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Radio | AROUND THE DIAL

A 'Savvy' Sort

Rudy Maxa has turned his lifelong interest in travel into a rewarding, challenging job.

October 29, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rudy Maxa is a witty, quick-talking fellow with a pleasant, round face, a gentle disposition and a slightly balding pate.

And frequent-flier mileage to die for. After all, they don't call him "The Savvy Traveler" for nothing.

"I could not pay for another airline ticket," he says with a smile, "for a long time."

Which is a good thing, since airline travel is a big part of Maxa's life. While most of us commute to work, Maxa commutes for work in his role as host of Public Radio International's weekly hourlong magazine show "The Savvy Traveler." The 14-month-old program is the fastest-growing public radio show in the nation, playing on 148 stations, including KUSC-FM (91.5), where it can be heard Saturdays at 5 p.m., and KPCC-FM (89.3), where it airs Sundays at 4 p.m.

And while the program has distinguished itself with intriguing and provocative pieces exploring exotic locales from Cambodia to Cuba and from Transylvania to Pennsylvania, what really makes it unique is that the show isn't about specific places, but about every place.

"I don't think there's any other radio show like it," Maxa says. "We really do want to take you in your imagination, not just to physical places like Cambodia or a country or a city, but also to places in your own mind, where you think about what travel means to you."

Naturally enthusiastic yet self-deprecating and humble to a fault, Maxa, 49, certainly has the background to tackle such a task. From his earliest memories growing up as the son of a career Army officer, Maxa has been on the move. The wanderlust followed him to the Washington Post, where he spent 13 years as an investigative reporter, and later to Washingtonian magazine, where he worked nine years as a writer and columnist.

"If I wasn't out of town--even if it was just the shuttle up to New York for the day--every two weeks, I started getting itchy," Maxa says. "I always traveled. I was always interested in travel."

It was such an obsession, in fact, that it drove his editors at Washingtonian to distraction. Although the magazine is dedicated to covering the city of Washington, Maxa nonetheless managed to finagle business trips to such places as Micronesia, London and Paris. Partly as a result, he became well-versed in the minutiae of travel, learning to tell a bargain from a scam and how to get the most for his--well, actually his boss'--money.

But the idea of turning that knowledge into a profession never occurred to him. That bit of inspiration came from J.J. Yore, the executive producer of Marketplace Productions. When Yore asked Maxa to contribute a series of political commentaries to Marketplace's daily radio business magazine, he demurred, recording one but balking at doing anything further.

"I've always felt if you were going to do that, you should have an opinion. Which I didn't," Maxa says. "I always enjoyed going to the circus, I just never cared much who was in the center ring."

Asked what he'd like to talk about, Maxa offered travel. Soon he was taping an edgy 2 1/2-minute segment for "Marketplace" every two weeks, and although Maxa's pieces were limited mainly to quick tips and brief news items largely of interest to business travelers, Yore sensed the potential for something larger.

"From very early on, it was very clear to me that he had such a natural talent on air--presence and an ability to connect," says Yore. "It's such an odd thing. You're sitting in this sort of isolation chamber in a studio and you're expected to connect with people very intimately in their cars and in their homes. And I don't really know what it is, but certain people have that sort of magical ability."

Maxa, on the other hand, sensed the potential for lots of subsidized travel. And for Maxa, pairing a passport with an expense account is kind of like handing a 4-year-old the keys to a candy store: It opens the door to a dream so unbelievable, it's best not to even think about it.

"It never crossed my mind," Maxa says now. "At no time was I on the edge of my seat. I didn't hope for it. I didn't think about it. I wasn't even wishing for it.

"I was a print guy. I was so busy in print that radio was something out there that I didn't know anything about. . . . [But] I certainly have learned a lot."

Although dozens of stations across the country, including KPCC, air locally produced travelogues, "The Savvy Traveler" is the only national travel-oriented program on radio. And it truly is national in terms of both content and production, with Maxa taping three shows a month on the East Coast at WAMU, near his home in Washington, and the fourth at Marketplace Productions' facilities just off the campus of USC.

But regardless of where the show emanates, the format is roughly the same: Maxa tells listeners where the bargains are, where the dangers are and where future pitfalls may lie. (Last May, for example, he correctly called the Northwest Airlines strike, warning travelers to avoid the carrier because labor problems could ground its planes by summer.)

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