tagged on Facebook posts. First of all, I’m like, ‘Right, Facebook is still out there, and billions of people are served content every day,’ and then there are Instagram and Twitter posts for Arkansas and Illinois stations and whatnot promoting the show there. It’s like an army. That feels like a vast advantage that PBS and the public television world has. When it comes to the green lighting and the funding process, it is viewers like you and grants from foundations, and that’s not my day-to-day; I have a team tasked with figuring some of that stuff out. It is as rational, if not more so than any other kind of media venture I’ve been involved in because, and I don’t want to be disrespectful, but the whole Hollywood media business is very weird (laughs). If you come from regular business, a normal profit and loss statement kind of world, then you come to Hollywood, you’re like, ‘This is business? What is this?’ It’s a very Galapagos Islands-style culture that developed out in this bubble that is different from other typical business concerns. I think, if anything, PBS might be saner.
Thompson: When the average person thinks of the outdoors in America, they think of local green spaces and parks, hiking, National Parks, and things like that. America Outdoors shows the reality is way broader than that.
Thurston: I think we have all suffered under a profitable delusion, at least in the short term, that we are separate from the outdoors and nature. We built cities, we built industry, we literally manufactured the world, physically first and now virtually, and compensate each other to inhabit that realm and feel like that’s real and important. It’s like your hours spent on social media are super important, and then the outdoors becomes a resource. We mine it, chop it up, harvest it, and sell it, but very extractive and transactional rather than relational. If you don’t feel deeply connected to the outdoors, society makes you feel removed like there’s a window in between. It’s dirty, cold, or wet outside, but it’s all the experience of living, and that’s what we evolved to adapt to and thrive in, hopefully not just survive. It seems very sad to me but very normal and relatable because I’ve been indoors a lot as well, and I’ve done all kinds of tech and digital media. I will continue to do that; I’m not trading in my domain name and an internet connection to go live in a yurt full time. That’s extreme (laughs). I am making more space to recognize the value of that physical connection and not just the value of our digital and financial connections. For generations, and we can use the food industry as a great example, we’ve been falsely taught and convinced ourselves that industrialized food was the best. Food in a can is science food, and it’s better like we were all astronauts in the 50s for some reason. Why would you eat food out of the dirty ground? If it doesn’t have extra chemicals added, it’s not good. That was the pitch. It also happens to be very good for chemical companies. We’re coming around, things move in cycles, and I think if you care about your health, physically, your mental health, I hope our series helps show that you will find a lot of benefits by reengaging and reconnecting outdoors, but it’s not natural for a lot of us. We were told that’s for Boy Scouts or adventurers; that’s where extreme sports or backwoods people are or people who can’t afford modern things. Why would you expose yourself to like bugs? Our show shows you why.
Thompson: America Outdoors isn’t just about the outdoors. It introduces elements of culture and history as well. Something I loved that comes up later in the series involves the Maroons. Aside from finding it fascinating, watching your experience was incredible. There is a moment when you ask if you can be alone on one of the islands. Was that your idea? Was it pre-planned or something that you felt in the moment?
Thurston: That’s a great question. I didn’t choose the location, but I was excited when I saw it in the itinerary during our prep call because I had heard of the Great Dismal Swamp, but most people in the world or the US have not. I am a nerd, and I read too much, and sometimes you accidentally learn things (laugh). I accidentally learned about this swamp, but not this piece of the story, so I never knew about Maroon settlements and people escaping slavery seeking refuge there, so that was special. For me, a lot of the show’s magic is the stuff that’s not on camera, like the long drives between locations where we were in isolation because we couldn’t share cars. I accidentally ended up programming an audio soundtrack to the journey of making the show in the form of audiobooks. On the way to the Great Dismal swamp, I was listening to the history of the Haitian Revolution called Avengers of the New World. It was so good, and that primed me. So we’re just slogging through the swamp that looks like something out of The Neverending Story or the Dagobah system in Star Wars, and we come up on the island. It was a little more subtle than I expected. It was actually my producer, Brent LaRash, who also directed that episode, who said, ‘Hey, do you want a moment to go alone?’ Initially, I was like, ‘Why would I want a moment? We need the cameras in this,’ but then I was like, ‘Oh.’ He gets credit for recognizing that this might mean something to me other than being a TV host. That’s when I had the most profound experience of the whole journey of making the show. It had been cloudy, misty, and rainy that day, and the sun came out when I stepped on that island. I wept. I was overwhelmed and dropped to a knee. I felt like I could have stayed there for years, honoring the people who made it there so I could be here. I didn’t expect that from this show, so when I say the show was more than I expected, it’s not just like, Instagram comments or a random email. It was transformational. It has that spiritual, historical, ancestral, even political, and hopeful possibility embedded in it. The thing that the show also has done is, and I said it at our launch party event in LA, the show helped me see America as beautiful again at a time when it’s very easy to see America as ugly, brutal, uninviting, and unwelcoming to so many. To engage with so many who are finding ways to feel welcome and connected here, and for me to see common threads between folks who on paper are so different, in that sense, the show was a gift.
Thompson: I wanted to talk to you about the episode looking at Los Angeles. It’s a city that is unique in so many ways. How did that episode help you understand LA more than you did already?
Thurston: It was easy for me as an East Coaster to look down on LA. We are trained to hate, like Montagues and Capulets or Jets versus Sharks (laughs). I was proud of that when I first moved here for about six months in 2014, but I took to it pretty well. I brought East Coast habits like walking that freaked everybody out, and people were like, ‘What do you doing? How do you get places?’ It turns out you can get places with your human motor skills, so it was fun blowing people’s minds with the magic of human propulsion (laughs). Things like the LA River felt like a joke to me. I was like, ‘Okay, come on. You’re trying to make a fantastical world where a sewage drain is called a river. I’m from old America, and we know what a river is. The Potomac, the Hudson, the East River, these are rivers. What is this thing? This is like a trickle when it rains every five years.’ I was disabused of that bias and silliness and reintroduced to the beauty of the whole LA area. You don’t have to go very far for it. I was reminded of the discrepancies in who has access to green and public parks. I got to experience the sea, the mountains, the backyard gardens, and so many different angles, so it was a great welcome to LA that even a lot of Angelenos don’t get to experience.
Thompson: Can you give an example?
Thurston: I played this game on Instagram while making this show last summer, where I would post one photo from every shoot. I’d say, ‘I’m #AmericaOutdoorsPBS. Guess where I am.’ So I posted this photo, and it was lush green on a quiet river; it was taken from a kayak, and folks were like, ‘Oh, that looks like Georgia. It must be South Carolina? Oh, it’s definitely the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.’ It was actually the LA River at the intersection of the 405 and the 101. The LA episode is surprising. It was surprising to me to see how much there is. When we did the launch party for the show, we made it a very LA-focused thing. We screened the episode. It was packed wall to wall, and we had Villas Tacos, one of the best taco stands in the city, and The Stubborn Nail Cocktail Company out of East LA were there and did it in my neighborhood, Highland Park. It was in a giant garage with the door open and fans; we did a Q&A afterward with the guests from the show, including the surfers, the firefighter Royal Ramey, who just got pardoned by California Governor Gavin Newsom, and it was like an hour love fest. We had community activists for green space, urban gardening, and farmers markets in South LA, so many networks came out and met each other. It was like we all fell in love with the city, and it was the opposite of that East Coast condescension that I might have shown up with. This place is epically beautiful, not just because of surfing, but because we have access to nature in almost every direction. I love the LA episode. There’s no place like home; this is my home now, so I feel much more comfortable, excited, and welcome here because of that shoot.
America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston airs on PBS on Tuesday nights.
Baratunde Thurston photographed at the Neuehouse Hollywood in Hollywood, California on June 7, 2022.