Outward Bound

KUAT adds mystery, adventure and a new host to the 12th season of 'The Desert Speaks.'

From the crowded metropolis of New York to the distinctly non-crowded deserts of the West, the tragedy of September 11 has affected us all in unforeseen ways. For the production crew of KUAT-TV's internationally known show, The Desert Speaks, the long-awaited unveiling of a new season had to be postponed. But the show is now ready to debut, after the 9/11 bump in the road for a crew that has had years of experience coping with the unexpected.

"We've survived hurricanes, escaped flash floods, dodged lightning strikes, fled from engulfing fires, been swarmed by killer bees and been rushed by angry 800-pound animals," says Dan Duncan, videographer for the acclaimed KUAT/PBS television documentary show. "I've hung out of helicopters, over the sides of canoes and had the soles of my shoes melted on 130-degree lava flows. You do whatever is necessary, make whatever extra effort is required, to get the story told."

A jewel in public TV's star-studded lineup, the locally produced The Desert Speaks takes new twists and turns this season--new technology, a new host, new deserts and a new format. "We're adding mystery and adventure in Year 12," says producer Fran Sherlock. "We'll still deal with plants, animals, people and places, but we're broadening the scope of the show into deserts of the world and how they relate to our Sonoran Desert."

One difference contrasting past programming with the new is an element of fun. "We used to present natural history in somewhat of a classroom style, A then B then C," says producer Tom Kleespie. "The new shows are not just presentation of fact, but a real interactive get-your-feet-wet experience to help learn just how special deserts are. We're going to take the stories we tell about Sonoran sand--our soul, if you will--and give PBS the new twist they seek, while still maintaining our conscience."

The new program host is environmentalist/scientist David Yetman, a former Pima County supervisor and frequent interviewee on earlier shows, who brings his trademark felt hat and innate curiosity to the job. Experienced and comfortable after years of trekking through deserts, Yetman can still appreciate the humor and irony of episodes such as when he crossed the mighty Rio Grande from Texas into the Chihuahuan desert of Mexico in a little dinghy called La Enchilada. "You talk about international issues and international boundaries," says producer Kleespie with a laugh, "but what you're really talking about is people--two worlds separated by a stone's throw."

Scheduling the new show premiere turned out to be quite a challenge. When the twin towers collapsed in terrorist attacks last fall, it set in motion a series of events that ultimately caused a revamping of shows in the new lineup. "Nine-one-one shifted the football schedule around and moved Superbowl Sunday to February 3, the night of our scheduled premiere," says Sherlock.

Rather than fight football fever, the KUAT crew added a 14th show, a new half-hour introduction that will give viewers a sample of the whole new series. That sneak preview will air on February 3 with the first of the 13 new episodes ("Argentina's Upside-Down Desert," Part I) to be broadcast the following Sunday.

Another change in this season's shows is a process conversion involving digital technology, a move to high-definition post-production that will offer wider pictures and enhanced imagery through improved resolution. Unfortunately, Tucson won't notice much change. "Nobody in town is broadcasting high definition yet," says Sherlock. "It will look good locally because it's digital, but we won't get the full effect of high definition that major markets will enjoy. We're hoping sometime in 2003."

Despite advancing technology, shows about the natural environment still have to be shot in remote locations. "Our days in the field are long, and sweat equity is a part of the process," says Kleespie. "It's great to visit these fascinating places, but we work hard while we're there, often stuck out in the desert hovering under a tarp." He remembers a couple of trips to one spot in the Mohave Desert. It was below freezing and covered with six inches of snow on the first visit, and nearly 120 degrees and almost unbearable on a return journey months later. Sherlock notes: "This isn't a 40-hour-a-week job, and there's not always an air-conditioned motel nearby. We put our hearts, as well as our backs and our minds, into producing the show."

Lensman Duncan has instant recall about another shoot at a remote site where the crew was required to rappel down an 800-foot vertical rock face before they could even begin to film. And crewmembers have come to accept that snakes, scorpions, centipedes and other desert dwellers are frequent bit players in their movies.

Still, crewmembers wouldn't settle for nine-to-five desk jobs because there's so much more to be done. "We're always looking ahead for different challenges," Sherlock says. "When we run out of new and exciting ideas, we'll consider pulling the plug rather than go stale. But that won't happen for a long time because we learn something new each time we visit desert terrain."

Sherlock, Kleespie and Duncan are like kids with a secret, and they can't wait to share the new shows with viewers. In fact, six days after the first of the 2002 series is shown, the crew will be halfway down the Pacific Coast of Baja, at San Ignacio, filming gray whales for a 2003 program. "There's nothing quite like being close to a creature this immense," says Kleespie. "The whales are friendly. They'll come up to your boat and allow themselves to be petted. You're looking eyeball-to-huge-eyeball, about three feet away from a gargantuan beast--wow!" Fun stuff.

After 11 years and more than 140 shows, The Desert Speaks is poised on a new threshold. "This series continues to breathe fresh air," says Duncan.

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