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An RV beats a yogi on this path in life

PBS' 'Roadtrip Nation' has outgrown its scruffy roots but remains true to its collegial values.

November 29, 2005|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

It all began with a 4-inch magazine item. The 2003 Forbes piece described how some Pepperdine University graduates, unwilling to leap into corporate America, had crisscrossed the country interviewing executives, artists and entrepreneurs about how they'd found their way after college.

The young grads had videotaped the interviews and transcribed them, collecting them in a paperback, "Roadtrip Nation: A Guide to Discovering Your Path in Life." A photo next to the magazine's brief account showed Michael Marriner and Nathan Gebhard, two of the good-looking adventurers, standing atop their green and barely drivable RV.

Immediately, Hollywood was on the phone. Could William Morris represent them in pitching a TV series? Could advertisers put logos on the RV for the next trip? Instead of choosing a compatible team of young travelers, could Marriner and Gebhard pick individual students with strong, contrasting personalities? How about editing the footage to include infighting? Voting someone out of the RV?

"We thought, 'Oh, they're going to kill it!' and 'Oh, we're going to be famous!' " said Marriner, now an older and wiser 28. After a crash course in what networks would want from them, Marriner, Gebhard, fellow Pepperdine grad Brian McAllister and a handful of friends turned them down, struck out on their own and went on to create the independent Roadtrip Productions. Now, from do-it-yourself renovated headquarters in a Costa Mesa warehouse, two dozen interns, volunteers and paid staff produce the series "Roadtrip Nation," which is entering its fourth season on public television. They also publish books, DVDs and a Web page, and have partnerships with career counseling departments on 100 college campuses.

The entrepreneurs don't have titles, suits or fancy cars. If they have business cards, they barely use them. They say their path to success lies in continuing to consciously fend off whatever doesn't fit their values. "We spend most of our time saying no," Marriner said.

"It's difficult to believe," said Stephen Segaller, director of news and public affairs programs for WNET in New York, who has mentored the young producers since a mutual acquaintance persuaded him to meet them. He remembers some scraggly but passionate guys from "Surf U" stumbling into his office "after their first crazy trip with their slightly ragged 60-minute documentary," calling him "dude" and claiming they had a surefire youth hit for public television. "Now, two years later, they've become a small media conglomerate." This month, they were featured in Esquire magazine's genius issue.

Talking, in shifts, inside the Legend, their first RV, which is parked like an artifact inside the warehouse, Marriner, McAllister, 30, and Gebhard, 29, exude the enthusiastic conviction of seekers following their heart's vision, sandaled Southern Californians who have learned to love long hours and coast-to-coast flights. It's hard to resist the urge to ask advice.

But despite the books, the shows and the DVDs, Marriner said they never aspired to be motivational gurus. They wanted only to pass the torch to other graduates who wanted to repeat their experience -- a footloose "gap year" of exploration after college -- to find their own path. "It's like 'Motorcycle Diaries,' " he said. "Let the world change you."

He prefers to think of the "Roadtrip Nation" they have built not as a conglomerate but as a movement.

Doing it their way

It took about eight months of frustration for Marriner and company to realize MTV, the WB, Fox and other networks weren't for them. Meetings with top executives usually went well; the conflicts showed up a few layers down when they got into creative talks with producers. "They said, 'When you talk to people like [Starbucks founder] Howard Schultz, can you talk to his wife, see his cars, his house?' -- all the material things we wanted to disprove in the first place," Marriner recalled.

But as he became increasingly repulsed by the meetings, he was also absorbing the agents' business savvy. After one William Morris agent suggested he didn't need them anymore, he said he thought, "Oh, we can do it on our own and do it right."

The "Roadtrip" group immediately started making its own connections with PBS member stations and building a business around more road trips and more shows. Until last year, the staff numbered four. Marriner focused on finding low-key sponsors with similar goals. He and another Pepperdine friend, Cecily Olson, pursued marketing. Gebhard edited videotape and managed the staff while McAllister oversaw college outreach.

The first trip in 2001, in which the core group gathered up like-minded students Pied Piper style and cold-called potential subjects, turned into an annual summer project with two- and three-RV teams from around the country, Canada and Britain.

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