In 1996, Al Roker became a familiar face in America's living room each morning as the weather forecaster on NBC's Today show, but actually that was never his career plan. His joyful, upbeat disposition made him an instant fan favorite, and even if the weather was going to be cold and gray, you could count on Al to keep you feeling good.
Roker has worked in television for 45 years, and he's made his mark as a household name. Whether it's seeing him each Thanksgiving co-hosting the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, or doing the weather each morning on Today, Roker is a constant in the entertainment industry; a stalwart of NBC's dayside team and an inspiring presence and strong role model for men of color.
Roker was born in Queens in New York City in 1954. He's the son of Jamaican and Bahamian parents, and he spent most of his early life in the city. Roker attended Xavier High School, a Jesuit military school in Manhattan, and later attended SUNY Oswego for college, along with fellow famous classmate comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
Roker never dreamed of doing the weather or being a television personality. In fact, his boyhood dreams were to be a cartoonist.
"I had zero interest in being on TV," he says. "I'm an amateur cartoonist, and I wanted to go to New York School of Graphic Art and Design. That's where almost every golden age comic artist and cartoonist went. To [my parents], no, you're not going to school to learn how to draw comics. I got a scholarship to a Jesuit military school ... and everything turned out really nicely for me; I'm not complaining. But I always wonder, what would have happened if I had gone to New York School of Graphic Art and Design ... "
While Roker's path didn't lead him to art school, it did lead him to opportunity when he attended state school for college. He acknowledges that there is a certain level of prestige that comes along with attending a private university or Ivy League school, but he felt like his education at SUNY Oswego actually helped form him into the man he is today, thanks to the guiding hand of a department chair who saw something special in Roker.
"Back then, you wanted to go to Syracuse University or NYU or USC or UCLA, but I went to SUNY Oswego," Roker says. "[And] one of the benefits of that was a scrappy state school. You got a lot more hands-on experience, and smaller classes and professors who knew you. So had I gone to [those other schools], I wouldn't be where I am today. I had a department chairman who knew who I was, knew what my potential was, gave me the opportunity, plus I had the opportunity to do a lot of stuff within the school--both while I was working and while I was a student--that I think put me head and shoulders above my compadres who were going to these brand-name schools and, by the way, probably paying five times as much a year."
Roker tells me that if it hadn't been for the personalized attention he received and the vote of confidence from his department head, he might never have tried reporting the weather. Roker jokes that this same department head once told him he had a great face for doing radio, but eventually pitched him for a weather job at a local news station. At the behest of his department chair, Roker worked as the weather anchor for local CBS affiliate WTVH in Syracuse, and after finishing his degree in communications, Roker relocated to Washington, D.C., where he took a weather position at independent station WTTG.
After a couple of years in D.C., the transition over to NBC was set in motion. First, Roker was hired by NBC's Cleveland affiliate WKYC, and after five years there he was promoted back to New York City to work at WNBC.
Roker started out as the weekend weathercaster, but, before a year had even passed, he became the station's weeknight regular. It was clear that he was good at his job, because Roker was soon tapped to be the second-string forecaster for many of the heavy hitters in his industry. There he sat, on the metaphorical bench, waiting for his shot. He regularly subbed for Joe Witte on NBC News at Sunrise and then later for Willard Scott on the Today show.
"I got the Today show kind of because I was already working on the weekend Today show, and I got that job because I was filling in for Willard Scott," Roker says. "I was in proximity to Willard because I was doing the weather on WNBC News 4 New York. So, I kind of backed into doing the Today show, mostly because I was close by, and I could wear Willard's pants."
When Scott retired from the show, Roker was finally asked to take his place as the regular weekday weather forecaster, and he's been there ever since.
"Willard was the Today show weather person, beloved, literally like a second dad to me," Roker says. "And he was the one who said, ya know what? I think it's time to step back, and I'm telling them they're crazy if they don't tap you. And I was fortunate they did, but I was the beneficiary of his largesse. Of saying, ya know what, it's time for me to semi-retire, and so far as I'm concerned, he's weathercaster emeritus at the Today show."
Since Scott's retirement, Roker has become a staple at NBC. He's co-hosted NBC's coverage of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with his Today show colleagues since 1995, and he's even hosted his own talk show, The Al Roker Show, which aired on weekends.
In addition to forecasting the weather for Today, Roker put his own spin on the job. He became famous for his quirky and fun interviews with visitors at Rockefeller Center. His playful give and take with the audience on the street could make the viewer at home feel like they were right there in New York City. It didn't matter what time of year it was or if it was hot and humid or freezing cold. There was Roker, hanging out with the everyday Today show fans, chatting with them and giving them camera time and their 15 seconds of fame.
Roker might have felt like he was stepping into some big shoes following the great Willard Scott, but he seamlessly carved out his own place in the hearts of Today's audience.
As the show continued to grow and Roker became a household name, it's no surprise that his role at the show would grow as well. Roker would go on to conduct more interviews and segments as the show went on, and Roker ultimately landed the gig of hosting 3rd Hour Today.
His success and reputation at Today has enabled Roker to pursue some of his own passions, including writing, starting a production company, and having a family. He tells me that despite his success, he's always had the sense to keep his day job--a piece of advice given to him by Willard Scott.
"Willard gave me two of the best bits of advice personally and professionally," Roker says. "First one was never give up your day job. I do the Today show, but I also have a production company, Al Roker Entertainment. We do all kinds of shows ... reality, scripted, we have an animated series coming [out.] But I still do the Today show, because that is the font from which other things spring. People know me from the Today show. My own dad was the perfect example of [this.] He was a bus driver, but at the depot in his off time ran a sandwich shop and did odd jobs. Back in the day, everybody had a side hustle, but it was called a second or third job. And the other bit of advice Willard gave me is always be yourself. You can create a character, but eventually people will see through that. If you're not who you are authentically, it just becomes too difficult. It's so much easier just to be you."
Roker seems to have taken this advice to heart long ago, because there is no part of him that reads as inauthentic. He's comfortable being truthful and vulnerable, and just last year when he learned he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer, he made this information public, not only to free himself from the burden of keeping a secret while living a public life, but also to raise awareness for men, and in particular men of color.
"I wanted to go public with it because a lot of guys ... we're wussies when it comes to our own health," says Roker. "We tend to ignore it, assume it'll go away or something like that, and with the case of prostate cancer Black men are two times as likely to develop it and 50 percent more likely to die from it. So, I thought, let's make this something we can use to help people."
Roker opted for surgery, and as of now he's cancer free. He'll have to do a blood test every six months for the next five years, but he's healthy and well and he counts himself to be very fortunate that he had such success with his treatment.
As for what he's up to these days, coming out of the pandemic, Roker can still be seen every weekday on Today and he's just released a new book called You Look So Much Better in Person. The book is a memoir of sorts, but mostly bits and pieces of wisdom that Roker has acquired that he's eager to pass on to others.
"It's the things I've learned over 45 years of working in this business," he says of his book. "That I think are most applicable for most folks. The last chapter of the book is [called] "Get Yourself an A Team." The idea is that we don't do anything by ourselves. If you want to be successful, you need to assemble yourself an A team. Whether it's personally or professionally ... you've gotta find those folks in your life who help you achieve your goals. Because no one person can be that Swiss Army knife. You need other people and other skills to help you achieve your goals."
Whether it's his family, friends, mentors, doctors, or adoring fans, Roker is certainly currently surrounded by his A team. And when it comes to achieving your goals, he's quick to remind us all that while saying yes to opportunities is paramount, having boundaries is also key.
"People are afraid of the word no," he says. "I'm a big believer in yes, but if you say yes to everything, you don't have the bandwidth or the capability to really focus in on the things that you want to. So, while I think yes is an important word, I think no is just as important."
Here are my key takeaway lessons from this piece:
One for the money, two for the show ... is also a strategy. What I mean by this is the fact that Roker never dreamed about being on TV or doing the weather. He fell backwards into the business because his professor submitted a job application for him and he got the job. There was no passion or vision for meteorology ... It was a job that provided stable income. From there, Roker (apparently) learned to at least like his job, became proficient at it, and took that money to the bank to support himself and create new opportunities. Very smart.
There's a huge amount of hype out there promoting the idea to follow our passion. Or worse, a FOMO-based internal or external family pressure that we need to have everything figured out before we graduate from high school. But Roker didn't do that -- and still found success and fulfillment. What's going on here? Sometimes "one for the money" might make sense so that you can have the funds to do your "show" (a.k.a. your passion) later. In Roker's case, this is his production company business, books, and other entrepreneurial ventures. The lesson here for me is that there are many paths to get to where we want to be. We might also consider flipping the script on the myth about "following passion" and trying harder to fall more in love with the work we're doing (short-term) if it creates future (long-term) opportunities.
Last man or woman standing wins ...
Roker got his big break from veteran pro Willard Scott, who recognized his talent and saw him as a diamond in the rough. It turns out Scott was right. But as we roll back the timeline a bit further on Roker's career, he's been in the right place at the right time more than once. Is this just luck? Maybe partly, but I would argue that Roker was quietly doing the right things and prepared to step in to the starting QB spot when called from the bench. Early on, one of Roker's co-workers revealed his true character by saying something on TV that would ultimately lead to his removal. Roker's experience and integrity allowed him to step in and do the job. This idea of "being ready when called upon" would manifest many times as multiple high-profile Today show regulars have lost their careers from bad behavior. And who is waiting faithfully in the wings? It's Roker for the win. You may not be drafted as the starting quarterback, but you never know when the star will fall and the team needs you to step up to help win the game. "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose."
More of my conversation with Al Roker here: