Highbrows hit the high seas with NPR, PBS

Good afternoon, I’m Michele Norris afloat on the high seas somewhere between Beijing and Bangkok … 

If that sounds intriguing, you may want to block off the last two weeks in March 2013 and join the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and other icons of the airwaves for the first-ever Public Radio at Sea cruise.

Presumably, karaoke, comedy acts and belly flop contests will not be part of the itinerary.

Instead, the 16-night cruise aboard the Regent Seven Seas Voyager will offer the opportunity to explore several Asian cities while rubbing shoulders with the likes of Norris, David Greene and several other NPR reporters and producers.

“This isn’t like going to a radio station event where you hear Jim Lehrer talk for 20 minutes and then go home,” said Kevin Corcoran, president of Artful Travelers, which helped the organize the cruise. “You’re sailing with these people for two weeks; it creates this level of intimacy where you get to know them and understand what makes them tick.”

Of course, this is not the first cruise with an intellectual bent as PBS, “National Review” and “The New York Times” have all partnered with cruise lines on sailings that offer world travel for wonky people.

“Not all cruises go to the Caribbean for seven days,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com. “There’s definitely a highbrow audience for cruising.”

That audience may be small but it appears to be growing. Among the options on the horizon:

  • A Civil War-themed cruise from New Orleans to Chattanooga, Tenn., on board the American Queen (Aug. 9–21) with Ric Burns and Mark Samels of PBS’ “American Experience”
  • An “Iberian Tapestries” cruise from Barcelona to Lisbon on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner (Aug. 13–23) with Robert Siegel (“All Things Considered”), David Fanning (“Frontline”) and political analyst Charlie Cook
  • An “Election 2012” cruise from St. Louis to St. Paul (Sept. 27–Oct. 5) on board the American Queen with Gwen Ifill of PBS’ “Washington Week”
  • A “National Review” Caribbean cruise on board Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam (Nov. 11–18) with Mona Charen, Ed Gillespie, Ralph Reed and other leading conservatives

As with the above sailings, the goal of the Public Radio at Sea cruise is to forge a stronger bond between the organization and its supporters. And although a few NPR journalists have been previously recruited to appear on cruises presented by others, this sailing is designed to showcase the organization’s particular brand of journalism and its expertise in foreign affairs.

“It’s an opportunity for fans to get to know our journalists, how they do their work and what that experience is like,” said Dana Davis Rehm, head of communications for NPR. “The hope is that they’ll step forward and be more generous in the future.”

It’s good for Regent, too, says company president Mark Conroy. “In the luxury sector, great food, accommodations and itineraries are the table stakes,” he said. “What sets you apart from the competition is what else you do to keep customers engaged.”

It also makes sense in terms of the demographics despite the seeming disconnect between cruising, a decidedly escapist activity, and lectures on geopolitics and current affairs. “These are people who are interested in the world around them,” said Spencer Brown. “It’s a natural match if you niche it right.”

And if past public broadcasting cruises are any indication, the programming should also defuse any suspicions that the cruise will tilt too heavily to the “port” side of the political spectrum.

“A couple curmudgeon friends of mine who are very, very conservative were on a previous cruise with some public radio people,” said Conroy. “Afterward, one of them said to me, ‘You know, those NPR people aren’t quite as left-wing as I thought they were.’”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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