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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Al Roker

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-05-30

When he was plumper, the rap on Al Roker used to be that there were two of him in one outsized body. Then he slimmed down significantly. But now there are three Al Rokers.

One is the guy with one of America's best-known faces, the Al Roker who serves as co-anchor and weatherman on NBC's "Today" show, frequently providing bon mots and comic relief. The other is the reflective, serious Al Roker, who cried as he wrote a book recently on his beloved father. And there's the Al Roker who created a successful merchandizing business, and established a lucrative enterprise for producing documentaries and videos.

"Being on the air almost every day obviously offers instant gratification, and of course I enjoy the 'Today' show very much," Mr. Roker said over lunch. "But in some ways I enjoy being in business even more. It's totally different. And it's something I could keep doing long after I've gone off the air."

The possibility of his going off the air is remote, no matter that "Today" hasn't been faring well in the ratings. Its competitor, ABC's Good Morning America, is within 70,000 viewers of the "Today," according to Nielsen Media Research. "Today" has some 6 million viewers, and Al Roker has consistently been cited by audiences as among the most likable on-air personalities.

He acknowledges that his name-recognition has helped in promoting Al Roker Productions Inc., the business he launched a decade ago. In addition to "Today," Mr. Roker serves as host of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Rose Bowl Parade, and the Christmas Tree Lighting at Rockefeller Center. He's even hosted a quiz show on MSNBC, "Remember This?"

At heart, Mr. Roker said, he's not only a newsman and TV performer, he's an entrepreneur. "I was lucky enough to be among the first entrepreneurs to see the potential of the Internet," he said, referring to the Web site (www.alroker.com) that he launched to merchandize his products.

Those products include T-shirts, umbrellas, mugs, and cookbooks. Two of those cookbooks, "Al Roker's Big Bad Book of Barbecue," "Al Roker's Hassle-Free Holiday Cookbook," were best-sellers, as was an earlier book, "Don't Make Me Stop This Car: Adventures in Fatherhood," which was lodged for several weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

Mr. Roker said that he launched a multimedia company to produce "all things Al." The company handles the development and production of network, cable, home video, and public television projects. His most successful projects include the critically acclaimed special on PBS about severe weather, "Savage Skies," and a popular travel series, "Going Places."

There's also "Roker on the Road" for the Food Network, and a series of specials, including "Al Roker's World Championship Barbecue," "Al Roker's Midwest Fest," "Al Roker's Dining on the Strip," and "Al Roker's Around the World in New York City."

His production company works closely with networks such as Lifetime, Court TV, and Fine Living.

So what's it like running a company?

"I've got to be careful about budgets," Mr. Roker said. "At NBC, there's usually a limo waiting to take me around for official business. At my own company, I've got to watch all kinds of expenditures. When you run your own company, you've got to be concerned with those details."

And how is he as a boss?

"Sometimes I've got to be the bad guy - it's difficult having to fire someone, especially since I've never been fired," Mr. Roker said. "But having worked for a wide spectrum of bosses - from the best in the TV business to major-league jerks - I know how important it is to respect people."

He particularly admires Jeff Zucker, now president of NBC Universal Television Group, and formerly the youngest-ever executive producer of "Today."

"Jeff is one of those bosses for whom you would throw yourself in front of a train," Mr. Roker said. "He's tough, fair, he's incredibly supportive of the people he works with - and he engenders incredible loyalty from them," Mr. Roker said. "If I could be half as good as Jeff, I'd consider myself as a major success as an executive."

Being in business has helped Mr. Roker strengthen his people skills.

"When I was at WNBC many years ago, I had a boss who was a major horse's ass," Mr. Roker said. "He got people to produce out of fear. He was a shouter. But you really want to get the best out of people, and then you've got to motivate them. What many bosses don't realize is how little it takes to make people feel good. Bonuses of $100,000 may be spectacular, but often it's little things like a note of appreciation, or a kind word, that can make a difference in a work environment."

He paused, and then said: "As a boss, you've got to set the tone. And sometimes you've got to step back, take a big breath, and look at the big picture. The work ethic doesn't come naturally to everyone. If you're a good and thoughtful boss, then you nurture that work ethic in your colleagues."

Mr. Roker - who was born in Queens and received a communications degree from the State University of New York in Oswego -- said that he acquired his own work ethic from his father, Al Roker Sr., who died three years ago.

The elder Roker was a city bus driver and, along with his wife Isabel, brought up Al Jr. and five younger children.

"He worked 10 to 15 hours a day," Mr. Roker said. "I knew he loved his children, and his way of showing his love was to serve as a role model. It never dawned on me that one day he wouldn't be there. I'm still working out in my head our relationship."

One way that he's worked on that complication is producing a new book, "Big Shoes: In Celebration of Dads and Fatherhood." Mr. Roker persuaded 37 other celebrities - broadcasters, actors, writers and others - to contribute essays.

"I wanted them to tell how their fathers had been there for them during good times and bad, how their fathers helped shape their lives," Mr. Roker said.

But when it came to writing about his own father, Mr. Roker choked. He was finally able to write an essay during a flight to the West Coast.

"I cried as I wrote," he said. "I guess the lesson I drew from his life was how important it was for a father to just being there for his children. My father was always there for me. He didn't do a lot of preaching. He let you figure it out and then would just nod, pat you on the knee, and walk away."

And now as he tends to his own two daughters and son, the lessons he learned from his father are always on his mind.

"I watch them growing up and realize they're the ones who walk in his footsteps," Mr. Roker writes in his essay. "My job is to make sure they keep walking."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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