“The more television I host, the more interest I have in also producing and directing and when we put together bigger projects, that means a lot of compromise. Working closer with bigger broadcasters and corporate partners means having to juggle a lot of demands and a lot of different visions for a project. It’s important to make sure everyone feels “heard” and all the partners have input in the project. Doing all of that, accepting those compromises, without watering-down your original idea is an absolute skill.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Pyle, host of Extreme Treks on BBC Asia, and Tough Rides on Travel Channel.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! I’d love to hear your “backstory”.
Born in Toronto, Canada, I spent my early years close to home. After obtaining a degree in International Politics from the University of Toronto in 2001, I realized my lifelong dream and traveled to China on an exploratory mission. In 2002, I moved to China permanently and in 2004 I became a regular contributor to the New York Times. In 2009, I was named by PDN Magazine as one of the “30 Emerging Photographers in the World”. In 2010, I moved out of photography and began working full time on television and documentary film production and have produced and presented several large multi-episode television series for major broadcasters in the USA, UK, Europe, Asia and China.
It must be interesting traveling the globe for your series. Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since your show debuted?
My television show Extreme Treks (Season 2) is now debuting on BBC Earth and it’s wonderful to be able to bring my series to audiences around the world. One funny story was that my Extreme Treks (Season 1) was being shown on Discovery Channel a few years ago and it could also be found on a lot of airline entertainment systems. Once I was on a flight and there was a lady next to me watching my series and it looked like she was really in to it. When she took a break I asked her if she liked the show and she said, “Yes, what a great life that presenter seems to have”, and I agreed. But she never realized that the man sitting next to her could also be the same television presenter of the show she was watching. Hilarious! I guess when I am showered and cleanly shaven I look a lot different than the “version of me” that most people see on television.
What do you think sets your travel series apart from others?
My goal in my travel series is to be as authentic as possible, and to do that we focus on the brilliant combination of stunning landscapes and interesting cultural interactions with the people we meet. As a former New York Times collaborator, finding the authenticity in the story is very important to me, and I hope that resonates with my audience. In the non-fiction television world there is a lot of “sensationalism” and “manufactured drama”, in an effort to drive ratings. We don’t do that in my show. We try to tell honest stories about amazing people and amazing places. That is what I hope audiences will take away from my show, and I hope this will keep them coming back for more.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
If I had to thank anyone along the way it would be Howard W. French. Howard was the New York Times bureau chief in Shanghai, China when I first started getting into journalism and story telling. When I was building my photography career in China he generated an interest in my work that led to us working together covering China for 5–6 years, with him writing and me taking the pictures that accompanied his stories. But more than just a steady paycheck, working with Howard was like getting a journalism and story telling masters degree. His work ethic and ability to get to the heart of the story was fantastic and working side-by-side with such a prolific writer was inspiring. Howard and I moved out of the newspaper world around the same time. He is now a Professor of Journalism at Columbia, an author and still contributes long form articles to several magazines. We are still close friends to this day and find time to connect whenever we are both in New York at the same time. Whenever anyone asks how I got in to the world of story-telling I always say I went to the Howard W. French school of Journalism, which included an epic 6 years of “boots on the ground” work covering China at it’s most interesting time, just prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to bring goodness to the world by speaking to young people. In today’s world of hyper connectivity, social media and digital distraction, I try to find time to speak at a lot of high schools and engaging with students about life beyond school and beyond their smart phones. I feel that children today put a lot of pressure on themselves to live up to impossible standards that are often “enhanced” by social media. I talk to these students about travel, about digitally disconnecting, and about finding internal peace with yourself. I also talk about that fact that when I graduated University, I still had no idea what I wanted to do as a career, so I traveled as a way of “finding myself” and without putting too much pressure on myself I managed to develop a kind of lifestyle and career that most guidance counselors could never fathom. So, I spend a lot of my time in the US giving talks like this and engaging with young people in an effort to try and ease their concerns about “knowing everything all the time”. It’s okay to be unsure. It’s okay to not know. This distance between the known and the unknown, that’s where the adventure can be found….and that needs to be embraced.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life?
When I was in my senior year of University I read “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze” by Peter Hessler. It was on an optional reading list for a class I was taking about China at the time. I can say that book didn’t just have a deep impact, it changed my life forever. The book discusses, in first person, Peter’s own experience as a Peace Corp volunteer who taught English in a small village in central China on the Yangtze River. It’s a fascinating book and it began to feed my already healthy curiosity about China and about travel in general. Peter’s elegant writing, keen description tone, eye for detail and his never ending curiosity in the people he met along his journey’s made me want to travel and explore China for myself. Of course River Town was Peter Hessler’s first book and he’s gone on to write many more and he has been a regular New Yorker Correspondent for well over a decade. I had the great pleasure of speaking at the same book festival as Peter a few years back and we had to the chance to share a meal. It was a wonderful experience.
What are your “5 things” I wish someone told me before becoming a TV host; and why. Please share a story or example for each.
#1: That the More I Suffer, the More People Like My Show
- When you work in the adventure realm and you deal with Mother Nature the more challenging and ugly things get the happier the audiences and broadcasters like the show. I’ve actually had a meeting with a potential broadcast partner before and they asked me if my show had any “man tears”, and I said yes and they beamed with joy.
#2: Making Television is the Best Job in the World
— I really love being a TV Host because I get to be myself. I get to travel around the world and just be myself. Sure, the version of myself on camera is a little more “heightened” than the real me, but essentially it’s me. I spoke at the London School of Economics a few years back and a few people in the audience came up to me afterwards and were blown away by the fact that I’m essentially the same person off camera as on camera. And of course I replied, “Who else should I be?”.
#3: Social Media is So Important
- So much of being on television is connecting with your audience, and so much of connecting with your audience these days is about staying active on social media and keeping people up to date about where you are and what’s going on and connecting with real people in real time. Luckily, I really enjoy having people connect with me on social media and keep the conversation going online. Recently I was filming an episode of Extreme Treks in Jordan and fans on Instagram where giving me “real time” tips about where I should visit for filming and some good restaurants I should try. I love the interactions, keep them coming!
#4: Making Television is Compromise, Compromise, Compromise
- The more television I host, the more interest I have in also producing and directing and when we put together bigger projects, that means a lot of compromise. Working closer with bigger broadcasters and corporate partners means having to juggle a lot of demands and a lot of different visions for a project. It’s important to make sure everyone feels “heard” and all the partners have input in the project. Doing all of that, accepting those compromises, without watering-down your original idea is an absolute skill.
#5: Traveling the World is NOT As Glamorous As People Think…..It’s Work.
— I spend about 300 days a year on the road either filming or at speaking engagements around the world. It’s incredible to have the opportunity to film in so many amazing locations and meet so many wonderful people, and I am forever grateful for all of these opportunities, but wow……that’s a lot of airports and hotels. In the last 12 months I’ve had the great pleasure of filming in Canada, Russia, Iceland, Laos, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, Jordan and Uganda. Between that, I’m in the US and China once a month. Gotta keep busy. I love being creative and making connections with like-minded individuals.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.
I would love to have breakfast with Reed Hastings, the co-founder, CEO and Chairman of Netflix. For someone who works and travels as much as I do the Video and Television on Demand technology is game changing. Now that the technology is moving forward the push to deliver original content with some of the most creative minds in the world is changing the landscape for the entire industry. Not only was Reed ahead of the game, some could suggest that Netflix is still in a leading position with Amazon, Hulu and soon Disney closely behind.