Al Roker: The Whalebone Interview

Al Roker is some kind of wonderful.

That statement really has no association with the weather or even Mr. Roker’s association with weather broadcasting. As far as we can tell, the gentleman has been some kind of wonderful before he set foot on a newsroom floor to start reporting the weather in 1974. Decades later his wonderfulness, resiliency, and curiosity have allowed him to have one of the more successful careers in broadcasting. More importantly, it seems those character traits have been able to help the world have a little more fun. The following is an interview between Whalebone Magazine and Al Roker. Quite possibly the leading figure in weather news in the world. Definitely the most wonderful.

This interview is for The Weather Issue. But let’s start off by talking about music if that’s okay? In another universe, we imagine you’d be good at producing a concert. If you could bring together three groups or people—alive or dead—to all headline a show who would that be?

Al Roker: Earth, Wind & Fire, Elton John and Lenny Kravitz at Radio City Music Hall.

Rocketman, are you a text, email, FaceTime or phone call type person?

Al Roker: You can get more done with a phone call, I guarantee you. You can get more done with a phone call in half the time than you can constantly emailing back and forth, texting back and forth or Zooming and FaceTiming because people are jumping in and out. Just make a phone call.

Have you relayed that to your children?

Al Roker:
I have. To everybody I work with and live with. Don’t text me. Call me. Don’t email me. Call me. It’s not rude. You’re actually being much more considerate of someone’s time. As opposed to, I don’t want to have to keep going back and forth and back and forth. We can take care of this in five minutes.

You’ve become more efficient with your time over the years it seems. Or there is a duplicate of you out there. You successfully oversee several business endeavors, a production company, sing in Broadway shows, host a multitude of TV shows, and are an author, dad, husband, all along with your day job of being on one of the top news programs in the world. What is a new venture that you have not done yet but could see in the future?

Al Roker: I would like to someday do a restaurant, but, especially right now, it’s fraught with problems. Even in good times, restaurants are a crapshoot. So, I don’t know that I’m actually ready for that. But down the road, I wouldn’t mind doing a restaurant. But truthfully I’m one of those people that doesn’t have plans. I don’t have a five-year plan or anything like that. I just leave myself open to stuff and things. A couple of years ago, I did Broadway. I would have never thought of doing that. It wasn’t something on my radar, no pun intended, but it kind of popped up and said, “Why not? What’s the worst that can happen.”

Who is the most in-the-moment person that you know?

Al Roker: Well, I’d have to actually divide it up. I would say my kids. For different reasons. My oldest is a chef, but she’s kind of pivoted to being a recipe developer for an appliance company called Chefman. My middle girl, Leila, was supposed to go to USC Annenberg and that first year, they couldn’t accept her, so she pivoted and went to the American University of Paris and loves it. And has gone, stayed there all four years and is getting ready to graduate. And my boy, Nick, who’s 18, who has some learning issues, has pivoted during this time of virtual learning and stuff, has really adapted well to it. He’s going to be a senior next year and is already thinking about college. I think you just want your kids to be resilient. I don’t want them to be brilliant or whatever. I want them to be good people and resilient.

What do you think of when you think of Willard Scott?

Al Roker:
America’s weatherman. And my second dad. I just talked to him a couple of weeks ago. He’s still sharp as a tack. He really kind of pioneered the idea of personality weather. He made fun really a part of the vernacular and kind of helped change the concept.
Let’s say that Whalebone allows you access to our time machine, it’s a particularly touchy object and usually only has enough juice to go to one date and time and back. And you had to use it to go back to one weather event in the history of the world and report from it. Which event would that be and why?

Al Roker: Well, I guess I’d go back to the flood and Noah’s Ark. I mean, that’s the first big weather event. So, yeah. It’s not going to smell great, but boy, that’d be one heck of a boat ride.

A lot of people know about your Guinness Book of World Records title for longest weather broadcast. That’s great, but a lot of people might not actually know about your record-number of appearances on Conan O’Brien. How did you slide in there so many times?

Al Roker: Well, it was pretty easy, because his studio was on the sixth floor. Our local news studio was on the sixth floor across the hall. And whenever somebody couldn’t make it, I was like this ready guest. Not so much that I was that talented.

If you could have the title for one other thing in the world what would that be?

Al Roker: I don’t think they would necessarily agree with it, but “Best Dad.” That’s how I felt about my father. I hope, as they get a little older, they’ll feel the same way about me.

One piece of advice that you would suggest to anyone thinking of going into the weather broadcasting business these days?

Al Roker: Be curious. I think you should be interested in all things, not just one thing. When I was in school, I just took a bunch of different courses. I majored in communications and took some classes in meteorology, not because I wanted to be a TV weatherman. I had no interest in television weather. I just took it because it seemed like an interesting class. And a college roommate of mine told me that this one professor used to get a little snockered on Sunday night, and so he would miss his classes on Monday. I thought, “This is great.” And that was before I took environmental science and became hooked, although back then they called it ecology. So, I just say, be curious. Everything impacts everything else.

It wasn’t something on my radar, no pun intended.

Is there something that you’re more curious about these days than others? Something that’s sparking your interest?

Al Roker: I’m curious about how people could actually deny climate change. It is stunning to me. Although in this environment, no pun intended, it’s not necessarily hard to understand. But still, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, there are those who don’t believe our climate is changing. And it’s not changing for the better.

What is something that you’re seeing that might be evident to some, but not so clear to others?

Al Roker: If you look at the year 2020 alone, we had two separate 20-billion-dollar-plus climate and weather events occur just in the United States alone, from wildfires, tornadoes, largest number of hurricanes, or I should say tropical systems, on the planet. We had seven landfalling storms. We’ve had more rapidly intensifying hurricanes this year. You just look at what’s been going on in 2020 alone. And, yes, the climate is long-term. But, for example, the last six years have seen the most billion-dollar weather and climate events in a row. We’re waiting to get the latest climatological data temperature-wise. That comes out tomorrow. This is on track, even with a La Niña, to be the hottest year on the planet.

You look at what’s happening in the Antarctic, as far as our glaciers. It’s simply overwhelming. I was able to go to Greenland in early 2020 and we were watching icebergs calving. And folks from Columbia University, these scientists, made this discovery about how tropical water is making its way underneath the glaciers and eating away at them at probably twice the rate they thought. So, the evidence is overwhelming, and you see it almost every day.

Something that the world can do or is doing well to combat climate change, and something that individuals can get involved with on a personal level?

Al Roker: Well, maintaining the Paris Climate Accord is very important. I mean, the fact that we’re rejoining is very important. But, even in the face of that, before we had a change in administration, individual states and cities were taking it upon themselves to enforce climate-change regulations. And those were making a difference. And we saw during the pandemic greenhouse gas emissions dropped by upwards of 15 percent. Now, ironically, the wildfires out West knocked those gains down, so that reduced it to about 9 percent. As a society, as governments, we can make a big difference.

Individually, I’m just so much more aware of how much plastic I use and trying to eliminate that, trying to eliminate food waste. We started a compost heap, my son and I, during the pandemic. Trying to add more plant-based meals for dinner. Tonight, in fact, I’m making a bolognese sauce out of a planet based meat. So, I think we can all make simple choices like just turning off the water while you’re brushing your teeth. Educating the youth so kids come home with those little tips, and it’s the kids that really end up changing their family’s behavior.

When I first started in television, my first news director, a guy named Andy Brigham said, “If our newscast can produce one gee-whiz moment,” and of course this is aging me, but something like, “Oh, I didn’t know that,” or an interesting fact or something that somebody will repeat at the water cooler. Then you’ve done your job.

Be Curious.

Is there a weather fact off the top of your head that you would like people to talk about at the water cooler?

Al Roker: If the Greenland glaciers melt, we would see sea level rise up here in America, especially along the Eastern seaboard, we’d see a sea-level rise of about 23 feet. That puts a lot of places underwater.

Now, that’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re seeing it slowly but surely happening. So I think, yeah, people have to realize our environment, our climate is interconnected.

I don’t know anybody that’s got all the answers. But here is something I picked up from my dad. I got a bad report card when I was a kid. And what was pulling it down was math. And this was maybe eighth grade, seventh grade. And I said, “Dad, I didn’t get this grade. I know I did better.” He goes, “Well, that’s not possible. Your teacher wrote it down.” Anyway, he goes to the parent-teacher meeting. The teacher admits she wrote down the wrong grade. She got me and a fellow student mixed up. And I remember my father coming home and saying, “You know what? I was wrong. I should’ve listened to you. I’m sorry.”

And I still to this day remember that. I still get goosebumps because here was the main authority figure in my life. And he said, “You know what? I was wrong.” And if we had more people in this world, especially,—well, I’m not going to name names or anything—but there’s no harm in saying, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” It doesn’t make you weak. In fact, it makes you stronger. I remember later on my dad saying to me, he says, “Look, once you’ve admitted you’ve screwed up, what more can anybody say to you?”

How can some of these lessons be applied to long term success for addressing climate change?

Al Roker: I think that people need to realize that they’ve got to look at the long term. There was some idiot congressman who came on the floor of the House and said, “Well, if there’s climate change, why is there so much snow outside of the Capitol? I brought this snowball.” You’re a moron. I mean, look, the biggest mistake, if there was one in all of this, was initially labeling this global warming. It’s like the climate version of The Shawshank Redemption. One of the best movies ever with the worst title ever. It should have been “climate change” from the start. Because what climate change does is make greater swings in weather and more extreme weather more likely. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but it means the ability for it to happen is now in place. And that’s what happened. So yes, you can get amazing cold snaps and big snowstorms, but you can also get incredible drought and unbelievable wildfires. That’s what climate change does. That’s what people have to focus on. Forget about hearing about global warming. Yes, the planet is warming. But that is a function of climate change.

Are there any peers you appreciate for how they have addressed climate change?

Al Roker: Bill Nye. If you really look, he was always a serious scientist, but because he was able to talk to kids, we didn’t take him that seriously. But he is a respected, accomplished scientist and has been at the forefront of this.

“We are the nerdiest, most banal, bland group of people.”

Somewhere else in the publication we touch on weather-related movies. Favorite weather movie of all time?

Al Roker: Ooh. I’d have to say Twister because it’s the only movie where there’s an evil meteorologist. You know what I mean? We are the nerdiest, most banal, bland group of people. And yet they were able to create an evil meteorologist. The second would be probably the Wizard of Oz. It’s kind of like the same, is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Absolutely is, but you’ll get people arguing.

This was fun. Very appreciative of your time and resilience. Thank you for what you do.

Al Roker: Thanks so much, guys.