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When he's not being P.Diddy to Matt Lauer's J.Lo (the pair's Halloween costumes have become a Today show signature) the tireless "features reporter" has done his share of celebrity interviews, including his sit-down with Star Jones the day after she was booted from The View.
But Roker has had his sights set on a bigger arena for some time. He founded Al Roker Productions in 1994, which produces shows for Lifetime, Oxygen, the History Channel, Court TV, Food Network, and PBS. His burgeoning empire is nicely documented on one of his two Web sites. The other site, AlRoker.com, is directed more towards fans — there's even a line of Al Roker merchandise he's designed — where Roker says he "answers all my emails." Here, he answers us.
What would you say are the qualities you possess that have helped get you to where you are?
Not being afraid to make fun of myself and basically looking a little worse than about 90 percent of the population.
What do you mean by that?
So, has anything changed for you as a result of your dramatic weight loss awhile back?
It's funny. The conventional wisdom was you're a jolly, fat weatherman and are people going to relate to you differently. Now, I'm the jolly, thinner weatherman. In fact, what's very heartening is the positive reinforcement. I go out there and people say, "You look great!" or "Keep it up!" It's nice to know people that are rooting for you.
You had a very long interview with Star Jones the morning after she left The View. What do you think of her incredible physical transformation?
She looks spectacular. This is a great opportunity for her — I think people forgot that this is a highly intelligent, very smart lawyer. She is a brilliant legal mind. A lot of that got lost in the frivolity of The View. I think people will get to see what attracted the networks to her in the beginning.
The television weather jobs — especially in New York — have become so high profile and great stepping stones. What do you make of that?
It's nothing new, really. Frank Field was one of the first. Willard Scott, my mentor, was a huge success in Washington, D.C. and then made the jump to the networks. Bob Ryan, who was before Willard — Willard and Ryan did a swap and he's now at WRC in Washington. Dave Price went to CBS; he was at Channel 5 (FOX) in New York. So the weather person has always been the "lightness" in the newscast, whether it's local or national. It's just the way it is. It's a chance for everyone — the viewer and the folks in the control room — take a breather, a breath.
|The show is bigger than we are. At the end of the day, it just keeps churning along. I'm very proud and protective of the show.|
Today underwent a huge change last year with Katie's departure and Meredith's arrival. In your view, how did that effect the core group of talent?
What's great about it is we don't really think about it. It just is. The show just is. Meredith is just there. When I say that, I mean she is Meredith and the show is there. I wouldn't even say the show has changed. The very nature of the show is the participants of the show change — Tom Brokaw, Bryant Gumbel, Jane Pauley, Deborah Norville, Katie Couric. They're all part of the history of the show and the show goes on. The show is bigger than we are. At the end of the day, it just keeps churning along. I'm very proud and protective of the show. At the end of the day, people can say what they want and spin what they want. The fact of the matter is, we're number one, we've been number one for 11 years. End of story. I feel it's because the sum is greater than its parts.
Your role on Today has evolved and expanded with the addition of the third hour and will likely continue to do so with the upcoming fourth hour. How would you describe your career trajectory on Today?
I've been very fortunate in that I've worked for people both locally and nationally who gave me a chance to get out of the box. When I was at WNBC [in New York] I did a lot of pieces. When I started on the Weekend Today show, I started doing a lot of stories and that continued when I moved to the Today show. It's continued — I've been very fortunate in that folks have said, "He can do more than just weather," and have given me a chance to report a wide range of stuff from wild fires in California to the last interview with Charles Schulz, which was just heartbreaking, and everything in between. I don't take it for granted because not everybody gets that opportunity.
What would you say is the best on-air story you've ever done?
Wow ... [sighs] ... Getting to interview Rosa Parks, and interviewing Charles Schulz, for completely different reasons. Rosa Parks being one of the people in this country's history that showed literally that one person can make a difference and basically changed this country. Not just for African Americans, but for everybody. And Charles Schulz because I'm an amateur cartoonist and revered him and got to do two interviews with him. One for the 50th anniversary of Peanuts, and his last interview before he passed away. On a professional level, and as an amateur cartoonist, that was very meaningful.
You're also a very prolific producer. How did that come about?
I never intended to be on television. It didn't cross my mind — I wanted to be a writer or a producer. When I went to college at the end of my sophomore year, my department chair, Lou O'Donnell, got me up for a job to do weekend weather. I got the job and everything followed from there. Right around 1994, I started this company [Al Roker Productions] really just to launch a Web site. I did a show for PBS called Going Places and a produced the ins and the outs for that, and then I did a special for the Food Network under Judy Gerard. She said do you want to produce it, and I said, "Sure." That kind of started the ball rolling. I enjoy it. I enjoy creating television and in a way, it makes me a better on-air person. As an on-air person, you tend to take for granted what the producers do from our executive producer Jim Bell, all the way down to our line producers and my producer, Jackie Olensky. They kind of make these things happen, and as talent you kind of walk in and go, "Okay, make me sparkle." I look at it now from both angles because most of the shows I produce I'm not in and I have to deal with talent and try to find really good talent and build shows around them. I really enjoy doing that. We're doing stuff for the Food Network. We've got a law enforcement show coming out that I can't talk about. We're doing a lot of stuff for the NBC-owned and -operated stations. We produced a documentary on the 50th anniversary of Profiles in Courage. For the History Channel, we did an hour-long documentary on the seven African Americans who were finally given their medals of honor for [their service during] World War II. We did a special for E! on behind the scenes at the Miss USA Pageant. We run the gamut of television.
What are the qualities of a good producer?
I think you want to be honest. You don't want to pander to your audience and without sounding too Zen, be true to what you are doing. Don't try to bend this too much. If you're far afield from what you set out to do or from what the talent is comfortable doing, you're not going to make a good television show.
You've been posting regular journal entries on your Web site for a long time. Given the spate of blogs that are out there now you must feel like something of a pioneer.
I actually start "blogging" in 1994. I called it a journal. I kind of laughed when I heard about blogging. I asked, "What is that?" Then I said, "Oh, wait a minute. I've been doing that and calling it a journal." I'm not making any Al Gore claims, but I've been doing it for a while. I find it fascinating. The Internet is such a democratic place in that you can be a guy in your basement with a Web site and have the same access to people as NBC Universal or Sony or MTV or any of those places. You never know what's going to be the next big thing, a la YouTube. We've been experimenting with some stuff I don't want to give away ... I think people are really over-thinking this.
You've written a great deal about fatherhood in your books (Don't Make Me Stop This Car: Adventures in Fatherhood). Much is made of your former (Couric) and current colleagues (Vieira) being working mothers. How has being a father affected you professionally?
It's multi-layered. You're trying to juggle the time you spend at work and this job has some travel with it. You want to raise your children with the proper values — just because Daddy and Mommy are on TV doesn't make us any different or better than anybody else. I want my kids to see me doing "normal" things. I cook dinner, I wash the dishes. I'm not saying we don't have a great life because we do. I'm not downplaying that at all, but I don't think we live such an extravagant lifestyle. If someone else is paying we'll fly first class, but if Daddy is paying, we fly coach unless Daddy has enough frequent flyer miles so we can upgrade. You try to keep your kids grounded.
Do you have a professional motto?
Willard [Scott] gave me two bits really good bits of advice early on. He said, "Never give up your day job and always be yourself." I can do all these other things, but the best thing is having the Today show. You can do all these others things and be all these other things, but if your persona is as close to who you are as possible, at the end of the day, it's a lot easier because you're just who you are.
[Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and writes the Lunch at Michael's column.]