Al Roker of the Today Show has been staying at home with his family during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, he’s also been quite busy, making great effort to honor hospital workers and the military. He has continued to appear on Today while working with his company Al Roker Entertainment and cooking up some recipes in the kitchen.
One of the projects he has been working on is Side By Side: A Celebration of Service, which is a documentary filmed on the front lines in New York City and it is sponsored by Northwell Health. It airs on Memorial Day Monday 2020. And another documentary that Roker has been working on is LifeAid, which focuses on helping veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
Roker chooses projects that are special to him and powerful, in efforts to send positive messages. Read on for our exclusive interview with Roker as he talks about working from home, LifeAid, Side By Side, cooking up a storm with his son Nick, supporting local businesses, and his wife, Deborah Roberts.
I know you have a few projects going on with Al Roker Entertainment. Tell me about the Memorial Day special Side By Side.
Last year, Northwell Health had a show honoring our veterans and our military. This year it seems only fitting to honor the Frontline heroes who are working day by day to make sure we are safe and healthy. The hospital workers, the doctors, the nurses and military workers are all being celebrated in this special. You can tune in to WNBC channel 4 on Monday, May 25, 2020 at 7 p.m. ET and it’s also available to view on SideBySideNYC.com.
In a press release about Side By Side, it said that the project changed direction a bit because of the pandemic. The press release stated, “The original plan for the documentary was to celebrate the health workers with a one-hour feature and a celebrity concert. When the pandemic hit, Al Roker Entertainment collectively made a pivot to celebrate the heroes and the community support of those who are providing food and other services. Al Roker Entertainment also focused on the 7 p.m. ‘clappy-hour’ that honors essential workers.”
With the pandemic hitting New York so hard, how did that affect filming?
It was interesting in that we had already begun principal photography as this was rolling and so thankfully working with a healthcare provider gave us insight and information on how to most safely produce this show. We used a lot of first person video from the healthcare workers themselves combined with best practices of social distancing by filming with a skeleton crew. The one hour special definitely has a special look due to how we shot it. You will hear a lot of sirens and get a real snapshot of what was going on in NYC from this six days it took for us to film the show.
The pandemic was developing as we shot this project and with the support of Northwell, we were able to pivot and made the healthcare workers and Frontline workers the focus of how they were doing and how they were coping and what they were doing for New Yorkers. We made sure we shot with the upmost safety in mind with a minimal crew and used a lot of personal video from the healthcare heroes themselves.
So, what has touched you the most about this documentary?
I think what is most touching about this is very much like our military heroes who give up their normal lives and leave their families and put themselves in harms way in a distant land. In the United States, our Frontline healthcare workers and health responders are putting themselves in harms way and sacrificing time with their families to take care of us and not knowing if they’re going to get ill and may fall victim to the very enemy they’re fighting.
And, Northwell Health also has a concert series honoring healthcare heroes in addition to this project?
This is really so cool and in fact probably because of the pandemic and folks getting used to seeing their favorite stories, celebrities, and musicians virtually this is the perfect concert series for our current time.
Northwell Health is sponsoring a conversation/concert series each Monday at 7 p.m. with the likes of Questlove, Meghan Trainor, and Gavin Degraw among others. They talk about #healthcareheroes about their struggles and perform. It’s a very powerful virtual experience to support our Frontline healthcare workers.
Switching gears a little, another project I’d love to hear about is LifeAid.
LifeAid is dedicated to working on finding best practices, solutions and healthcare for our nations veterans and first responders who are suffering from brain injuries, PTSD and other issues that lead to deteriorating lives and suicide. There is no greater cause and taking care of these people who have made sure we are safe.
We are working with them to produce a series of PSAs, informational spots, a one hour special, and eventually a concert to fundraise and spread the word. This project doesn’t have a home yet but we hope to announce one very shortly and it should air in July 2020.
I understand the pandemic has affected this project as well.
Clearly you enjoy filming stories that have meaning and power behind them. What other type of projects do you take on for Al Roker Entertainment? What personally interests you?
We are trying to look at each project through the prism of being something positive for peoples’ lives. Not trying to sound so highfalutin, but we think about our kids and their ability to watch the shows we produce. Is it something we would be proud to show our family?
One of our very popular series is the Coast Guard show and it started with Coast Guard Alaska and now there’s also Coast Guard Florida and Coast Guard Cape Disappointment. We have shows on cable, network TV and of course, streaming services.
Al Roker Entertainment also helps brands forge deeper connections with viewers by producing social good content through traditional storytelling, docu-dramas, first person narratives, and reality TV-inspired feel good themes. We have produced branded entertainment and digital content for Comcast, No Vet Alone, Northwell, Staples, Microsoft, US Navy, Pedigree, Echrich, Conagra and others.
With the world is going through a major change, how has the pandemic affected you and your family?
My family and I have been at our home in upstate New York for more than 2 1/2 months at this point. We are blessed and fortunate to have a place to go. Through technology I’ve been able to do my daily job at the Today Show and I know how fortunate we are to have some space to be able to physically distance yet remain socially close. And in fact, I have really enjoyed the challenge of creating not only a home studio for myself, but for my ABC News Correspondent wife, Deborah Roberts. I guess it’s the MacGyver in me.
It must be nice to have your family around you during this time. I’ve seen that you’ve been taking on some cooking with your son Nick while at home with “What We’re Cooking”. I really enjoyed the brunch frittata. Any ideas you’d love to try that you haven’t?
Nick and I basically Free-LANCE these recipes. I come up with some sort of menu for the week but only in broad strokes. Chicken on Monday, fish on Tuesday, beef on Wednesday, and non-meat protein on Thursday and so on. Fridays are always a takeout addition of our show, “What We’re Cooking”. But beyond that I like to see what’s available and go from there.
You’ve also been trying to support local restaurants amid the pandemic. For those who might be too nervous to pick up or get delivery, what is some refreshing advice about supporting local businesses?
Just know that if you go to places that you’ve already frequented, that you already trust, they don’t want any of their folks getting sick and they darn sure don’t want you getting sick. But you could ask a couple questions to make sure you’re comfortable and go for it.
So, what is the best part of being able to be at home with your family during this time?
For both Debra and myself, this is the longest period of time that we’ve stayed at home without traveling. The hassles and the headaches of travel have now gone away and we are spending more and more time with each other. The only downside is that there are countless, endless meals to make and dishes to clean. That said, I am so fortunate to spend time with people I love and that everything else pales in comparison.
Side By Side: A Celebration of Service airs on May 25, 2020, at 7 p.m. ET on WNBC.