In February 1998, as NBC’s Late Night show went head-to-head with the winter Olympics on CBS, ratings plunged for host Conan O’Brien. In a sketch called “Nobody’s Watching,” O’Brien and his team made “confessions” they’d otherwise never get away with on-air. He praised the widely loathed ’90s boy band Hanson and smoked cigarettes while bandleader Max Weinberg described murdering Bruce Springsteen’s original drummer. One of the biggest laughs came after Al Roker strode onto the set.
“Nobody’s watching, right?” Roker asked O’Brien. He turned, looked straight into the camera, and said, “I have no interest whatsoever in the weather.”
The joke worked because, for many people, Al Roker is the weather. Since 1990, he’s walked America through rain and sleet and sun—and quite a few historic storms—on NBC’s Today show, at first as a regular substitute for Willard Scott and then full-time starting in 1996. But when I interviewed Roker recently at his Manhattan studio, I learned there was some truth to the Conan bit: he basically became a weatherman by accident. What Roker really cares about, it seems, is telling stories. He’s less interested in meteorology than in the way weather provides dramatic opportunities and makes characters of us all.
This storytelling tendency can be seen in his long list of published books—including cookbooks, memoir, and the Billy Blessing series of detective novels. His latest, a nonfiction work called The Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster, is about the Gulf hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, in 1900. As with Hurricane Katrina, the damage and loss of life could have been greatly mitigated, but local and national leadership stumbled. Roker draws on a series of first-person accounts to portray the destruction—and political dysfunction—in dramatic fashion.
Sitting in Roker’s modest Manhattan office—the central feature is a treadmill desk—we talked about the links between narrative and weather: the challenges of forecasting in an age of changing climate, of reporting accurately in the age of pay-per-click, and of earning viewers’ trust, year after year.
– Joe Fassler
CNF: What drew you to the story of the Great Galveston Hurricane?
ROKER: Truth be told, I was thinking about doing a look at Katrina ten years later—and when you are looking at one big thing, you look at other big things to compare it to. I’d been to Galveston to cover Ike in 2008, so I knew about the 1900 hurricane. Then I read Isaac’s Storm by Eric Larson. It seemed like maybe there was something there.
CNF: The tragedy of the Galveston storm was that—as in Katrina—appropriate measures hadn’t been taken by the time the storm bore down. How sophisticated was weather forecasting technology back then? What could they do, what couldn’t they do?
ROKER: For local forecasting, they had everything we have today: anemometer, barometer, hydrometer, thermometer—all that stuff. But it all had to be plotted by hand. Readings had to be taken manually. They didn’t have satellite; they didn’t have radar; they didn’t have weather balloons or the ability to send down information wirelessly. With what they had, they did a pretty good job, but there were limits. By the time everything was collated—all the weather bureau stations reported in maps drawn up based on that data—it was already hours and hours old. So many things can change in a fairly short period of time.
CNF: We can’t control the weather. But your book seems to suggest the disaster was, in part, man-made: petty egos, poor leadership, and bureaucracy all contributed. When storms have devastating consequences, how often is it the fault of people?
ROKER: With Katrina, you saw failure on a massive scale at federal, state, and local levels. Anything that could have gone wrong went wrong, and it was mostly because of the wrongheaded decisions by bureaucrats in charge. There’s no two ways about it.
From a local standpoint of evacuating people, to a federal standpoint of being prepared for the aftermath, to a series of levees and dikes that were not properly maintained, it was just bad management. The devastation could have still been the same, but the loss of life could have been mitigated. And it was the same in [Galveston].
CNF: So it’s not that we need better forecasting tools as much as better and more responsible leadership.
ROKER: Well, it’s both. Listen, [2012 Hurricane] Sandy could have been much worse. But we started ringing the gong over a week ahead of time. So infrastructure really took a hit, but the loss of life was mitigated because people were aware and ready, and because people were evacuated.
CNF: How has forecasting become more complicated in the era of global warming? Do we know less, and are there more surprises?
ROKER: Climate change means you now have a greater risk of more weather extremes, greater swings, more frequent episodes of extreme weather in shorter periods of time. You’re seeing these anomalies. In 2015, [Gulf Coast Hurricane] Patricia went from a Category 1 to a 4 in almost no time because the water is so warm. Even though it was no longer a tropical entity, the moisture from that storm caused that devastating flooding, deadly flooding in Texas and Oklahoma. It’s just increasing the potency of these systems.
CNF: I wonder if that’s why we’re seeing more near misses, too. People know how scary these storms can get, and how fast, so cities are doing more to prepare, which can mean more false alarms. It means city systems spending serious money on preparations that won’t always turn out to be necessary.
ROKER: People are going to have to realize that this is the new norm. We have to be prepared for crippling storms, and we’ve got to spend the money hardening and protecting our infrastructure. It goes back to Galveston: had they spent money on a sea wall, we probably wouldn’t be writing about this storm. Better to do it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Sandy brought this region to its knees, and it wasn’t even a direct hit. The infrastructure for fuel delivery, for transportation, for communication—all those things were taken down by a storm that didn’t even hit us head-on. What would have happened to this city?
This is a harbinger, and I don’t think we’re crying wolf. A lot of hard decisions are going to have to be made.
CNF: Catastrophic weather is big news. In the era of pay-per-impression Web advertising, the temptation to overdramatize these weather events must be huge. How do you navigate this? We are seeing surprising, unpredictable, life-threatening storms with some frequency. At the same time, you don’t want to oversell the threat.
ROKER: If you overdramatize it, people will realize you’re an empty drum after a point, and you cease to be effective. You tell the story without gilding the lily, without being overly dramatic. I mean, when there’s a big weather event, it’s exciting. But you also have to temper that. These are people’s lives, their homes, their businesses. You don’t want to exploit that.
There’s another thing, besides advertising-driven sites, that makes our job easier but also more difficult: user-generated content. Before, we used to depend on local television stations sending crews out. Now everybody is a crew. Everybody has a cell phone and can provide us with really, really dramatic video. But then you have to make sure it’s real. Did this take place when they said it did, in the location they said it did? That’s the danger.
Now, with geotagging, it’s a little easier to verify. But if people want to fool or trick you, they can do it. It’s a lot of work, but I would say nine times out of ten the pictures we get from our viewers are really authentic and help illustrate the story.
CNF: You’ve been called the most trusted weatherman in America. Why do people believe you’re going to get it right?
ROKER: I think it goes hand in hand with authenticity. There’s now a belief that what’s fueling all this anger against Washington is a poll-driven, focus-group-tested artifice. People don’t feel their politicians are real or connect with them or share their pain.
I’ll never forget: I had a cab driver—I wasn’t even on the Today show at this point, I was on WNBC—I got in the cab, and in about five minutes, he looks in the rearview mirror and says, “Al Roker, right?”
I said, “Yeah.”
He goes, “Oh, I love you and Sue Simmons and Chuck Scarborough. It’s great. You know why I like you?”
I said, “My killer good looks?”
He goes, “No, no, no—in fact, it’s just the opposite. You look like somebody I would know.” He said, “I hope you don’t take that the wrong way.”
“No,” I said, “that’s high praise indeed.”
The secret of our success at the Today show is that things happen naturally. We don’t plan it. If we rehearsed, we wouldn’t get half the jokes out—we wouldn’t do them. I think that’s why people trust us: they sense that we trust each other, so it’s OK for them to trust us.
CNF: From what I understand, you were a communications major at SUNY–Oswego—not meteorology or climate science. So what brought you to weather?
ROKER: I’m so old it wasn’t called “communications”; it was called “radio and TV.” And I had no interest in weather whatsoever. I took a class in meteorology just to fill a science requirement.
In my first television performance class, the department chairman told me I had the perfect face for radio. But [at the end of my sophomore year], he put me up for a job doing weekend weather in Syracuse, New York. I got the job, and I thought, “I’m just going to do this until I get a real job.” I wanted to be a writer or a producer. But at the end of my junior year, I got the Monday-through-Friday job. At the end of my senior year, six months afterward, I graduated and got a job in Washington, DC. There, I met Willard Scott, the man who changed my life—who taught me how to be a communicator and a person on TV. And I just kept getting weather jobs.
CNF: Willard Scott, former weatherman of the Today show, the man you succeeded—what did he teach you?
ROKER: Willard gave me the two best bits of advice, both personally and professionally. He said never give up your day job—you can get full of yourself. The fact is that everything he had, and to a certain extent that I have, comes out of being on the Today show. You can do other stuff, but that’s your bread and butter.
The other thing was: be yourself. Because, at the end of the day, that’s all you’ve got. When I first started, I was more of a character, and he was the one who said, “Just be yourself.”
CNF: Your training seems to have come from the set—from being on camera and reporting the weather every day—not from studying the science for decades. Do you see yourself as more of a meteorologist or a messenger?
ROKER: Look, there are people on the air who are far better meteorologists than me. I don’t make any bones about that. But at the end of the day, people watch TV for people. And for whatever reason, they like to watch our team.
Weather—like news or sports—is all stories. There’s a narrative. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are heroes and, in some cases, villains or scapegoats. And there are victims. It runs the gamut.
So, when I do the weather on the Today show, it’s not that I’m looking to dramatize the weather. I don’t want to hype it or anything like that, but there are inherent bits of drama within that story. You’re telling people a story that directly impacts them. And yet you have to make a flood in Oklahoma interesting to a person on the East Coast.
CNF: So Bob Dylan was right: you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. But it does make it more interesting.
ROKER: People say, “I can just get this on an app.” But the app doesn’t give you context; the app doesn’t put it in perspective. It’s not a human voice telling you, “Remember when that happened? This is going to be worse.” That’s where we come in. So I think that’s the value added: the human interaction, interpreting data.
CNF: It sounds like you see yourself as a storyteller, first and foremost. Is that why you’ve written so many books? What role does writing fill in your life? Why do you do it?
ROKER: I think ninety-five percent of what we do is either to please our children or to please our parents. My mother was a voracious reader; she loved to read. I adored my mother, and the idea that I could create something that she would sit down and read was kind of a kick. She was a big mystery reader, who instilled in me my love of mysteries. She loved reading biographies; I loved reading biographies. It’s a little corny, but I kind of did it because I wanted to impress my mom.
Some people want to see their name in lights. To me, there is nothing like the idea of seeing my name on a book. I’ll admit it’s an ego rush.
CNF: There’s something special about a book.
ROKER: Yeah. And people make a lot of money selling e-books, but there’s something about looking up at a [physical] bookshelf and seeing your book. It’s a sense of accomplishment.
CNF: When and how do you write?
ROKER: The last three books were basically written on the road, sitting and waiting in airports, on planes, trains. I mean, literally whenever I have time. I have an iPad in my bag, with a brushed aluminum keyboard called a Brydge, and I knock out a chapter.
CNF: You have often worked with collaborators for your books—including a researcher for The Storm of the Century. Why? And how does the process work?
ROKER: You’re foolish if you don’t recognize your strengths and your weaknesses. I’ve mostly written fiction, memoir, or a cookbook. A factual book takes a whole different set of chops, and that’s not me. But I can write once you give me the facts. I can put a story together.
I hired a great researcher, who happens also to be a pretty good author, this guy Bill Hoagland. And he found this treasure trove of oral histories—stuff that kind of makes you feel like you were there. The idea was to try to get [readers] invested in these people as characters. They are players in a theatrical piece that is based in reality.
CNF: Billy Blessing, the protagonist of your detective novels, is a lot like you: he’s a celebrity with a talk show. But he also has a life as an amateur sleuth. Is he a character you relate to?
ROKER: He is everything I want to be. He’s on a morning show, he’s a successful chef, and the ladies like him. I want to be a chef. I want to own a successful restaurant. And I’d like to be kind of an amateur Sherlock Holmes. I remember my grandmother gave me a deerstalker cap when I was eleven years old because I was really into Sherlock Holmes. Billy Blessing was who I wanted to be.
CNF: Does the interest in mystery carry over into your professional life as a weatherman?
ROKER: In a sense. The weather is a mystery. You’re solving a mystery. What’s it going to do? And every day is different—unless you live in Arizona, though even there, because of climate change, they’ve had flash flooding. So, more than ever, I think weather really is a bit of a mystery.
CNF: Is that why people like to watch weather shows and why everyone’s so hooked on weather apps?
ROKER: I think it’s mesmerizing. There’s something hypnotic about it, and I think, in a sense, we’re in awe of nature because it can be, on the one hand, this beautiful, awe-inspiring spectacle and, in a snap of a finger, it can turn on you and become deadly, and it’s a very thin line between those two things. And we have no control over it whatsoever. People like to think so, or think they’d like to believe they do, but they know in their souls that this could happen and take everything you own, take your loved ones if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. So I think there is a . . . I mean, look, our bodies are made of water. I think there’s a natural rhythm. How can something so beautiful be so deadly at the same time?
CNF: You’re known for getting away from the green screen—bringing crews out into storms so that the audience can see events firsthand. How important is that?
ROKER: Some people say it’s theatrics, but I think it’s to put a face on what people are experiencing so that they don’t have to experience it. It’s illustrative. People forget, or don’t realize, how powerful water is. A foot of water moving at four miles per hour, six miles per hour, can move a car and knock people off their feet. A little bit faster, it takes a house off a foundation. I think people are stunned at the force. They’re used to seeing the Gulf Coast and stuff like that, but when it happened here [in New York], I think people were just blown away. I think it’s really important to show that.
I will not put myself or my crew in harm’s way purposely—nor out of frivolity or to make a point. We take best practices very seriously. I don’t take unnecessary risks. I value my life and care about seeing my children grow up too much to do that.
CNF: So people love to see the devastation, safely, from their couches. Is that part of what we’re doing when we watch the weather—striving toward a sense of mastery over something we know is unpredictable?
ROKER: There’s a phrase in the television weather business: “weather porn,” when nature goes wild. The Weather Channel has a few of those shows: strange weather, storm strikers. You’re kind of drawn to it. If you’re flipping through, you stop and you hear these stories. I produced a show for The Weather Channel called Coast Guard Alaska. I’ve been to Alaska, and there are scenes of beauty that literally take your breath away—and I’ve been there when, an hour later, you feel like you’re fighting for your life. I think it’s that power of something greater than yourself, and it’s two sides of a coin.
CNF: There’s the human element, too. Storms bring out the heroic and dramatic sides of people.
ROKER: Or some of the baser instincts, as we’ve found. I think something like this reveals your true nature. If you’re a coward, you’ll be a fantastic coward. If you’re a hero, or if you’re self-sacrificing, that will make itself known.
CNF: So storms and severe weather can act like a mirror?
ROKER: Almost a magnifying mirror. Because the people in [the Galveston hurricane], some of them behaved incredibly badly. But many more behaved heroically. You start to question yourself: what would I do? We all want to think we would do the right thing, but until presented with it, you’ll never really know. Hopefully, thankfully, mercifully, you’ll never find out.