Al Roker On Diversity, Mentoring, TV News

Aug 14, 2006  •  Post A Comment

“Today’s” Al Roker is flattered to have been asked by the National Association of Black Journalists to host its Hall of Fame induction Friday, Aug. 18. Mr. Roker sees himself as more of a weatherman and a feature reporter than a true journalist, though his contributions to “Today” extend well beyond simply describing a heat wave in the Northeast or a line of thunderstorms over the Rockies. He’s one of the reasons millions tune in every day to watch NBC’s morning show. His features on “Today,” as well as his original shows on Food Network, have made him one of America’s most popular TV stars. In this conversation with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman, Mr. Roker shared thoughts about the NABJ event, mentoring, diversity and the news pros he would put in the Roker Hall of Fame.

TelevisionWeek: What are your thoughts on the National Association of Black Journalists Convention and its Hall of Fame induction?

Al Roker: It’s an event that is very important to support and I’m honored that they’ve asked me to do it, even though I don’t think of myself as a TV journalist. But I’m on a news program, so I guess that qualifies.

TVWeek: Who are your personal heroes in TV news that you would put in a hall of fame?

Mr. Roker: There are any number of people, from Jim Vance in Washington, D.C., to Sue Simmons here at NBC in New York, to Bob Teague, who was here at WNBC in New York. Bill McCreary with Fox, who was from my neighborhood. These are the early pioneers that I watched day in and day out. They just got the job done. And there are people like Paula Madison. We see the people who are on camera, but there are so many behind the scenes that really make policy and make changes. We had a producer at WNBC named Virginia Woody who worked there for 20 years. Those are the people who, day in and day out, shape what you see. Just by being there they make that difference.

TVWeek: How do you think TV news departments promote diversity?

Mr. Roker: The fact is that most news directors aren’t racists. We all come to our jobs with our own life experiences. For a newsroom to reflect their viewership or listenership or readership, you need to have diverse voices and diversity in the decision-making processes. If you don’t have people in power who are comfortable with other parts of the population, they’re not going to reflect that.

TVWeek: Do you remember what it was like when you first started in TV?

Mr. Roker: Oh, yeah. I was a sophomore in college. I got a job at the CBS affiliate [WTVH] in Syracuse. Quite frankly, in 1974 it was a pretty progressive station. We had several African American photojournalists on the staff, and a guy by the name of Jon Bowman-who I think is now in Denver [at Fox station KDVR-TV]-who was a photographer during the week, but on weekends he would anchor the sign-off newscast. He had this huge Afro and a bow tie, and he used to sign off with, “I’m Jon Bowman and that’s what’s happening now.” I was the first African American on the anchor desk in 1974 in Syracuse, and the station didn’t make a big deal about it. I was the weekend weatherman. So I remember that first job in television doing weather as a good one.

TVWeek: Have you ever had a mentor in this business?

Mr. Roker: Yes, and oddly enough it was that son of the South Willard Scott. He’s worked with African Americans all his life. When he was at WRC in Washington, I was working at Channel 5, the independent station. He really took me under his wing. He’s the one who said to me, “You’ve got to be yourself. That’s how you’ll be successful.” He also said, “Never give up your day job.”

TVWeek: You’re very successful with the “Today” show and your work on Food Network. How do you balance it all?

Mr. Roker: I’m very fortunate. I have a production company, Al Roker Productions, and I’ve got very good people who work for me. But at the end of the day, I want to be home. I have a daughter I just dropped off at college as a freshman, and I’ve got an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old at home and a wife [Deborah Roberts of ABC’s “20/20”] who’s in journalism herself. So it’s important to get home and really be there.

TVWeek: Is it helpful having a spouse who’s in the same business as you are?

Mr. Roker: I think on one hand it’s an advantage; we understand the frustrations of the job as well as the successes. But by the same token, at the end of the day you want to be together and she may have to leave on the drop of a hat to cover a story, or I have a hurricane. You’re not journalists to each other, you’re husband and wife. You still want your spouse with you. You understand it, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easier.

TVWeek: Will Deborah be going with you to the NABJ convention?

Mr. Roker: No, she can’t. We were going to be co-hosts, but she has to anchor “20/20” that night, filling in for Elizabeth Vargas. There’s a perfect example.

TVWeek: Do you feel a responsibility to blaze a trail for other African American TV journalists?

Mr. Roker: I think you can create a path by doing your job well. There are other things you can do, like mentoring people. I mentor people through my production company. We bring in interns and I try to hire African Americans if possible, but in the end of the day I believe in hiring the best-qualified person. But, that said, I think you do your job and you mentor and create a path for others by doing your job well.

TVWeek: Is that what you would tell someone mentoring with you?

Mr. Roker: When I go to speak at schools, I tell them, if they’re African American, whether it’s journalism or anything else, they’re going to have to work twice as hard to get half as far. They may think that’s unfair or whatever; if they want to succeed they’ll have to put in the work. My goal was always to be the best TV weather person, period. I want to be known for what I do first, as opposed to anything else. That, hopefully, creates the opportunities for others to follow. Then you can be more proactive and bring in young people who are qualified and smart and hungry.