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Media: July 2011

| June 30, 2011

Music Integral To ‘Grannies On Safari’

The travel bug bit Regina Fraser at an early age. “My father [trumpeter Rex Stewart] was with Duke Ellington for about 15 years, and traveled all over the world with his orchestra,” she says. “He’d come back with a traveling trunk full of colorful stickers from all over the world. He’d point out the ones from France, Australia, Russia, and so on, and he was a great storyteller. I was fascinated, and thought, ‘I’d love to go to all of those places.'”

That’s exactly what she does with “Grannies On Safari” co-host Pat Johnson, with whom she checks out food and culture from India to Zanzibar to South Africa on Mondays at 5:30 p.m. on WTTW-Channel 11.

The Chicago-based duo include a lot of local music on the show; the Peru episode included an indigenous Incan folk troupe playing music related to the elements as well as Andean music and an Afro-Peruvian group.

“Music is really critical to us,” says Johnson, who’s been an avid traveler since she was a teen. Chicago jazz trumpeter and composer Orbert Davis, whom the pair has known for years, composed the show’s theme song. They also asked Carlsbad, California-based Afro-Venezuelan composer Allan Phillips to create music for the show, and he jumped at the chance. In 2008, “Grannies” won a regional Emmy Award for his music.

Fraser sits on the board of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and is a marketing, media, and communications strategist, while Johnson is an arts administrator. (Both are, indeed, grandmothers). They’d traveled in the same circles since the 1970s, but didn’t meet formally until they worked together on an international arts-exchange program in the mid-’90s. Fraser hit on the show idea in 2003, and asked Johnson if she wanted to be part of it – even though she had her hands full as founding director of the Museum Of The African Diaspora in San Francisco.

“I twisted her arm and made her quit and come back to Chicago to join me,” says Fraser. They sold their fur coats and Fraser drained her 401K to fund the first shows with help from Fraser’s husband and other family members. They’ve limped along financially, picking up sponsors here and there, until the current season, which is sponsored by the AARP. The pair also became involved with local initiatives serving seniors. “There’s still a lot to learn in this world – and travel is a good way to meet new people and expand your horizons,” says Johnson.

“When you travel, you have the ability to come back and tell family members about your experiences and inspire them to travel,” says Fraser. “If they don’t understand that the world doesn’t revolve around their immediate area, they’re going to lose out on making cultural connections and finding out where their place is in the greater world.”

The pair also lead tour groups, and made international news when they were in Cairo for a four-day cruise on the Nile during the January uprising and couldn’t get out. “It was kind of dicey,” says Johnson, recalling that the demonstrations became a full-fledged revolution in front of their eyes and they couldn’t get ahold of the U.S. State Department to get them out. The two had enough travel smarts to keep their group calm – including an 82-year-old grandmother from Columbus.

They’re currently kicking around ideas for season number four – ideal destinations include Brazil, Croatia, and Cuba – or perhaps even a trip on the trans-Siberian railroad.

“It depends on if we can get the necessary support for that,” says Johnson.

“Like funding!” says Fraser, without skipping a beat.

ODDS N SODS: Pilsen’s youth-run Latino community station Radio Arte (WRTE 90.5 FM) is slated to be sold by the National Museum Of Mexican Art, along with the two-story building that houses the station and its youth art-training program. The newly formed Latino Media Cooperative says it plans to bid on the 14-year-old station’s license, antenna, transmitter, name, and frequency. Chicago Public Media, DePaul University, and California’s Radio Bilinguë have also been mentioned as potential buyers. The 73-watt station covers a 14-mile radius and has been a broadcast home to hundreds of kids since the museum purchased a Class D radio station from the Boys And Girls Club Of Chicago a decade-and-a-half ago . . . Kudos to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) for launching an inquiry into former FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker‘s transition from Comcast regulator to Comcast senior vice president of public affairs just months after voting to approve Comcast’s merger with NBC-Universal. Perhaps she was trying to one-up former FCC Chair Michael Powell‘s gig heading up the National Cable And Telecommunications Association. Now, is urging FCC commissioners to take a pledge not to work for AT&T or T-Mobile – whose merger is under consideration – when they leave office. “Unless they take this public stand and stop the revolving door, public trust in government will be impossible to restore.” Um, what trust?

— Cara Jepsen

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Category: Columns, Media, Monthly

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