Few people have what it takes to turn a personal blog into a nationally broadcasted travel show. Ernest White II, who has circumnavigated the globe six times and visited some 70 countries, is one of those few.
We caught up with Ernest White II, the creator and host of the new travel show Fly Brother with Ernest White II, which airs on various public television stations. He shared what it took to turn his personal blog into a travel show. Ernest recalled the exact moment he realized the importance of his work — 12,000 feet up in a Tajikistan castle as the first US crew to explore the remote destination.
Falling in love with travel early on, Earnest collected maps and travel brochures as a child. He lived abroad for the first time as a high school exchange student in Sweden, which further ignited his passion for exploration. To date, Ernest has visited over 70 countries, lived in five, and filmed in 10. While the pandemic has delayed the production of the show’s second season, the travel pause has been somewhat of a blessing in disguise for Ernest and his crew.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing and how you got into traveling.
I’m originally from Jacksonville, Florida. Both of my parents are teachers, so I grew up in a solid, middle-class household with all of my needs and a few of my wants met. From a very early age, I was really interested in reading books about different cultures, travel, and escapes.
When I was a kid, the wife of the preacher of my church gave me this book called Free Stuff for Kids. In that book, you can order all kinds of stuff through the mail, but what really interested me were the addresses of the tourism boards of different states, cities, and countries. You could send them a postcard, and they would send you all the stuff in the mail — that was all before the Internet. So, I’d get maps and guides and posters, and I liked collecting all of that in a huge file cabinet that my mom got me. Anything that was a travel brochure about going somewhere, I collected.
Eventually, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Sweden as a foreign exchange student when I was 16, and that’s when everything just changed.
How did you get into the travel show industry?
I always wanted to be a writer and to live abroad. I got my degree in political science and was looking at foreign service at a certain point, but then ended up getting my master’s in creative writing and got certified to teach English as a second language. By the time I graduated, I moved to Colombia to teach while I wrote. While I was there, I started a blog that soon moved from a personal journal to travel advice. Eventually, it gained some traction, and I participated in a couple of TV show episodes on the Travel Channel.
Then, a couple of years later while I was living in Brazil as a journalist, a buddy from college needed travel content for his network. He said that they couldn’t pay me, but they’d give me all the support I needed. I resisted it at first because I didn’t want to be on TV; I wanted to write. Eventually, I used some industry connections to get a little bit of funding and put a production team together.
While we were filming that first season, sadly that start-up network went dark — they ran out of money. But a friend of mine in the travel industry suggested public television, and we started a couple of conversations, and that’s how we ended up on public television.
You’ve filmed at a range of destinations. Is there a moment you can recall as your proudest?
In Tajikistan. We ended up at this 3,000-year-old Silk Road castle. It was at 12,000 feet of altitude. We were the third camera crew ever to visit that place; the first was from Russia, the second from South Korea, and we were the first English-speaking team to visit. The experience of being alone there in itself was quite humbling. They call it the Machu Picchu of Central Asia, and the seclusion plus mountain views both on the Tajik and Afghan side were just spectacular. It showed me just how ground-breaking this project is.
What challenges have you faced while filming the show?
The funding just wasn’t there. This started as an independent, boot-strapped production. We didn’t have a major investor behind us. We did it all piece by piece. Our first investor was a wonderful lady, Dr. Yvette McQueen who believed in the mission of connectivity. She traveled as well and had some resources she could devote to what we were doing, and so it’s been that kind of thing — people who aren’t necessarily media investors who up to now have been supportive. That’s phenomenal but also challenging. There were lots of times when we were operating on the faith that the resources would just show up, and they have, but sometimes it’s the very last minute and can be stressful.
How big is your crew?
At times, we’ve had just me and my cameraman, Pedro Serra who’s phenomenal. Then, when we are especially lucky, we can bring in a camera and sound person. We were able to take Juliana Nicolini to Tajikistan. It was wonderful to have her and it was unique to have a woman in this role. Even in the US, people usually don’t associate women with production even though there have always been women in production. It’s important for people on the ground to see that we have different types of people working towards a singular goal.
How are you dealing with COVID-19 putting everything on pause? Do you think that you’ll still be able to accomplish some of the goals you set for yourself for 2020?
We were set to film the first episode of season two in April and, of course, that trip got canceled. We didn’t realize how much work was going to go into the roll-out of season one on public television. I imagine it would have been even more stressful to release the first season while filming the second simultaneously. This has altered our plan and stretched our timeline a bit, but not in a bad way.
The other aspect is that the pandemic got people at home in front of the TV, so we’ve had a more attentive audience.
Where can we watch Fly Brother with Ernest White II?
At the moment, it’s broadcast only on Public Television Station; however, we are in negotiation for streaming, which means that we’re hoping that you’d be able to see it on streaming platforms later in the year. Stay tuned and visit our website, Fly Brother.
Given everything that’s happening in the US and around the world with the Black Lives Matter movement, do you have anything you want to share on the subject?
Absolutely! Visibility is crucial. Without the visibility of the videos that we have showing abuses, without the camera footage, there wouldn’t be awareness of where things need to be changing. I think that visibility is required on every level, not just when you got abuses but also when you’ve got wins and celebrations.
You need visibility in places when diversity isn’t historically represented, such as having women in production. It’s important to see Black doctors and Latino attorneys and Asian basketball players, in every field of human endeavor, no matter what they look like and no matter where they are from. The more we see that, the more it becomes normalized, as it should be. I’m a Black, gay, American travel host, one of the first, and it makes me special because it makes me relatable, and that is empowering people by showing them that they too can do and be anything they want.