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Interview – Zach Kempf of The Generations Project

The Generations Project

[Editor’s Note: while there is one very popular genealogy-related television show returning to the airwaves in January 2011, did you know about The Generations Project and its second season also starting in January 2011? Learn more in my interview with Zach Kempf, one of the story producers for The Generations Project.]

Genealogy and family history television programs seems to be popping up all over lately. What makes The Generations Project different than some of the other programs?

Well, I would say that most of these shows focus on the detective-story of piecing family history together, and they find their drama in that, but The Generations Project is interested in making your family history matter in your life and affect it. We believe everyone has a why, something important and present and pressing in their lives that looking into their family history can help them answer. So, simply put, we’re all about helping our subjects, and our viewers ‘find their why’ and make their search make a difference in their lives. So our show is much more focused on people’s lives changing as a result of coming into contact with their family history, and the drama of our show comes from that personal journey.

If someone wants to watch The Generations Project but doesn’t have BYUTV, what are their options? Can they view episodes on the Internet?

Absolutely. All of our previous episodes, all 13 from Season 1, and Season 2 episodes as soon as they air, are available online. Just go to and click on the link to The Generations Project. They’re all listed right there and viewable in their entirety. They’re also embeddable for anyone who wants to share them. You can also contact your local cable or satellite provider about receiving BYUtv. Many have it available for order. BYUtv can also be streamed live by going to

Personally, I really like The Generations Project because the subjects are people like me – not celebrities. Their stories really hit home and most viewers can probably relate to them. How does someone apply to be on a show?

Follow this link ( and fill out the application. It’s a simple as that! And it’s a good idea to submit the optional video because it gives us a real idea of who you are and what you’re like. Also, it’s good to remember that proving to us how much of your family history you know, or how amazing or exciting that family history is, isn’t really what it’s about. We’re looking for people who don’t already have it all figured out, and more importantly, we’re looking for people who have found their why, or who we think we can help find their why. because that’s what the journey will be all about. As for the genealogy, our team here will do some digging and help you prepare for your journey. So don’t be afraid to apply if you don’t know very much about your family history. It just means you’ll have more to discover!

Kerry on boat - Scene from Season 2 of The Generations Project
Kerry on boat - Scene from Season 2 of The Generations Project

Speaking of you, do you have an interest in family history? How long have you been involved with genealogy?

Well, like most people my age, I had generally left it to the old guard in the family (my mom in my case) but in the last few years, partly because of my role on this show, and partly because of my own family mystery, I’ve become much more interested in family history. No one has met my paternal grandfather or knows anything about him; my father was raised by his mother and step father, (who was the father of all his siblings), but he knew nothing about his actual father, not even his name until he needed a copy of his birth certificate to move to Canada in his forties. So all I have is a birth certificate with a name on it. He’s likely passed, but I feel really compelled to investigate it and find out who he was and meet any other family we may have on his side. There are certain characteristics and traits that my dad has, unique to him in his family, and that I have uniquely inherited from him, and I feel really drawn to discovering these people and seeing if I can see this heritage in them too. So that’s my personal family history interest. But just generally too, in all of the Generations Project episodes I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of, I’ve learned so much about history and culture and legacy and seen how people are affected and shaped by what came before them, that it’s given me a real conviction that our family history is meaningful and impactful. It’s left a real abiding interest in the subject in me, for not just my own family history, but the idea of family history in general. I think its a deep well of cultural and self understanding that we as a society need to come to a greater appreciation of.

Once you select someone for an episode, what is the typical process, the research involved, the filming schedule?

Once someone has gone through the process and makes it onto The Generations Project, they get lots and lots of phone calls; calls with genealogists, calls with researchers, calls with production coordinators, production managers, and calls with me or one of the other story editors. We talk about everything from schedules to family trees to what they’re all about, and how they best process information. We especially focus on their why so we can make sure we can facilitate their search for the answers their looking for. That’s an important part of doing a Generations Project that we always keep in mind; we have to plan ahead to cover the logistics, but what actually happens on the road is the product of each participants decisions and their reactions to the things they learn. And speaking of being out on the road, we also always make sure they get their passport, because you never know where the story may lead. Once they head out with our crew their trip lasts about a week and involves a lot of long but exciting and rewarding days. After that, a few months later they visit our studios and sit down with Lise for the opening and closing studio portions of the show.

Sean in studio - Scene from Season 2 of The Generations Project
Sean in studio - Scene from Season 2 of The Generations Project

What if I think I have “boring” ancestors? Five hundred years’ worth of sheep herders? What do you look for in a prospective subject for an episode?

Like I said. We look for the why most of all, and maybe those sheep herders have something very powerful and meaningful to teach you. I think our goal here at the show, and my personal feeling about family history, is that we need to stop looking at it as just a chance to find something novel or exciting. If it’s sheep herders you come from, then those sheep herders had a big part in who you are…maybe it’s left your family with a love of the land, or a resourcefulness of making do with what is at hand, and maybe that’s led you to success in your career, or made it hard for you to lean on others when you need help. These are real people with depth and lives that mattered to them, and we need to change our attitude toward what is ‘meaningful’ in our family history beyond the novel, and to teasing out the true nature of the legacies that we’ve been given. So really, we’re looking for people who have a compelling and unique personal story, and who have family histories that we think will directly speaks to that story in a clear and strong way, and in a way that we feel an audience can relate to and sympathize with.

Can you give us an idea of where Season 2 of The Generations Project will take us, the viewers?

Season two is all about impact. it’s all about people confronting themselves as much as they are confronting their ancestors, and finding how much who they are is resonant with who and where they came from. It also takes the form of the show and lets it grow into its own skin and mature. I think you’ll see more fun and more humor, a lot more at risk, and a brisker pace of story. As to where we’ll take you, well, Nazi Germany, the Salem witch trials, the Mayflower, coal mining in Virginia, and New York’s little Pakistan, to give you a taste.

Tara in NY - Scene from Season 2 of The Generations Project
Tara in NY - Scene from Season 2 of The Generations Project

Finally, who is your favorite ancestor and what is their story?

Honestly, as simplistic as it sounds. I would say my parents. Both of them, I think, are the pivot points in their family history; the point where you can see a pattern of life through many generations suddenly shift and become something else. The kind of people that we look back further in our lines and gravitate to as they seem to be the difference-makers in the history. They both left poor and largely rural backgrounds and raised me and my siblings in an urban, financially stable and well educated home. So that, for me, makes them the ‘ancestors’ that speak the most to me and who I am today.

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Here is a clip from YouTube about the upcoming season at The Generation Project:

©2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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