Exclusive: Nat Geo Explorer’s host Phil Keoghan on a life well traveled and new season

Emmy award-winning Producer, guest speaker, and host of the Amazing Race, Phil Keoghan is the shiny new “get” for National Geographic Explorer.

It’s easy to see why. When you meet Keoghan, his vitality immediately fills the space.

These qualities were not lost on the National Geographic Channel, who nabbed the Amazing Race host as one of their star journalists to put in the field for the long-running series.

Explorer had ended in 2011 and then was restarted again under the production guidance of Nat Geo’s Tim Pastore and was hosted by British journalist Richard Bacon, whom Keoghan is now replacing.

Keoghan is a multi-hyphenate active TV personality, a bonafide elite cyclist, and is best known as the host and executive producer of CBS’ The Amazing Race.

Now, Keoghan is part of this reinvigorated National Geographic’s Explorer series that still holds to its core premise.

He began his journey with National Geographic last year, hosting Earth Live with Jane Lynch and that success spurred the network to propose he host for Explorer.

The series dovetails with all of Keoghan’s skillsets, as the doc he produced, Le Ride, is about testing human endurance, as is The Amazing Race.  Segueing to Explorer with Nat Geo was a natural fit.

Phil is quite possibly the most well-traveled TV host and reporter on the planet. Born in New Zealand, his travels began as a child and he hasn’t stopped since.

Keoghan travels the world and finds the story worth telling. Pic credit: Phil Keoghan
Keoghan travels the world and finds the story worth telling. Pic credit: Phil Keoghan

It was a near-death experience at the age of 19 that kicked Keoghan into reevaluating his life and how to lead it.

He wrote a list of things to do before he died, as his “Tick-it Before You Kick-it!” philosophy was turned into a best selling book called, No Opportunity Wasted, which has morphed into a compelling podcast series BUCKiT.

In total (and still going) Phil has accrued near 30 years in television, traveling to over 100 countries to create a BUCKiT list full of adventures.

Active and fit, Keoghan is a die-hard cyclist and rode the 1928 route of the Tour de France all on a 1928 bicycle, rode a bike from LA to New York, skied on an active volcano and then had a fancy meal amidst lava flows, and accomplished underwater feats of derring-do most people imagine but never try.

Le Ride is Keoghan's film about the Tour de France in 1928
Le Ride is Keoghan’s film about the Tour de France in 1928

We joined Phil Keoghan in Villafranca de Penedes, Spain and chatted about his new role at Explorer and his amazing career.

Monsters and Critics: Phil, this was a really interesting segment for Explorer, how many Explorer segments are you doing this season?

Phil Keoghan becomes part of the Human Tower as a Castell in Villafranca del Penedes, Spain - Pic credit: National Geographic/Xavi Torrent
Phil Keoghan becomes part of the Human Tower as a Castell in Villafranca del Penedes, Spain – Pic credit: National Geographic/Xavi Torrent

Phil Keoghan: Well, this is number 11 for me. How many more have I got to shoot? I’ve got two more to shoot. So I’ve got one in Africa, one in Zambia. And then a NASCAR story in Charlotte.

M&C: You were immersed with a Catalonian family whose young daughter was the very top part of a human tower?

Phil Keoghan: Caral is a young girl who was insistent that she take part with the Castells and she’s the one that got her family into it, to be honest.

Her family knew about the Castells.  The Castells are people who love building these human towers. But this young girl, for whatever reason, had this desire to be one of the kids that climb to the top of the towers.

Obviously, they put the young, small light people at the top of the towers and she, at a very early age…I think they said she was about three when she first expressed some interest and she just kept insisting that she get an opportunity.

They didn’t want her to do it in the beginning because they thought, “well, this is so dangerous,” and in the end, they couldn’t ignore her.

Now she is one of the primary kids that climbs for this group here in this area of Catalonia. And it’s like a big family.

M&C: What was your biggest takeaway from this segment of Explorer for you personally?

Phil Keoghan: Biggest takeaway was just a sense of unity, camaraderie, sense of belonging, pride. I was amazed at how open they were to us just joining them, couldn’t seem like a big deal to them that we walked in and that they let me be a part of it.

I was really in the thick of it. I mean quite literally in the middle of this tower, but it really did show the power of what happens when people have a collective goal and the fact that everybody has a tiny part to play, but, and a crucial part to play.

Keoghan talking to Paul in Villafranca del Penedes, Spain - Pic credit: National Geographic- Xavi Torrent
Keoghan talking to Paul in Villafranca del Penedes, Spain – Pic credit: National Geographic. Pic credit: Xavi Torrent

And yesterday, seeing these different groups, there were four different groups that came to the square that they came to the plaza that were, I guess you could say technically competing against each other even though there’s no a really official prize for who builds the best human tower.

But even though they belonged to different groups, they were really part of one collective, which was this idea of putting on a good display.

So at times there were literally lending their own weight to the other groups. They wanted to see each other succeed and I thought that was really cool.

There are some people that I know who do things just for the love of it rather than for a prize for an end goal if you like. They’re not looking for the trophy or the medal. They’re just doing things for the sake of doing them well and that’s sort of what I got from this was that rich and poor and old and young.

Once everybody put their uniforms on, they were just a collective group of passionate people coming together to do something. It didn’t matter what your background was, but they shared this focus, so it reminded me of what families really should be about.

M&C: You’ve been in television a long time, you’re new to them, you’re new to the Explorer family. What does Explorer mean to you and where is the series evolving to this season with you?

Phil Keoghan:  I feel like the series is trying to get back to what it was because for a little while, I think they were trying some new things that didn’t really pan out.  I think they’re trying to get back to the roots of the show or what I know, that’s the show that I first saw in 1992. And that’s the show that excited me.

That’s the show that I wanted to be involved with and the one that I tried to get involved with 26 years ago, and so the fact that I now have this opportunity and that they’re trying to go back to what it was for me is really exciting.

To me, is about being curious about the world.

We want to allow people to vicariously slow the world through the journeys of the various correspondents and through our eyes. We will have a different filter for how we see the world.

We want to bring people out into the world and open their eyes up to what’s out there. I think of this sort of one underlying word for the series, it’s the idea of hope and curiosity and that through being curious about the world, we will find some hope because I think we need it.

There’s a lot of shows out there that are already doing a very good job at focusing on what’s wrong. And I feel we can’t ignore any good story and sometimes in those stories, there are things going wrong, but I also believe that people need to walk away from Explorer feeling some sense of, it’s going to be okay.

Because there has to be, I guess, a show that focuses on this idea that I have, that it’s important for us to focus on what we do have and what we can do as opposed to what we don’t have and what we can’t do.

Because otherwise what’s the point of carrying on in the world? There’s enough to get us down and to make us feel like we’ve lost direction and lost hope.

I want our show to inspire and want to get people to get out and explore in their own way.

Whether it’s just their own neighborhood, where they live or whether it is out into the world. When I look into the camera, I’m trying to talk to one person sitting at home and have them come and join me on something. And we need to be sharing the stories in front of a camera. Not becoming the stories if that makes sense.

When I’m with characters like Paul…my job is to facilitate and to bring out the best in [all of] them, it’s less about where we are and what we’re doing and more about the people we are with and what they’re doing. We’re just a conduit to be able to tell that story.

I think some shows, [and] the people in front of the cameras, they jump into the story, but then the story becomes about them in that situation more than it is about the [actual] story.

If you plug somebody into a situation where suddenly they’re being fired at in the middle of an ambush or are in some Civil War, now it’s all about the journalist being shot at…I sometimes question, “Well, what story you’re trying to tell?” “Did you just put yourself in that situation to create a story? Or are you there to tell the story of those people who are fighting to change their way of life?”

Okay, are you a storyteller or are you trying to make this story [of you being there] be the story?

M&C: You were put in harm’s way in Explorer in some ways. Not deliberately… but you’re in situations that can be dangerous…

In Moab, UT as the Explorer crew films Phil Keoghan at the Looking Glass Arch in Moab. Pic credit: National Geographic/Michael Churton
In Moab, UT as the Explorer crew films Phil Keoghan at the Looking Glass Arch in Moab. Pic credit: National Geographic/Michael Churton

Phil Keoghan:  I think I’ve always believed that there are two ways to tell a story. You can tell the story from the outside looking in or you can jump into the story and tell it from the inside.

It’s just that once you’re inside the story, it’s important to make the focus on what the story was that you were setting out to do in the first place.

So my goal is with the characters that we had, like Paul and the young girl’s family is to make them the center of the story. And if you do that, I think inherently you become part of the story, but you’re not making it about you. You’re making it about them.

My thing is to try to make them shine. That’s my job. The better I make them look, the better the story will be.

M&C: Gear switch. Anything that you want to say about Amazing Race or that experience has shaped you as a journalist? 

Phil Keoghan:  I think probably the best training that I got for this particular show was when I did a show called Breakfast Time back in 1994 until almost ’98, four years, I went to a different place in America every other week for almost four years.

I think I clocked up something like 800 stories or something…And so I’d be in Zanesville, Ohio for a week and I would have five stories in that one spot for a week. And so we had a satellite truck, a camera, I had an associate producer working with me. And then my goal was to have to go to do these live stories from wherever I was in America.

I went to all 50 states. I did everything from cleaning the inside of the tank of Coney island to changing a light bulb in Verrazano bridge to being in… Gosh, I was in mines in Montana and glaciers in Alaska and I was hand feeding sharks live in the Bahamas.

And because there were live, we had to really work out in a very short amount of time, how we were going to structure those stories. But just that repetition of day in, day out, I used to do a live piece about a science store that was in the New York Times every Thursday.

And my job was to take a high concept scientific article and to distill it into something that was digestible for the audience every week. And so that really gave me a tremendous amount of time and I guess some skills in terms of disseminating information and trying to put it out into some digestible form, making it entertaining and interesting to people but having it have real substance.

On Amazing Race, the best lessons that I’ve got from that is just being able to see, again, more of the world.  I mean, before I started on Amazing Race I had worked in 60 countries, I worked on various Discovery shows and actually years ago my business partners and I, we sold a show to the National Geographic back in 2000.

But with the 18 years now that I’ve been doing that show, just seeing the world and seeing so much of it. I have a shorter amount of time to again distill the essence of being in a place where someone makes leather goods in say Morocco and I’ve got to take all of that research and distill it down to something really poignant and concise.

Because I have less time than I do here where I can really pontificate about different things and really allow the story to breathe, [and] with Race I had these little nuggets inside the show. Yes. So it’s a totally different skill to be able to even drill in even further right down into cutting it down into little pieces.

M&C: Talk about your BUCKiT podcast.

Phil Keoghan:  I love working with big collaborative groups, but one of the things that can happen is it can become quite clunky in terms of being a storyteller.

There are a lot of different points of view and there were a lot of different opinions. And we work in a subjective business just like you do when you have different points of view, one point of view isn’t necessarily right over another. It’s just a different point of view.

You have a strong idea about some story you want to tell and you want to tell it in a certain way. And then sometimes you have to make certain compromises where you feel you’re getting away from the essence of something that you really feel strongly about.

I’ve always had these projects that a lot of them that I’ve done with my wife Louise and producing partners since 1989, is when we first met and we are very aligned creatively. We really work well together.

The things that I’m not good at, she’s very good at and vice versa. It’s a great collaboration and we’ve created a number of shows together. Some with critical success but not commercially successful and some commercially successful that I don’t necessarily think of that were as good as some other ones that didn’t do well commercially.

We’ve always felt very aligned and recently, we did a film that’s now on Hulu called Le Ride, which was handmade right down to one of the shooters on Explorer with me and who just worked with me on Amazing Race, he’s one of our collaborative partners we’ve been working with for 25 years.

We did this documentary where it was just two cameramen and that was pretty much it on the road from a production standpoint. And while it’s incredibly difficult to do these kinds of projects, it’s incredibly rewarding because it’s just you, it’s scary at times.

But we started talking about, “well, okay, that film took five years of work and archival material and digging around the world and self-funding the whole thing. What is something that we could do where we have a creative outlet that we can turn around much quicker and when where can tell stories that we want to tell and cut them that way we want to cut them?”

We landed on the idea of doing a podcast. And I wrote a book, it’s called No Opportunity Wasted, was a best seller back in 2004, I wrote it. And the underlying message was eight ways to live the life you want.

The various chapters revolved around the idea of facing your fear, taking a leap of faith, breaking new ground, rediscovering your childhood. Aiming for the heart, doing something for somebody else. And so, I’ve had this life list ever since a near death experience at 19 and so I wanted to do something that was a little more expansive.

I feel like there are so many amazing voices out there with really inspirational stories. And going back to my point about why I love to explore this idea that we need some hope.

I thought, well, wouldn’t it be great if I could share people’s stories that I really find engaging and give them a platform to be able to share inspirational stories that will make people want to go out and do their own adventures?

There was this line that I came up with based on my own list of things to do before I died — tick it before you kick it. Then the sort of underlying philosophy of that is BUCKiT, like a little bit like  f*** it,

I’m just going to do it. Life is short. So hence the IT rather than the bucket. I’ve spoken to people who are astronauts and they’re mavericks, they’re eccentrics.

M&C: Exemplary achievers.

Phil Keoghan: Yes, human beings who have ditched the excuses and just said, I’m going to get on and get to make the most of my life. And so far we’ve had just really wonderful people.

What’s interesting now is that, we didn’t really do any immediate push because we wanted to build a library of these interviews so that when people discover it, they can see that there’s a bank of it because a lot of times what happens, you find something that you want to go in and binge listen and watch because we’re shooting a video version.

It was my wife’s idea to shoot them in black and white. We’ve preserved them in 4K so they are Evergreen, so they’ll live online and video version, but most people will be listening to them and because I figured, if you sit down with somebody like Noel Blanc, Mel Blanc’s son who’s now in his eighties, we want that interview to live forever.

And so now we have him telling his dad’s story and his interaction with his dad. We have it all preserved. So we’re also capturing an important human story.

M&C: You’re not just limiting any genre or discipline.

Phil Keoghan: No. And that’s where I feel like the beauty of what we’re tackling is it’s specific and it’s in the parameters of who’s booked, but it’s also not limited.

We’re not doing a show about nutrition or a sport or tips on how to make better use of your computer, all of which are valid by the way. But what I feel I’m able to do is to be very broad because I could have a computer guy and I could also have a sports guy, an Olympian, and a truck driver.

It doesn’t really matter because all they really need to do is to have this spirit and the zest for life and an inspirational story to share.

M&C: What was your own detour? What happened to you when you were 19?

Phil Keoghan: Well, that was a near death experience that I had when I first started out as a host. A diving story that I did and I got disconnected from my diving partner and didn’t know where I was inside a massive shipwreck, in New Zealand.

It was a life-changing experience, it forced me to sit down and write a list of things to do before I died and that really became a catalyst for how I’ve lived my life.

A lot of things that were on that list ended up becoming career goals. This was way back in 1988. I made a show for Discovery years ago. It was called Adventure Crazy and it was based on my list of things to do before I died.

I went around the world and broke a world record, bungee jumping and dive the world’s longest underwater caves and dined on top of the volcano with a five-star chef and dived in the ocean. And I mean, I just had the craziest list of things to do.

As I’ve got older, my list has become less selfish and more meaningful I hope. But like one of the things on there was to raise a million dollars for a charity. And so in 2009, I rode my bike across America to raise money for MS and we achieved that goal.

M&C: Why MS?

Phil Keoghan:  It was random. What happened was that my wife and I were asked to sponsor a local cycling team in California.

And it just so happened that they were aligned with the MS Society and that those young kids who are up and coming, professional cyclists, and had the potential to be professional Olympics cyclists, and that their payback was to take part in the bike MS Rides.

There’s 150 of them around the country every year. When we sponsored it, we got involved in those rides. Then I met people with MS, and that I [soon] found out and realized I had MS in my immediate family.

We ended up making a film out of that adventure across America. Showtime picked it up and we gave 100% of all the profits from that film away.

Then, Tom Sherak, who was the former president of the Motion Picture Academy, he saw the film and then he said, “I want to take it into the theaters.”

Suddenly this film that was again, it was literally in the fields. It was just me and that guy Scott. That was it. And we rode across America 100 miles a day from New York to LA through Chicago. Soon that film made over a million dollars. And it cost nothing.

We worked with all the CBS affiliates to raise money and the MS society and people like Bonnie Hunt really got behind it.

So when her show was on, she was doing these live feeds to me out on the road and I would Skype into the show… it still is perhaps the most rewarding thing that we’ve been involved with just to be able to be in something outside yourself.

I’ve always tended to gravitate towards things that people tell me I can’t do like coming to America. People told me “Nobody’s gonna put a New Zealand guy on TV in America,” seriously.

M&C: And you showed them.

In Ashland, Maine as Explorer Host, Phil Keoghan, is on top of a dormant volcano known as Haystack Mountain. Pic credit: National Geographic/Michael Churton
In Ashland, Maine as Explorer Host, Phil Keoghan, is on top of a dormant volcano known as Haystack Mountain. Pic credit: National Geographic/Michael Churton

Phil Keoghan: Well, not even so much show them. It’s just, I guess what I’ve learned over the years and what I say to people is that you have to have blind faith in… If you have a real passion for something, you got to just go for it because nobody can tell you that something can’t be done.

If you truly believe you can do something, you may not end up doing that specific thing, but it will lead you to something new and different and new and different is what changes the world.

When I hear people tell me I can’t do something, I tend to think, well, maybe I’ve made the right decision. Maybe because they think it can’t be done.

There’s all the more reason that I’m meant to do that, like retracing the 1928 Tour de France on an original 1928 Tour de France bike, people are like, “There’s no way. How could you ride 150 miles a day on average and use one of those old bikes, you’re out of your mind.” So I was like oh, I think that’s what I’m meant to be doing.

It makes it all the more rewarding when you actually get through it and you get through achieving it.

So with this show, with Explorer, I’ve said it, I said it to National Geographic. I said that, I want to be convinced that I’m the right guy for the job too because it needs to fall into my sweet spot of storytelling, meaning I want to be the best that I can be on the show, if that makes sense.

I don’t want to be trying to fit myself into something that isn’t me just having been around in front of a camera now for 30 years. I know what works for me and so I don’t want to get out of my sweet spot of or get out of my comfort zone from the point of view of being the best storyteller that I can be.

I know what works for me and people either like it or they don’t like it, but so it has to make sense. Sometimes you see somebody on a show and you’re just like, I don’t get it. Why is that person, or that actor? It could be an actor. It’s just sometimes people don’t look like they belong and there has to be an authenticity to it.

There has to be a reason. The audience cannot question why is that person doing that show? That’s the guy that should be doing that job. It has to be. And if the audience believes it and then you believe it and then people believe in you, then you can bring something to it.

You can take it somewhere, but there can never be a question in my mind as to… And I think some shows struggle with that.

You can’t undo that. Once people get it in their head that, that’s not quite right, you can’t change their minds.

Explorer airs Mondays at 10/9 c on National Geographic Channel

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