Local travel show earns regional acclaim with Emmy nominations

Amy Hess, left, the host of The Local Traveler, stands by as photographers Matt Webb, center, and Mike Benton place a microphone on Midway Bakery owner Ouita Michel. Their show travels throughout Kentucky and Tennessee.
Amy Hess, left, the host of The Local Traveler, stands by as photographers Matt Webb, center, and Mike Benton place a microphone on Midway Bakery owner Ouita Michel. Their show travels throughout Kentucky and Tennessee. Lexington Herald-Leader

MIDWAY — The Midway School Bakery is ready for its close-up.

As a golden glow begins pouring through the windows of the cafeteria-turned-sweet shop, bakers turn cold dough into irresistible confections, customers whisk in and out with goodies in hand, lights are set, and a microphone is affixed to owner Ouita Michel's collar.

She's about to sit down at one of her restaurant tables to chat with host Amy Hess for a segment of The Local Traveler.

Michel is familiar with Hess' production, having had her other restaurants — the Holly Hill Inn and Wallace Station — profiled on the show. But Hess and her crew are still working to make a name for themselves with the regional production that airs on Gray Communications TV stations in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Helping to raise the show's profile are a trio of regional Emmy nominations for the show, including one for Hess for best program host and two for Hess and director Mike Benton for best magazine program segment for portions of the show. The winners will be announced Saturday at the Ohio Valley Regional Emmy Awards in Cincinnati.

"We are really hoping that three Emmy nominations will help us raise our profile and get some better timeslots and on in more markets," Hess said.

Local Traveler currently airs at 11:30 p.m. Saturdays on WKYT-TV and 6 a.m. Sundays on CWKYT in Lexington, and at 7 a.m. Sundays and 7 p.m. Wednesdays on WYMT-TV in Hazard. It is also carried on WBKO-TV in Bowling Green and WVLT in Knoxville, all properties of Gray, which funds the show.

The show already has an Emmy for best magazine program to its credit for its pilot episode, which was then titled "Go Local" and took viewers to locations including the Ale-8-One plant in Winchester and the Louisville Glassworks.

Hess came up with idea for the program while contemplating her next career move.

The sunny and self-effacing host spent 13 years in Los Angeles training as an actress as institutions such as the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Groundlings, and grabbing film credits such as Beverly Hills 90210 and In the Heat of the Night. Deciding L.A. wasn't for her, she came back home to Kentucky and did some regional film work but needed to find something more consistent.

"I had a few ideas of businesses of my own," Hess says. "But what I discovered was maybe my talent was helping to get the word out about the other great businesses and attractions we have in Kentucky and Tennessee."

For the initial episode, "Go Local," she teamed with filmmaker Jason Epperson who gained notoriety in 2007 as a finalist in the Fox director competition show On the Lot.

While that first show was a success, Hess says Epperson's own filmmaking endeavors prevented him from committing to a full 40-episode season.

So Hess turned to Benton.

"I had worked with Mike on some commercial shoots and other things together and knew that he was very talented and great at what he did, so we started talking about the possibility of doing a series," says Hess, who adds that he went with her to pitch the show to WKYT.

Rounding out the Local Traveler team is photographer and editor Matt Webb, who puts most of the episodes together.

Working through the morning, their banter is much more about the sights, sounds and — most importantly — smells surrounding them. Directions are unspoken, except determining locations for interviews.

"About 34, 35 episodes in, we pretty much have it down to a science, so there isn't much to say," Benton says.

Hess works mostly with the people who will be on camera, even getting general manager and head pastry chef Carrie Warmbier miked up for a kitchen segment.

Most Local Traveler episodes involve Hess getting involved in the business, a sort of Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame, without the dirt. Well, usually no dirt.

In her adventures, Hess has ridden a camel at Circle G Ranch near Knoxville, boxed chocolates at Old Kentucky Chocolates and attempted to steal the Bush's baked bean recipe, after proving she could not operate a can opener.

The crew has also had adventures, particularly trying to reach some remote mountain locations where a lack of cell phone service rendered their GPS units useless.

Local Traveler travels light, shooting episodes with small digital SLR cameras and minimal additional lighting.

Benton says the DSLRs are ideal for shooting in low light and giving the shows a photograph-like quality.

Business owners like the compact production that does not interfere with their operations.

"They're very respectful of our time and customers," says Michel, who says each time one of her establishments has been profiled on Local Traveler, she's seen an uptick in business.

Benton adds that with the smaller operation, people act more natural around the Local Traveler cameras.

On the flipside, Hess says she asks prospective businesses being featured on the show to look at a few episodes, "so they understand what we are doing, and that even though it's these small cameras, it's not like Wayne's World, like some girl in her bedroom with a blog."

Most episodes profile three locations, though some, like a visit to Shaker Village, focus on one. So after a 40-episode season, that's more than 100 businesses and attractions. But Hess says she feels no need for the show to start repeating itself.

"Since we cover so much of Kentucky and Tennessee, we have a lot of places we can go," she says. "And we are hoping we can look at some places nearby, like up in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky."

Like any good business, The Local Traveler wants to expand its market. And some new Emmy hardware wouldn't hurt.


'The Local Traveler'

Lexington: 11:30 p.m. Sat. WKYT-TV 27-1 (Time-Warner Ch. 9), 6 a.m. Sun. CWKYT-TV 27-2 (TW Ch. 5). Hazard: 7 a.m. Sun., 7 p.m. Weds. WYMT-TV 57-1. Online: