Al Roker is the current weather anchor on NBC’s TODAY show. Beyond that, he is a journalist, author and head of a multi-faceted film and video production company.
In 2014, Roker attempted to beat the unofficial world record for an uninterrupted live weather report of 33 hours held by Norwegian weather broadcaster, Eli Kari Gjengedal. Thirty-four hours later, Roker won — setting the Guinness World Record.
Roker has been at NBC more than 40 years. In 2018, the TODAY Plaza near the TODAY Show studio at Rockefeller Center was named Rokerfeller Plaza in his honor.
Broadcast Beat’s Frank Beacham interviewed Al Roker.
Frank Beacham: You began work as a weatherman back in college in Syracuse, New York and climbed the ranks to NBC a few years later. Now, you have turned that on-air career into heading a production company — Al Roker Entertainment (ARE). How did that production company come about?
Al Roker: We had a rather inauspicious beginning as I simply wanted to help out a food program that, at the time, was looking for a producer. As someone who never wanted to be on TV but instead be behind the scenes, this was a calling. It took off from there. We began as a work-for-hire production company and then began developing TV shows like Coast Guard Alaska and others. My goal was to always create quality storytelling and programs I could watch with my kids — nothing salacious or risqué. And we’ve had great success, for which I am grateful.
Frank Beacham: You have been executive producer on TV shows and multimedia for networks, cable, digital and streaming channels. What is the common theme driving your brand of programming?
Al Roker: We look for ideas that grab us — reel us in — and hold our attention through characters and story. I also want the viewer to walk away with the feeling that they didn’t waste time but instead devoted their valuable time watching something really good. And lately, we also have been developing storylines for brands and nonprofits, telling stories of the good things that they are doing.
This social impact-branded entertainment programming is red hot right now and essential for communicating how business can give back. We work with a wide array of producers, directors, writers and crew people from many varied backgrounds. We try to always match projects with someone who is really good at that specific style of storytelling.
Frank Beacham: Moving from being a television weather personality to producing your own shows is a major step. What have you learned about producing and what is your daily role in production beyond your on-air work?
Al Roker: I have learned that it is not a walk in the park (laughs). The process from the original idea to the finished product is very long and laborious and there are many minefields along the way. We’ve seen projects greenlit and production started only to stop after a network has revised their branding or changed executives.
I am involved in every production day to day, whether it is to bounce ideas around or to go over budgets and pitches. But I’ve also put in place really good people that know the industry inside and out and can both talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to linear TV, digital content, marketing, production services and branded content. Tracie Brennan runs the day to day at Al Roker Entertainment, and just recently we brought on Lisa Tucker to handle development and production. These two executives have years and years of experience and are the best in the business.
Frank Beacham: You’ve written 13 books, from cookbooks to true life historical narratives. Your novel, The Morning Show Murders, has been made into a series of Hallmark streaming movies. Did writing come naturally to you or did you have to learn it?
Al Roker: I have always been a writer, and to tell the truth, I default to the practically obsolete pen and paper written word. I make an effort to send handwritten notes to people daily. Regarding The Morning Show Murders, I always think of the first rule for any writer is to write what you know. Obviously, I work on a morning TV show so this came easy. However, working with my collaborator on the project, Dick Lochte, made the process smoother and productive. He’s a really great crime writer and you should check out his stuff.
Frank Beacham: You clearly have a very busy schedule — from weather to hosting the third hour of TODAY each weekday morning. And then you do a radio show on Sirius XM. I’m guessing you start your day very early during the week. Could you describe your weekday routine and how you manage your time?
Al Roker: I’m very transparent about my day — you can follow me on Instagram and Facebook to get my daily updates. I’m up at 3:15 a.m. on the weekdays and 6:30 on weekends. After writing in my journal, I embark on an early morning walk or work out with my trainer. I then check in with the NBC Climate Unit and meteorologists to get the day’s weather rundown for the TODAY Show.
Before my son, Nick, left for college, I would always make him breakfast. I’m then off to NBC and arrive before 6 a.m. fully dressed and ready for the day. After our pre-show meeting with the TODAY producers, it’s showtime until 10 a.m. Then usually more meetings and sometimes production shoots for NBC.
Lately, I’ve been working on a food program for our digital channels called Family Style. It’s a combination of culinary traditions unique to cities. For example, we did an entire program on hot dogs in Detroit, a city that some may not know is famous for its “Coney Island” dogs. That program airs on www.today.com/allday and Peacock.
If there’s a bad weather event, I may also do weather hits on other NBC channels during the day including NBC News Now, MSNBC and the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. These are very full days. Of course, I am also dealing with our programming at ARE. But again, I have really good people handling the day to day there. Somehow, if I am not traveling, I always manage to make it home to cook dinner!
Frank Beacham: I note that ARE offers an array of creative services and partners with producers, directors and writers. Could you give us some examples of how the company operates and what the various people there do?
Al Roker: Tracie Brennan runs the company as our EVP. Lisa Tucker develops program concepts, pitches and also oversees all production matters as our latest SVP hire. We also have people in the field that handle sales and marketing for our branded entertainment and social impact programming.
We moved out of our office — a post-production facility — on 53rd Street a few years ago because we felt that most of our jobs are outsourced and people can be much more productive when working remotely. We have people in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles who are regularly beating the drum for all things ARE. Thanks to Zoom, we all gather weekly to touch base and update each other on projects.
Frank Beacham: ARE also works with organizations and companies to produce public service and social media content. Are you involved personally in these projects as talent or producer, or does your company do these projects?
Al Roker: We get approached by various stakeholders from brands and nonprofits to produce content. It can be marketing and advertising agencies, public relations or even brands directly that all have a need to formulate productive messaging. I’m involved in this process but since we have good people handling this, I let them do their jobs.
Susan Jin-Davis is our social impact officer who is continually reaching out to brands to help them tell their stories. Denise Hurst Green in Philly is our branded content specialist who works with companies and nonprofits to create storytelling in the diversity, equity and inclusion space. Rick Angeli is also in Philly and is one of our producers who liaisons with clients to make sure their mission stays on message and that our productions come in within budget.
Frank Connelly is one of our social impact producers based in LA who also is well-versed in cause marketing and corporate social responsibility. And Jon Burk is our head of marketing, also based in Los Angeles. He is continually keeping the ARE brand on message and formulating the digital marketing support for our many projects.
Finally, we have an excellent support team in Caren Franklin, our director of finance and business affairs; Ricky Day, who oversees all post production and deliverables as ARE’s post production manager; Asha Smith, who assists everyone in their day-to-day as our production assistant; and my executive assistant, Briana Watson, who is indispensable.
Frank Beacham: The media world has gone through rapid change in recent years. As on-air talent who is also producing content in different media, how is the business different now from ten years ago?
Al Roker: There is much more choice as to where to put programs and the viewer needs to really hunt around to find them. For example, we have a science program called Forging the Future on the Link TV channel. Link TV is an offshoot of PBS in Southern California and airs on Dish Network and DirectTV along with the Roku platform.
We’ve all watched as the legacy networks and cable TV channels have developed streaming options like Link TV and this will continue to evolve and consolidate. The bottom line though, with few exceptions — the TODAY Show being one of them — day and date appointment viewing is in the process of being generationally disrupted by the amount of viewing options and the on-demand desire of the audience.
The competition for eyeballs is fierce, and I’m not just referring to the traditional TV channels and streamers — you also have an entire generation that consumes content on TikTok and YouTube. TV is competing with that. In essence, the definition of television has radically changed to include any device where you can watch video content.
When we produce content at ARE, we want to make sure we are working with clients and storytellers to include all the ways that people consume it, not just on that thing hanging on a wall in their living room.
Frank Beacham: Finally, what do you most want to accomplish in the next five years? Is there an end game for your production company?
Al Roker: We’ve recently started optioning books and working in the scripted space. As an example, my wife, Deborah Roberts, who works on Good Morning America, brought this really terrific book to me called The Personal Librarian written by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. She said your company needs to produce this.
We secured the rights and Deborah and I are executive producing this brilliant historical novel about a light skinned black woman who worked for J.P. Morgan in 1905. She became one of the most powerful women in New York while having to conceal the fact that she was African-American. That’s just one example.
However, we have a few others in the works, plus a forthcoming animation program for kids and many others that I can’t yet talk about. Simply put, I want to continue to produce programs that people want to watch. There is no end game. We’re just getting started!
Frank Beacham: Thank you, Al Roker.