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Brian Williams on Tiger coverage, his funny self, and what's on his iPod

by Joel Keller, posted Dec 17th 2009 2:03PM
Brian WilliamsWhen NBC was promoting Brian Williams' fifth anniversary as anchor of the NBC Nightly News, I figured it was a good opportunity to ask him a few questions. After all, with two wars, a lousy economy, the health care debate, and Tiger Woods, there's lots of news going on right now.

And, in such a relatively short period of time, the news landscape has changed on both the broadcast and the cable fronts, including the fact that on Monday, when Diane Sawyer takes over ABC's World News, he'll be the only male evening news anchor left.

Williams (or as he's been called lately, BriWi) was nice enough to answer some questions via e-mail about his new competition and how he lets his famous sense of humor come through during a serious newscast. Finally, he gives me some insight into what he's listening to right now (if you've seen previous interviews with him, he leans more towards the college radio side).

When you started on Nightly News five years ago, you were the new kid on the block, with Dan Rather and the late Peter Jennings still plying their trades on the other networks. How do you feel about now being the "elder statesman" in the anchor chair after such a short period of time?

I have been fortunate in life to have great icons as role models. As a young boy, as a viewer, there was Walter Cronkite. Later, after entering the business myself, there were the Big Three -- Dan, Peter and Tom. The thought of competing against Peter was just as daunting as taking the baton from Tom -- but from the inside you discover they were all gracious men who had their jobs for a reason.

Once I took over Nightly News, the twin tragedies unfolded at ABC News: Peter's death and Bob Woodruff's incident in Iraq. That changed the landscape yet again. I don't think of myself in terms of having the most time in the chair of all the current anchors -- I'm too busy trying to beat the competition and put a good newscast on the air every night. And that's the truth.

When Diane Sawyer starts on World News later this month, you'll be the only male in a position which wasn't too long ago identified by the "voice of god" male anchor. How do you think the position will be looked at in the coming years? Will it still be the authoritative one that it has been in the past or do people have a different relationship with the evening news?

I'd like to believe evening news viewers see us as Brian, Diane and Katie -- not man, woman and woman. We are in the ultimate subjective line of work. I'm not quite sure why viewers make the choices they do...why they choose one anchor over another, as I do myself when I have a choice in hosts or programs as a viewer.

All I know is our numbers are up -- our audience has grown over the excitement of the campaign year in 2008, and we're happy that is the case. What's good for one of us is good for all of us. I've always said if we were any other industry, we'd have a trade association, and we'd do commercials touting the advantages and benefits of a half-hour-long network evening newscast.

You've been especially good at "expanding your platform," with blogging and the frequent (and funny!) appearances on late night shows and 30 Rock. What has been the driving force behind your desire to not just be identified as the traditional news anchor?

I call these opportunities (SNL, 30 Rock, The Daily Show, etc.) my extra curriculars. People mistakenly think NBC is urging me to do these. The fact is my bosses seem to like these appearances, although I often accept them on my own and don't tell my co-workers that they're coming. I'm flattered to be asked, and I do them because my daughter has always said that the man she sees on Nightly News doesn't even remotely remind her of the Dad she knows.

The fact of the matter is that in the post-9/11 period, most of what we cover on Nightly News is deadly serious and requires decorum and a deadly serious delivery to match. There are other aspects to my personality, and I am so lucky to be able to take them out for a spin on occasion.

How tough is it to push down your inner funny guy when doing the newscast, especially on days when utterly silly stories like the Tiger Woods affair make your line-up? I've seen some of your wryness come through here and there, but nothing close to what I've seen elsewhere. What keeps you from saying that throwaway funny line when doing certain "lighter" stories?

I find opportunities -- usually on the fly -- to throw something wry or light into the newscast, normally when I feel like I'm speaking for all of us in the audience. There's no shortage of irony or outrage or sheer comedy in the news on any given day. Jon Stewart makes a good living pointing that out. Sometimes, just looking into the camera a certain way is enough to convey the message.

How do you feel about the fact that Tiger Woods has gotten as much, if not more, news exposure than Obama's Afghanistan plans?

We have covered just the basics in the on-going Tiger saga. I'm just back from Afghanistan, and don't think the coverage of the two issues has been at all comparable on our broadcast.

I know you're a huge music fan.
What are your five favorite concert experiences?

My top five concert experiences would have to include Bruce. As in: several of the top five. My wife and I got to see many venues during his just-completed two-year tour. We saw Bruce in Barcelona and followed him all the way to the last show in Buffalo. We also have seen U2 during this tour, and that may be the single most overwhelming audio/visual experience that a concert can offer.

Finally, what's the most unexpected song people would find on your iPod right now?

I have my co-workers somewhat hooked on a seasonal favorite, "The Christmas Song" by the Raveonettes. I like a lot of the new Blakroc, and I'm into the Frames and Blonde Redhead. I'm just now getting into the most recent Cliks and the new Deer Tick.

I could not live without music. In 1964, my late brother's high school yearbook quote was "The problem with life is there's no background music." Now there is. I'm waiting for a tiny, insertable iPod earbud so that I can have music playing in the background during every waking hour. It's not that I don't find people all that interesting...

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Whether Brian Williams is delivering the news each night or getting totally gaga over cheesy bread, he rocks.
America needs a guy like this RIGHT NOW!

December 31 2009 at 12:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Karen Carpenter

Anyone who heard Brian on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" would know that he is funny as all get out. Well, that's how we say it in the South. Don't know how y'all Yankees would say it!

December 20 2009 at 8:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Karen Carpenter's comment

Karen, in the south it's all "git" out! Love your comment. From a very old "git out" lady...

December 20 2009 at 9:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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