PROVO — Todd Hansen is agreeable, accommodating, cooperative and gracious. But let’s not call him comfortable.
He’s not asking the questions, he’s answering them. This is new territory for him. Like Tom Brady playing linebacker. Normally, it’s Hansen doing the encouraging, listening attentively, showing keen interest, probing for anecdotes. Now, the tables are turned. Tell us your story, the originator of the hit BYUtv series “The Story Trek,” is asked. If everyone has a story, tell us yours.
“The world would be really boring if everyone was like me,” Hansen said between squirms. “The minute my story gets on the air, the show would be canceled.”
But of course he’s speaking blasphemy and he knows it. If there is one absolute truth for Hansen and the television show he hosts it’s this: Everybody is important. No exceptions. Not even him.
For the past six years, “The Story Trek” has been a mainstay on BYUtv, the Brigham Young University-owned and operated station carried by some 800 cable systems in America, reaching 92 million homes. The show is Hansen’s brainstorm. The format is simple: Go to a random city, knock on a random door and do a story on the random person who answers.
So far, Hansen has made TV stars out of more than 500 people, with over 300 million still to go.
Some people turn him down. Some folks are wary. The "Story Trek" crew has had the police called on them. A woman in California once pulled out her gun, said they were trespassing. They got rejected at 43 straight doors one day in Kearns — that’s the record.
But overall, the reception is good. The six-member crew — two cameramen, an audio tech, two producers and the host — gets in about every fourth door, estimates Hansen, welcomed by “incredible people who have amazing stories.”
“I don’t know if other TV hosts approach their jobs like this,” he said, “but I see everybody as a child of God. Everybody is important, somebody special, with a compelling story to tell.”
The series’ secret sauce is Hansen’s ability to get people to believe their story is worth telling — and open up and spill it to him.
“People are scared to death at first, with the lights and the camera,” said Troy Slade, a "Story Trek" producer who has been on the road with Hansen the past four years. “But Todd has a way of quickly making it just him and them and that’s it. He sees things in interviews the rest of us don’t.”
Slade tells about the time they were knocking on doors in York, South Carolina, and a mentally handicapped man rode up on a moped and started talking to the crew.
“He wasn’t making a whole lot of sense and I’m thinking we’re wasting time here, burning daylight, let’s go,” Slade said. But not Hansen.
“Todd knew the guy had a story, he just wasn’t able to tell it himself, so Todd rounded up some neighbors and friends to tell it for him. It turned out the high school football coach was a lifetime friend who told some amazing things about the man’s life. That was a wonderful, wonderful story we won an Emmy for. If it would have been up to me, we’d have never stuck around to hear it.”
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When he was a kid growing up in Pleasant Grove, Hansen wouldn’t have stuck around either. “Painfully shy,” is how he describes himself back then. Didn’t talk to anyone unless he had to, and sometimes not even then.
“There probably isn’t anybody who knew me growing up who would have prognosticated I’d be a television host one day,” he said.
An LDS mission to Indiana helped him get a grip on his shyness. He went there after his freshman year at BYU, the college next door. When he returned two years later he got into broadcast journalism, of all things, a bastion of extroverts. He graduated in 1993 and found a job as a do-everything news reporter at KEPR in the Tri-Cities of Washington state, where he also anchored the 6 o’clock news.
Six months later he got an offer from a bigger station, Fox-13 in Salt Lake City. He spent 10 years there as reporter and weekend anchor until the daily grind, and sameness of the news, wore him down and he quit to become an entrepreneur. For the next five years he did a little of this and a little of that — marketing, sales, producing a reality TV show, commercial bank recruiting, working part time as a census worker — but his broadcasting roots did not lay dormant. In 2009, when a friend called to tell him BYUtv was looking to do some programming changes, he showed up at the executive producer’s door with no less than 20 ideas for family-friendly entertainment shows.
They liked one of them — the one he called “Your Story.”
It wasn’t a new idea for Hansen. The last year he was at Fox, he’d talked the producers into letting him do a segment called “Trippin’ with Todd” that featured Hansen randomly talking to ordinary people on the street and filming the interview. He edited the short shows on his own time, but he liked how they made him feel, like he was making a difference, so he kept at it. The bit won an Emmy, and Hansen was voted Utah’s best TV reporter that year by the Society of Professional Journalists.
He’d always thought having more time to tell the ordinary people stories, packaging three to five of them in a half-hour format, would make for a nice TV show — similar to the ones he’d seen Steve Hartman do on his “Everybody Has a Story” series that ran on CBS from 1998 through 2004.
The people at BYUtv thought so, too. The problem was, they kept thinking about it. For the better part of a year, Hansen and the TV execs would meet to discuss the project, then meet again.
Finally, in late 2010, Hansen asked if he could have a camera crew for just one day and he’d do a proof-of-concept pilot.
With loaned crew in hand, he went to the middle of Provo, got a man on the street to toss a Sharpie at a map, and went to the address it pointed to. They knocked on one door and got no answer. On the second door, “this guy with a great Australian accent, Damian Bear, said, ‘Sure mate, I’ll tell you my story,’ and the rest was history.”
Said Hansen, still marveling, “I went literally from knocking on doors one day as a census worker to knocking on doors doing the TV show the next. That’s how quickly life can change.”
He also marvels that he got the job as host in the first place.
“I think if any network, not just BYUtv, but any network anywhere, were to come up with this idea themselves, they would have auditioned hosts, and they’d have never picked me. I don’t do the voice, I’m not the most handsome guy in the world. I’m just not that guy. I’m the dorky kid who grew up in Pleasant Grove who fortunately learned how to talk to people.”
The first episode ran in January 2011. They’ve been running like clockwork, two seasons a year, 10 episodes a season, ever since, to the point that “The Story Trek” is now one of BYUtv’s longest-running series.
Hansen and his crew cover the country finding content. The process begins with Hansen drawing the name of a state out of a hat, putting a map of the state on the floor and having one of his daughters close her eyes and drop a marker on the map.
The show, Hansen points out, has two ironclad rules. “One is every story has to be random. I will never contrive how I find a story. I don’t know who I’m going to meet and they don’t know I’m coming.”
The second rule is that no story gets rejected. “If they give me their story I make sure that story is told no matter what. The onus is on me to find a great story in that individual.”
That’s where what Koreen Hansen calls Todd Hansen’s “gift” kicks in. Koreen is Todd’s wife. They met when she worked in the office of a business in Provo and Todd drove the company laundry truck and had to turn in his receipts to her. This was in 1991, just after he returned from his LDS mission and decided to major in broadcast journalism because, he confided in Koreen, he wanted to get better at talking and listening to people.
Then they had four girls and he got really good at it.
“With a wife and four daughters, there’s always plenty for him at home to listen to and listen about,” Koreen Hansen said. “Todd just has something about him that gets people to open up. When one of the girls has a problem, I’ll say, ‘OK, I’m not sure why you’re upset, but go talk to Dad.’”
Todd Hansen wishes everybody would watch "The Story Trek," and not just because the ratings would go through the roof.
“If we just got to know each other a little better the world would be a whole lot better place,” he said. “My mission is to show that every person you see every day, everybody you get a glimpse of, is important, powerful and amazing. And more than that, what I’d like people to understand is that the person they see in the mirror every day is important, is worth getting to know, has a compelling story, is a child of God.”
His favorite story so far? Doesn’t have one. “That’s like asking which of your kids you like the best.”
The Rocky Mountain Emmys, however, have singled out 11 episodes over the years as award winners.
“There’s a pay-it-forward element to the show that gives people hope and inspiration,” Michael Dunn, managing director of BYU broadcasting, said. “A lot of times in the busyness of life we just don’t appreciate the miraculous people around us. What ‘Story Trek’ has done, what Todd has done, is display the willingness, the guts, to go out and talk to people and show us what makes people unique. In the ever darkening media landscape, this is a show that brings light, brings hope.”
Six years is an eon for a TV show. Hansen knows that. But he also knows every story he airs is fresh, unique and different. As far as subject matter is concerned, he could go on forever.
“There are 320 million stories in America right now,” he said. “If people stop being born — I’ve done the math — it will still take me 4 million years to tell their stories.”