Note: In this episode, Brian Williams says he flew in a helicopter in Iraq that came under enemy fire. On Wednesday, February 4th, 2015 Williams retracted this claim on NBC Nightly News and acknowledged that he was in another helicopter.
As a kid, Brian Williams grew up in a CBS household. Dinner didn't start until Cronkite was done. He didn't think journalism was attainable, but his work ethic and blue blazer opened doors. From White House intern to young television reporter, Williams eventually found his way back to New York. On the job, Williams keeps his opinions quiet. Off the clock, Williams still enjoys vestiges of his youth: NASCAR and Spam.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s The Thing from WNYC Radio.
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If you watched the NBC Nightly News with anchor Brian Williams during Hurricane Katrina, you saw a newsman both composed and compassionate.
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It was his first year on the job, and Williams was the only network news anchor to report on Katrina and its impact from inside the Superdome.
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Alec Baldwin: NBC Nightly News has more viewers than any other news program in the country. An average of 10 million people tune in every day to watch Brian Williams and his team report on the day’s top stories. Williams has to be ready for anything. He briefcase always holds a laptop, a passport, and a flashlight because he can’t predict when or where he’ll be called upon to follow a story.
On the evening of August 31st, 1997, he was in the hospital as a visitor.
Brian Williams: I lost a very good friend to Agent Orange-related cancer. I was in the hospital room with him. It was a Saturday night. I had just done Weekend Nightly News. My pager, in those days, went off. Diana. Car accident. Paris. I called the office. They said, ‘You better get in here.’ And I had no idea that I would be announcing to what was then—I mean, they plugged us in to cable all over Europe. I have people wherever I go to this day, say ‘I was with you the night Diana died.’
Alec Baldwin: You were the one—
Brian Williams: I was.
Alec Baldwin: What’s that like for someone in your position, where you have that kind of experience like Cronkite with JFK? You got the breaking story that goes all the way around the world, and it’s you.
Brian Williams: I’m a very emotional guy, and I often get a catch in my voice. I’m a very patriotic guy. I kind of have a little schmaltz in me I guess. And so when I announced that, I have to kind of get ready and dig my heel into my ankle under the desk and try to be tough. My director—long-time director, Brett Holey of Nightly News often knows to go to voiceover. He will take a picture rather than showing me on camera when I’m in a sad place. The night of Newtown, I found it highly difficult to get through the broadcast. 9/11, my country had been shaken. So I have the same emotions as everybody else, and there’s no time to practice what you’re going to say. You’re making up the verbage as you go, obviously.
Alec Baldwin: When you do that job, I’m assuming, you’ve got to have people around you you trust. There’s people who have done that job and have not succeeded, and I wonder is it they don’t succeed because they don’t have the right team with them?
Brian Williams: Well, the first thing I did, uh, was get the blessing of Tom Brokaw, and this has been extraordinary. In a business where bodies are stacked out back normally, and you pass all the dead would-be future anchors in the hallway of a network, I had a situation with a guy who went out and got me. We had a meeting one night in a New York hotel. I was on local news in New York, and Tom said that he was nearing the age when he had to think about who was going to take over, and would I consider it?
Alec Baldwin: Why do you think he said that?
Brian Williams: I don’t know. I went around the corner, and in those days, we used those massive toaster oven-sized Motorola cell phones. I called my wife, and I said, ‘Either I’m getting played, or Tom Brokaw wants me to get in line to take over for him.’ I don’t know. There are dozens of perfectly or better-qualified people in this world. I’m probably the most unremarkable holder of my job ever, and certainly educationally, the least prepared. So I don’t know.
Alec Baldwin: Yet the show’s ratings have been very strong during the time you’ve done it.
Brian Williams: I try to make it personal. It’s taken me a long time. I kept Tom’s staff. I inherited the number one newscast in America. They were doing nothing wrong and everything right. So if you worked for Tom, you worked for me. I brought no one in. I was his understudy for eight years. A terrific position, I learned from the master. Everything I enjoy in life today is attributable to the fact that he made sure I was where I needed to be at every given time. When it was time to become Chief White House Correspondent, he said, ‘Go south, young man’ and on and on and on.
Alec Baldwin: What years were you Chief White House Correspondent?
Brian Williams: ’94/’95, the shank of the Clinton Administration, the very middle including the midterm.
Alec Baldwin: The Gingrich ascension.
Brian Williams: That’s right. I was on the flight that did in Newt Gingrich. He complained that he didn’t have a meeting with Bill Clinton-
Alec Baldwin: On Air Force One.
Brian Williams: We were coming home from the Rabin funeral. I chose to stay up all night, and I saw the President come in to the conference room, directly in front of my seat. I saw a meeting per se take place. It was an extraordinary airplane flight. I will occasionally do weird things like decide everyone else in the press corps is asleep, why don’t I be the one to stay up all night and see what I can see, because I’ll never be on a flight like this again.
Alec Baldwin: What was your take on Clinton?
Brian Williams: Ah, wide-ranging, insatiable, a very disciplined man with an obvious and palpable lack of mental discipline in other areas. It’s an honor to cover any presidency, to fly on that plane-
Alec Baldwin: How did he deal with the press?
Brian Williams: Ah, he knew that I was a fellow night owl, and some of the best conversations I had, he would walk around the aircraft. People were zonked coming back from you know, Kiev on an overnight flight. He would see what movies were playing in which cabins. And these presidents when you cover them, and to this day, and my job, there are off the record opportunities—lunches, dinners—that you have so they can explain themselves more easily to you. You can get in their head a little bit, never to offer advice, obviously just to listen.
Alec Baldwin: Both sides, Democrat and Republican.
Brian Williams: Absolutely.
Alec Baldwin: And so when you leave in ’95, where do you go?
Brian Williams: I go to found a new network in Secaucus, New Jersey called MSNBC. A couple of days into that effort, a flight crashed in the Atlantic off East Moriches, Long Island, TWA 800. Three nights into the birth of this network, we are handed a huge breaking news story. Our graphics department was off the clock, and I had someone go out and get a Rand McNally road atlas out of their trunk, and I had to hold up a map of Long Island and point with my finger to where the jet had gone in the water.
[Except from broadcast: Again, absent any graphics, all we have to go on is a rather crude Rand McNally map showing New York’s Long Island.]
Alec Baldwin: When asked for a report on his own life, he describes his early years as a ‘Grindingly middle class upbringing.’
Brian Williams: I did not know vegetables came fresh. I thought they were frozen bricks in the field. Salad was 1/8 of a head of iceberg lettuce sliced with a steak knife with a spoonful dollop of mayonnaise on the top. My mother’s goulash was one can Spaghettios and ¼ pound ground beef. We had Spam. We had what everybody else had.
Alec Baldwin: You grew up in New Jersey, right? Was it Ridgewood, New Jersey?
Brian Williams: Born in Ridgewood, New Jersey. We moved for the first eight or nine years of my life to Elmira, New York, and then most of my life was spent in Middletown, New Jersey, on the Jersey shore.
Alec Baldwin: Was your dad in the television business, or news business?
Brian Williams: My dad, former manager of John Wanamaker department store in Philly, he took a job with Corning Glass in Corning, New York. We lived in adjacent Elmira. Got fired with a slew of executives in a purge of Corning, and then really bounced from job to job, had a tough time—heart attack at 50. That sent us back to the Jersey shore where he could at least find work in New York City. But we had some rough financial times after that.
Alec Baldwin: And when you were growing up, what was your relationship to the news and to media? Were you a news junkie when you were a kid?
Brian Williams: Dinner could not start in our household until Walter Cronkite said -
Alec Baldwin: My house too.
Brian Williams: ‘And that’s the way it is.’
Alec Baldwin: Bingo.
Brian Williams: We watched it as a communal event. My father would bring home from the train, the Jersey shoreline, obviously The Times, The Post, The Daily News. He had Women’s Wear Daily because he worked in the trade. There was just stuff around. I started reading The New York Times when I got my working papers at the age of 14, and haven’t stopped.
Alec Baldwin: And when you went to school, you went to school, was there an eye toward going into broadcasting, or going into journalism?
Brian Williams: I didn’t think it was attainable. I had—may she rest in peace—an ebullient Irish Catholic mother who was the corpse at every funeral, and the bride at every wedding, and was an amateur little theater actress; always believed in her baby boy, Brian. I remember when Channel 4 in New York hired some new reporters. I remember it distinctly. I was living in New Jersey, and she pointed to the set at one of them—still in the business by the way.
Alec Baldwin: Who?
Brian Williams: I’m not going to say. And said, ‘You can do better than him.’
Alec Baldwin: Oh, I see, okay.
Brian Williams: ‘I just know you can do better than him.’
Alec Baldwin: Chuck won’t mind if you say that.
Brian Williams: [Laughter] We’re here with Alec Baldwin. And she said that. She believed that. And I think that stayed with me, and against all odds, I pursued this crazy dream that I couldn’t share with anybody because it was outlandish. I mean, I’m a volunteer fireman in Jersey. I can’t sit around with those guys saying, ‘Fellas, here’s what you don’t know about me in the future. Here’s what I intend to do.’ It just wouldn’t have made any sense. None of this makes any sense.
Alec Baldwin: So how does it begin?
Brian Williams: I went to a Catholic high school. I went to the local community college. I was a townie. I had applied for a civil service job as the nighttime Monmouth County Police Fire dispatcher out of Freehold, but my life took a turn. A buddy of mine took me to Washington, D.C.—Tony Laveglia. Everybody has a Tony Laveglia.
My buddy Tony said ‘I’m seeing a girl down there. She goes to Catholic University. I’ll fill my van with beverages. We’ll play loud music. Come with me for the weekend.’ And I—Washington opened my eyes to prosperous, earnest young people in khakis and blazers walking swiftly with places to go, and discussing government and ideas.
Alec Baldwin: Joseph Banks shirts.
Brian Williams: Absolutely. Earnest, the way Grayden Carter-
Alec Baldwin: Garfinckels.
Brian Williams: Graydon Carter put it in the old Spy magazines, may it rest in peace, ‘Earnest former student council presidents driving Honda Accords.’ That was his way of summing up Washington, and I was intoxicated by it.
Alec Baldwin: What was the first, first, first job you had?
Brian Williams: Well, fast forward. I’m at Catholic University having transferred my meager credits. Guy named Rocco comes into our dorm, and says, ‘Does anybody want my internship in the White House?’ I raised my hand, because I had a blue blazer from my job at Sears in Middletown, New Jersey. I interviewed for it and got it. Jimmy Carter was President. Obviously, it was a nonpolitical position. I made copies. I got shirts at the cleaners. I made coffee, but I also wrote constituent letters, and I got into it.
I got a job as a clerk typist at The Broadcasting Lobby, the NAB—National Association of Broadcasters. I confide my secret in my boss, that someday—I had been my editorial page editor of my high school paper. I had worked on my community college paper after all. Someday my hope was to try television journalism. He said, ‘Well, there’s a guy coming into town. Bill Bankston runs KOAM TV in Pittsburg—without the h—Kansas. It’s the 121st television market in the country. He runs a small shop. It’s in the middle of a field, but he just might, if you take him to dinner.’
I took him to the restaurant, 1789, in Georgetown. I have no business buying dinner. I have no money. He said, ‘You’ll have to pay your way to come out and let us look at you on camera.’ I had a Dodge Dart. I put all my belongings in the backseat. I brought my dog, Charley, out there.
Alec Baldwin: What’d your mother say?
Brian Williams: Ah, they thought I was crazy. She believed in my ability, but this move, to the middle of the country, leaving all I knew, was like going in the Marine Corps.
Alec Baldwin: What was the station?
Brian Williams: KOAM TV, and I went back there and revisited the place when the tornadoes hit Joplin.
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Brian Williams: That was the adjoining town where my efficiency apartment was, not to brag. You know, I was a working poor. I’m on television in this market in Kansas, going home and making an art form of slicing, and if you’ve ever done this, you know. You take one can of Spam. If you fry an egg in that pan, you can make a Spam steak in a frying pan, and you can get four or five slices out of one can of Spam. With some toast, it’s a meal at night.
Alec Baldwin: You can also, as my friends and I would do back then, when we were working actors. I was doing a soap opera. There was a moment when my friend leaned over and took an egg out of the refrigerator and dropped it into some noodle Ramen.
Brian Williams: Oh yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And showed us that you could put an egg in Ramen, and have egg drop Ramen. I mean we made egg drop Ramen for the first time. It was like, da da dah, bom, bom, bom. We went insane.
Brian Williams: To this day, I like Ramen noodles. I do.
Alec Baldwin: [Laughter]
Brian Williams: I like Ramen noodles -
Alec Baldwin: There’s too much sodium in those.
Brian Williams: Hebrew National hot dogs and Spaghettios. My big three.
Alec Baldwin: Who were the—because I was in—you were there-
Brian Williams: I was there 13-
Alec Baldwin: You left Washington what year?
Brian Williams: Oh, I guess this is what, ’80/’81. ’81.
Alec Baldwin: Oh you were in D.C. in ’81. So Carter is out?
Brian Williams: Carter’s out. I’m working at a lobbying firm.
Alec Baldwin: But you were there—when Carter was there, what year? Did the end of Carter?
Brian Williams: Yes, last year of the Carter Administration.
Alec Baldwin: So it’s ’80. The election. He’s losing. The Iran hostage crisis.
Brian Williams: He’s out. Internship over. Goodnight, everybody.
Alec Baldwin: And who were the big 3 on the networks then? Was it Rather?
Brian Williams: Oh, Rather—well, this would have been Rather. I guess, Brokaw or Chancellor, and either some combination of Jennings, Max Robinson, Dean Reynolds. Not Dean Reynolds-
Alec Baldwin: No CNN yet. That was kind of dawning in ’80.
Brian Williams: I guess. Was that Iran hostage? No, I guess that was dawning in ’80. That was dawning in ’80.
Alec Baldwin: So were you watching those shows pretty regularly as well?
Brian Williams: Oh sure.
Alec Baldwin: Did you have a preference? Were you a CBS man, ABC man, NBC man?
Brian Williams: I grew up in a CBS household.
Alec Baldwin: Me too.
Brian Williams: Totally Cronkite. People approximately our age, you can say, ‘What household were you?’ And people will answer it that way -
Alec Baldwin: Cronkite, Rather.
Brian Williams: With a network, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: There’s a style to that job that’s changed, that old voice of God school, Cronkite, and Chancellor, Huntley and Brinkley. You went to them because they had something you wanted.
Brian Williams: Right.
Alec Baldwin: And I venture to say, that that guy who had that kind of imperious, snooty, voice of God, kind of demeanor on the air—those guys, their days are gone. And now the people are authoritative—what I’m leading up to is the reason you work, and the reason you’ve been successful, is that you are commanding and you’re bright, and you’re all the things you need to be, and you’re not pompous.
Brian Williams: I have no right to be.
Alec Baldwin: But what I’m saying is, I think that people’s attitude toward the news has changed, where there’s a kind, there’s a style of anchor of the evening news, that those days are over now.
Brian Williams: You have to be more accessible.
Alec Baldwin: You have to be more accessible.
Brian Williams: But you should know, we still select our lead story and our story order like it was the old days, because we have to. That’s our process, and the night we happened to be sitting here having this conversation in New York—we always say, like SNL, like any other live show, ‘We don’t go on the air because it’s ready. We go on the air because it’s time to go on the air.’
Tonight, I was writing one section ahead of where I was. I was writing lead-ins for the second segment while we were in the first segment in real time on the air. So we would go into a reporter piece, and I’m [typing noise] on the keyboard sitting on the set, because I got behind, because of some Rock Center business I had to attend to.
I don’t like it, but I’m wired for it. It’s what I do, and if I don’t write those words, form those words, edit those words, it won’t sound like me. I won’t own it. There won’t be transparency. There won’t be familiarity, and it’s insincere.
Alec Baldwin: When does the day begin to write that day’s show, produce that day’s show? The day begins when?
Brian Williams: I really buckle down at around 4:30 to 5:00, I start writing, and I write from the bottom up usually. I write the, ‘That is NBC Nightly Newsfor this Wednesday night.’ I write that first, and the last thing I write before I go out, is the first thing I say, ‘Good evening.’ Ah, and-
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Brian Williams: So it’s freshest in my mind. I have to stick that. I have to nail that. It should be a very fresh and genuine thought, so genuine that the teleprompter can be a guide. If other words occur to me on the fly, I’ll do that. I’m not wedded to the words I have just written on that electronic screen.
Alec Baldwin: Now the people you work with, you have the license to do whatever you want to do. You write it?
Brian Williams: Yes, but -- I’m the managing editor of it, but I also work with great professional adults, who have license, ability, and often call me out. ‘I don’t think you got the tone right on this page.’ ‘I read your item on the video that was produced by the North Korean government. I think we’re missing something here.’ And they do that all the time.
We’re collaboratively—these are all really good friends are mine. I love the whole room full of them. We’ve been to battle together, so we’re really close, and it’s a very funny—you should hear our newsroom in the hour before air. Stuff flies across the room. It’s wild, and it’s just the way I like it.
Alec Baldwin: Now, I want to go back, and you’re at MSNBC, and you’re the second voice to come on the air for MSNBC. How long does that last?
Brian Williams: Six years of commuting to Secaucus, New Jersey in what was a-
Alec Baldwin: In the Dodge Dart?
Brian Williams: No, by them I could afford a Chevrolet SUV.
Alec Baldwin: A Cutlass.
Brian Williams: This was at Heart Mountain Warehouse. It is today the home of MLB Network -- for baseball fans.
Alec Baldwin: So six years commuting to Secaucus.
Brian Williams: Yeah, I screwed up my timeline. I left—I was still in Kansas when we left off. I ran out of money. I drove on a space saver, hard rubber spare on my Dodge Dart for 8 months. They recommend never going over 50 and just using it for a few days. I shredded that puppy, and I drove back to Washington where I knew I could find work. Again, I bought a copy of The Washington Post. Again, I circled a classified ad. Chyron Operator, 10 pm newscast, WTTG, the Metromedia-owned (now Fox), Channel 5.
I walked in the door, asked the first woman I found, ‘Is the news director in, and can I see him?’ And she said, ‘You’re meeting with her right now.’ Late, great woman named Betty Endicott. She hired me to type in the letters on the screen. She did this Ed Asner thing with me. I would go into her office as her lowly typer of letters on the screen, and I’d watch the newscast with her every night, and we hit it off. And she said to me, ‘Didn’t you do on-air work in Kansas? Do you have any tapes?’ And I said, ‘Betty, those have been taken to a licensed landfill facility long ago.’
Alec Baldwin: And turned into tires.
Brian Williams: I did find one. She put me on the air in Washington, D.C. on a whim. The last gut call in television.
Alec Baldwin: For Metromedia?
Brian Williams: Yeah. I was on the 10:00 news. Months later, she says, ‘I’m hiring a young woman to be an executive producer. I think you’re going to like her.’ And we’ve been married for 26 years.
Alec Baldwin: No.
Brian Williams: Yeah. Jane Stoddard. Love at first sight. Control room. Hearts flying. Little guys with arrows. I went into my friend Bernie’s office, and said that afternoon, ‘I’m done. Off the market. It’s a matter of convincing her.’
Alec Baldwin: I read that. You hear her in the earwig first.
Brian Williams: Oh my god.
Alec Baldwin: What’s that called again? The FBI? What’s the earpiece called?
Brian Williams: IFB.
Alec Baldwin: I was close.
Brian Williams: Yeah, so listen to a woman’s voice in your ear. Oh wow.
Alec Baldwin: Yes.
Brian Williams: And now, my little, our little girl who’s 24, one of our two children. I think we just have the two. I see her on David Letterman’s chair next to Dave, and I see my wife at around the same age we met, and it just blows your mind and heart at the same time.
Alec Baldwin: We’re going to get to that about your daughter. We’re going to get to that.
So Metromedia. Washington.
Brian Williams: But anyway, fast forward. I’m on Channel 5’s 10:00 news, and it was a great job, and sooner or later, it’s like Triple A ball; your pitch improves. Scouts come around. I got hired by CBS for their station’s division. We went to Philadelphia. Ah, Jane got a job at the local PBS station.
Alec Baldwin: Oh, so now it’s you and Jane. It’s a team.
Brian Williams: Oh yeah. We got married while living in Philadelphia. I worked at the CBS station in Philadelphia. I was called up to CBS in New York and I did five years at Channel 2. I was the noon anchor; again, you’ll forgive me bragging, with Carol Martin. And for a while I was the Chief Correspondent at 11:00. I covered the Dinkins years, and the Koch years on the streets of this city. That was a real experience, a real experience.
Alec Baldwin: What do you think about politicians and how they’ve changed in their relationship to the media? You hear people always complaining about the press has too cozy a relationship with political leaders and so forth. What’s your take on that?
Brian Williams: I was never a big socializer. I’ve come to know, like have a meal or two with one or two politicians.
Alec Baldwin: What’s that like for you?
Brian Williams: I’m always wary of the third rail of coziness. It’s much tougher to take a swing at a friend as it is a political figure whose name you know. One of the most eye-opening experiences in life was sitting down with President George W. Bush over lunch at the White House. These Presidents, as it turns out, are all quality hangs. They’re all really good people. They’re all extraordinary people who have the ego to stand in front of a mirror at some point in their life, and say, ‘Yeah you. I want you to run the free world. You’ve got it. You’re gonna do this job.’ That’s unbelievable.
Alec Baldwin: In some of their cases, it is literally unbelievable, but yeah.
Brian Williams: In a world of anchors and actors that you and I know, we know egos. We know narcissism when we see it, and that requires a lot. And it’s been fascinating. I love American history. It’s been a fascinating ride to have met every one of them going back to, I don’t know—Reagan? I became pen pals with Gerry Ford during his retirement. I’ve gotten to know Nancy Reagan in the last 5 years.
Something—if you’d told my mom that her little baby boy, Brian, would someday get to know, or shake hands, with any of these people. There was a time when I walked through the northwest gate as a White House intern, having no business there, and then later as a Chief White House Correspondent, walking through that northwest gate every day, and it’s been an incredible life.
Alec Baldwin: Coming up in a minute, Brian Williams talks about his daughter Allison’s success on the hit show, GIRLS and how he came to love NASCAR, actually anything going around in a circle fast, and his surprisingly difficult decision to host Saturday Night Live.
Brian Williams: Lorne gave me a great locker room speech, between dress rehearsal and the live show. ‘Mr. Williams, I think you said you went to a Catholic high school. Is that correct? Did you have a talent night with say, the parish priest, wearing a coconut bra, just making a fool of himself wearing a coconut bra?’ I said, ‘Well, we didn’t have an actual coconut bra like Bloody Mary in South Pacific, but we had a night like that. Yes, Lorne.’ ‘I need you to be that priest. I need you to show these people you’re willing to make a fool out of yourself, and be a good sport.’
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and this is Here’s The Thing from WNYC Radio.
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Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s The Thing. Today with Brian Williams.
Although loud personalities with extreme views gobble up more airtime, this is an industry that still rewards unbiased, thoughtful, and direct reporting.
Brian Williams: My work has been so cleansed, as I see it, and as I’ve tried, of political opinions over 27 years.
Alec Baldwin: How do you do it? Do you have political opinions?
Brian Williams: I sometimes don’t know. I have the same disappointments in my patriotism. As a great man once said, ‘I yield to no one.’ I love this country. I love the American idea. I have profound disappointments in my country. I feel we ought to be in space. I feel the dismantling of the manned space program-
Alec Baldwin: Why should we be in space?
Brian Williams: Because it meant so much to us.
Alec Baldwin: You mean just symbolically.
Brian Williams: No. Technologically, it moved us along.
Alec Baldwin: Technologically, there were more advances to be made there, you felt.
Brian Williams: I sometimes think, post-war America, post-Vietnam America, has kind of become exhausted. I have another theory that the growth of self, all things self, has taken away our spirit of community. We can do this, cohesion.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. Sacrifice.
Brian Williams: American-ness. When an average American citizen has followers—I know you have your own history with social media. You take a citizen who works in a restaurant. They now have the preoccupation of followers. There is now someone who cares, and this applies to all of us, about our random thoughts, utterances. And that is a growth of self that we haven’t catalogued yet. We haven’t gotten our arms around it. The celebration of what you mean.
Go back in the black and white movies you love from the ‘40s, ‘50s. Listen to the language. Listen to how first person is never used. And now it’s how we lead, how we begin every sentence.
Alec Baldwin: That’s a very good point.
Brian Williams: We have-
Alec Baldwin: We have individual press conferences all day long.
Brian Williams: We’ve changed.
Alec Baldwin: I tell you what I’m up to, and then when I pause, you tell me what you’re up to.
Brian Williams: All of our media begins with the letter I, which is why I kind of like—to use the letter I, I kind of like my job. I get to do that part of my media life old school. No one needs another blowhard yelling at them. No one gives a rat’s patootie about my opinion. So that’s nice that I don’t have to share it. I’d have to form one first on half of these issues, and people, and I can try to call it down the middle, and try to be fair about it, and do a ‘just the facts’, with a little fun around the margins.
Alec Baldwin: But why do you think, why do you think you’re different in so far as—when I would watch Rather, I could sense very much that Rather had his opinions, and I could sense very much-
Brian Williams: And I think that made him-
Alec Baldwin: -that Rather was straining mightily to contain those opinions in the framework, Brokaw as well. Does Brian Williams lay in bed at night with his wife, and that’s when those opinions come flying out? Your feelings about—or do you keep all of that private? Or have you found, because you don’t exude that at all on the air.
Brian Williams: Well, I mean, I’ve been married for 26 years. Jane and I talk about the people we can’t stand, either on television in Washington, what frustrates us-
Alec Baldwin: Your daughter’s boyfriend.
Brian Williams: Yeah. Sure. Yeah. We like the guy.
Alec Baldwin: Oh yeah, he’s a good guy. But is it something that you consciously have worked to do? Your predecessors—Cronkite probably no. And I know we don’t always need to go Cronkite, Cronkite.
Brian Williams: Well, he’s the gold standard. He’s my north star.
Alec Baldwin: Yes, but many people in your business, you can feel little belches and little fissures of their opinions coming through, or a sense of that, and with you, there’s none. Is it something that you consciously have tried to comb out of your delivery?
Brian Williams: Yes, I try to keep it down the middle. I just don’t think anyone needs that from me.
Alec Baldwin: That’s what you think is a better broadcast?
Brian Williams: You think there is a shortage of opinionated media out there these days? You think people are longing to hear what I think about the -
Alec Baldwin: No. I think that’s what makes your program so successful. That’s why I watch you.
Brian Williams: - fiscal cliff? Yeah, well, thank you.
Alec Baldwin: I don’t want anything on it. I want the news.
Brian Williams: Now I have this populist streak, and tonight we had an item that I ended up killing for time, about Australian schools banning birthday cakes with candles, ah, because of the blowing of germs over the surface of the cake, and they’re recommending parents bring only a single cupcake. And I said at our editorial meeting this afternoon, ‘Well, the world had a good run. We’re done. We’re over. We’re done. Just put a candle on us, because we’re over.’
When that kind of stuff happens, I go ahead and I usually—we have a portion of the broadcast where I can have more liberties. I do a little—I borrow from Seth Myers a little bit. A little bit, a little bit, right there in the middle of NBC Nightly-damn-News, in a studio famous for the young actor who acted in "The Doctors" soap opera in the studio where we do Nightly News, a young Alec Baldwin.
Alec Baldwin: 3A or B?
Brian Williams: Oh, it’s B.
Alec Baldwin: Oh, it’s 3B.
Brian Williams: A night about a year ago, I said that they had a problem in a school cafeteria in Lexington, Kentucky. Something, somebody was stealing food. They set up a web cam. ‘The good news is they caught an adult male squirrel living in the school kitchen. The bad news is those weren’t raisins in the rice pudding.’
Alec Baldwin: [Laughter] That made it into the broadcast?
Brian Williams: That made it into a national—and whoever got it got it. Whoever didn’t, we went by quick. We had a moment of fun. It’s a serious world. It’s a crushing world some days.
Alec Baldwin: Good night everybody.
Brian Williams: Good night everybody. Take care of your bartenders and waitresses.
Alec Baldwin: Thank you. When you do that, do you sometimes sit there and say, ‘When Leno’s done, I want that job.’
Brian Williams: No, I’m a dilettante. I’m a dilettante. I get it out of my system.
Alec Baldwin: It’s all for fun.
Brian Williams: I call them the extracurriculars. I have managed it, and me alone. I’ve never been asked to appear on one of these other shows. I have done, I think, 18 David Letterman’s. Jon Stewart has had me on a slew of times. We have a blast. And what it has done—it has not been a concerted effort. There’s no white board with a strategy. I turn more down than I accept. Jimmy Fallon’s been very kind to me. The Roots have been very kind to me.
Um, in the construct of a 22-minute newscast, especially in the post-9/11 very serious era, you would never know who I was. My daughter will tell you, the guy who anchors nightly news is none she knows at all. And when Lorne, in ’07, invited me to do SNL, I did this Talmudic six-month, I just—it crushed me, this decision. I worried that I was going to flush 25 years of all I knew-
Alec Baldwin: Of your credibility.
Brian Williams: - my credibility down the toilet. And I finally, I had never met Chevy Chase, and he was in the hallway, along with the cursory two llamas, a showgirl, and whatever’s in the hallway upstairs at SNL. I was headed to my final meeting with Lorne. I had polled everyone in my life. Should I host Saturday Night Live? And it was a resounding yes. Everyone was a cautious yes. And I asked Chevy after I shook my hand and introduced myself. His answer was fascinating. He said, 'I watched Dan Rather for 20 years, and the day he retired, I was no closer to knowing who he was than he was the day he started. I think you should do it.'
And so Chevy, in a way that he does not yet know, decided that, and that was a big—that was a big dam to break in my life. The courage it required, that is not my trade. I don’t know what you do for a living, and I don’t know how you do it for a living. I sit home and I watch you with my family, with Martin Short, doing Tony Bennett and his unknown little brother. Honest to God. ‘Being constipated is like sitting on a bag of tangerines.’ C’mon.
Alec Baldwin: First of all—that’s very kind of you to say—but I think what you sense, from what you’ve been doing is just how much fun it is. So much of this, it’s not fun. It’s not horrible. When I would make movies, movie-making, when you would do—like, if you’re going to do 'Lincoln' -
Brian Williams: And I was offered.
Alec Baldwin: You were offered 'Lincoln.' Everyone knows that in the business. Tony Kushner, and Spielberg, and Daniel Day-Lewis, and you’re at the apex of the whole game. And everything comes together to feed virtuosic acting. Great. I mean, I did not have those kinds of experiences. So it’s funny how your broadcasting career is not that different from my film-making career, where there was another thing I had to go do, to go have fun.
Brian Williams: Yeah, but think of what it’s like. I get to walk in as the closer. I get to work with people for whom it’s their life’s work, and be Joe Talk Show comedy dilettante. I get to work with the cast of Saturday Night Live. I get to sit next to David Letterman and engage him, and make Jon Stewart laugh, or die trying. Doesn’t matter how you get there, it matters what you did and what you leave behind. But it’s like walking into the middle of the best school assembly ever, the creative kids. And it’s fun for me, but its dilettantism. It’s just another side of me, and the viewers—this is an important point—they know. They know the difference. We had some harrumphing executives -
Alec Baldwin: They're separate.
Brian Williams: We had some executives who got all sweaty.
Alec Baldwin: You did.
Brian Williams: Yeah. ‘How will they know that they separate -?’ Yeah, well guess what. They know Access Hollywood from Nightly News, the show that comes on after us. They make that clean break. And they’re going to know, if I’m not behind the set on Nightly News. If I’m coming out from behind Dave’s curtain, or dressed as a farmer on SNL, or dressed as a lottery winner, um, they’re going to understand that’s the other Brian—oh, that guy who does the news. They don’t have to like it. They can watch Diane or Scott Pelley. They can watch Justin Bieber host SNL, but I get an enormous kick out of it. People have been very, very kind to me.
Alec Baldwin: Now when you do those things what you call the extracurriculars, and you do have a very important job in media, whose idea was Rock Center, and why did you put that on your shoulders?
Brian Williams: It was the idea of Steve Burke, our new CEO came in when Comcast came in and bought the majority share of NBC. He—the first meeting he had with me, he said ‘I think you’re underutilized.’ That was a very flattering quote, but that was the quote.
Alec Baldwin: So was he trying to take—in your mind, was he trying to take some of the charm, what you invest in other things you’re doing, did you want to make this the extracurricular?
Brian Williams: Yeah, I think he wanted to get in some more of my interests, not the kind of ‘Take my wife, please.’ But try primetime, try longer forum, cross talk with some of the correspondents just back from the stories. Do something else. The viewership has been fluctuating. We’ve been bounced around four or five timeslots. We’re now Fridays at 10:00 pm and hopefully to stay.
Alec Baldwin: So it’s once a week.
Brian Williams: Yeah, and an hour of television is, some weeks, an absolute second job.
Alec Baldwin: And what’s been the biggest lesson for you about doing Rock Center?
Brian Williams: That primetime is different. It’s not for the faint of heart. A lot of very good people have died trying. A lot of gallant projects have died trying, and you have to find a way of doing very good television news pieces, interesting television news pieces, without giving in to an entertainment format. You could easily say it’s Friday night at 10:00. People are—they’re tired from the week. Give them a break. Do puppies. Do starlets. Do starlets who’ve had bad photo exposure on red carpets. And we’re not going to do that. Because you know, we’ll keep doing what we do, and hopefully it will find an audience.
Look, I did six years at MSNBC, when I could have walked down any major city street, just talking loudly, had a larger audience, in the early days. We were literally something like 20,000 cable homes. That didn’t matter to me. I was doing something. I was writing an hour-long primetime newscast every night. I was getting better. In the words of John Cougar Mellencamp, ‘We were young, and we were improving.’
Alec Baldwin: What do you think about the media online? I’m assuming you have your menu of what you read, The Times, and do you read everything online or are you a paper person?
Brian Williams: I read a lot. I saw Tina Brown recently admitting -
Alec Baldwin: Do you read online, or do you -
Brian Williams: Oh yeah, but I read both.
Alec Baldwin: So you have a copy?
Brian Williams: I wake up. I have a paper copy of The New York Post—I’ll admit it—paper copy of The New York Times, which I do the New York thing. I stick sections in my briefcase, and they attract silverfish over the last couple of years—no, I’m kidding. But I get to the, when I can, and I read—I’m always aware of what’s on The Times Web site in real time.
Alec Baldwin: You read The Post.
Brian Williams: Read The New York Post.
Alec Baldwin: Why do you read The Post?
Brian Williams: I read The Post, The Daily News-
Alec Baldwin: You just read all the New York papers. It’s just a habit.
Brian Williams: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: You’d read The Brooklyn Eagle if it was still coming out.
Brian Williams: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: I understand.
Brian Williams: Yeah, yeah. But I read "Page Six" like everybody, and like everybody doesn’t admit reading "Page Six," and I read the sports section. I read the TV-
Alec Baldwin: I read "Page Six" if it’s around, but I don’t necessarily go get it.
Brian Williams: Do you have any history with The New York Post?
Alec Baldwin: None. None. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve laid low.
Brian Williams: You know I like reading the New York tabs' sport section after the Superbowl.
Alec Baldwin: The Post has a great sports section.
Brian Williams: Who is going to hit Jim Nance over the head first? It’s just, I don’t know. It’s part of living here. But I’m always aware of what’s on The Times’s website. Dirty, guilty pleasure.
Alec Baldwin: Huffington Post?
Brian Williams: Huffington Post, yes.
Alec Baldwin: Not as much as I used to though.
Brian Williams: Though I don’t click through. I get angry at the headlines.
Alec Baldwin: I wonder what she’s done there. I mean, obviously she’s passed it on, but -
Brian Williams: They’re looking for clicks.
Alec Baldwin: I didn’t want to see the pictures of—and we’re going to get to this later, and it could be your daughter next—where it’s like side-boob. Everything is like this shot of Kate Hudson, this one, that one, popping out of their dress.
Brian Williams: Thanks, Alec.
Alec Baldwin: My pleasure, Brian. But let’s get to that subject. Your daughter is gorgeous. She’s talented, and she’s gorgeous.
Brian Williams: I say thank you like, thank you, thank you, she’s a -
Alec Baldwin: She’s gorgeous and she’s talented, but at the same time -
Brian Williams: Great person.
Alec Baldwin: - at the same time, she’s a young woman who is speaking to, on that show—that’s not the purpose of the show. The purpose of the show is to be entertaining and funny. But they do speak in a language that is the contemporary young woman. Do you sometimes watch that show with your wife, and you grab each other by the forearm and go, ‘Oh my god.’
Brian Williams: No, we watch the whole bunch of us. HBO is sometimes nice enough to share a cluster of the next episodes, and when her brother’s home from college, we watch it as a family. The thing is, she came out of the womb doing, ‘There’s no business’ [singing]. We always knew -
Alec Baldwin: Really. She’s your mom.
Brian Williams: Yes, she’s my mom. Had my mom just lived long enough to see this, but she’s my mom. So she’s—and she’s also my wife, and she’s so many things. She’s also a kid who flew through Yale. She’s a kid at good at improv. Can do an improv musical if you yell out one word. She’ll compose it, sing it, write the plot, as she performs while you watch. I thought her first talent that the public saw was going to be singing. She has a voice like a bird, like an angel. And so she’s -
Alec Baldwin: Is she having a good time?
Brian Williams: She’s having a blast. And she’s been given this material by Lena, and Jenni Konnor, and Judd, but mostly Lena’s vision. And the people who come up to me now and say, ‘I’m a Marni. I’m such a Marni.’ And I love watching Allison, and it’s overwhelming.
Alec Baldwin: What does she—that show obviously won’t last forever. What does she want to do? Is she going to go out to L.A.? Is she going to make films? Is she going to—does she have a plan?
Brian Williams: I think she would love a future in feature films, but recognizes this for everything it is; a fantastic platform. As my people, the Irish Catholics say, ‘I’m kvelling all the time’.
Alec Baldwin: I was doing a film once, and Rob Reiner—although this doesn’t relate to TV as much, but there’s a comparison to be made, and Rob Reiner said to me. He said—I had to do a speech, a very long courtroom speech in this movie, "Ghosts of Mississippi," that I did with him about the Medgar Evers murder trial. And in his inimitable New York accent, he said, ‘Do you mind doing it again? I want to go again. I know it’s a long speech. It’s like three pages long. But I want to put a camera in the back of the courtroom, and shoot you doing the speech again. Just one take. We’ll just burn one take, maybe two. It’s been a long day. We’ve covered it from every angle. We’ll just do one more.’
I go, ‘I don’t mind. It’ll be great.’ He goes, ‘I understand. I know how you feel.’ He said, ‘You got a good piece of material. You want to do it. You’ll do it all day. You don’t care.’ He said, ‘Because you know your next movie, you’re going to have one line all day, and that line’s going to be, ‘Get down. Everyone get down’, as you’re firing your gun in the parking structure.’
And the same is true in that comparison and contrast between film and television, which is you want to go into film, but do you want to go into film or do you want to make movies? But they’re not all Spielberg and "Lincoln" and Tony Kushner. What about you? Do you—I’m addicted to projecting my own psychological machinations on other people, and I look at you and I think you’re going to do this job until you’re dead. Is it like indefinite to you? Will you do it indefinitely? You’re young.
Brian Williams: I’m 53.
Alec Baldwin: You’re young. You look younger.
Brian Williams: I’ll be 54 in May. Thank you.
Alec Baldwin: You look great.
Brian Williams: Like you, I’m trying to take care of myself.
Alec Baldwin: You look fantastic.
Brian Williams: I’ll be doing something. I do have a deal with my wife that when it’s time, she’s going to tap on her right forearm, as a baseball manager would, asking for someone from the bullpen, and we’re going to go, and I’m going to go and kind of not come back, and leave it, walk away. There is such a thing a staying too long at the fair. I can also be happy editing a town blog somewhere, as long as I’m around things that are happening, reading news on the Web, able to write something.
The siren in my back of my head is, we have a little place on the Jersey shore. And it’s all I ever really wanted from a life that’s been beyond a dream sequence in a movie, was to go back and plant a flag in the sand of the Jersey shore and that’s kind of where I see happy days. When you have a happy place to go and a nice, loving situation at home, and now a daughter to watch, and my son’s going to come rocketing out of college. He’s looking for -
Alec Baldwin: What’s he doing?
Brian Williams: He wants to do sports journalism on television, and he’s really good. He’s a great kid with a ton of personality. Sometimes I say, ‘Could you guys have chosen insurance or something? Could you get your own line of work?’ You know, Allison could not have done anything else.
Alec Baldwin: Allison’s doing real well.
Brian Williams: She’s a fine human.
Alec Baldwin: And your son, he’s going to be finished when?
Brian Williams: Douglas Williams, the male heir to the Williams fortune, is finished in late May. He just came home from college for a week, did his first round of job interviews, entry-level stuff, looking for night shifts, day shifts, writing for the Web, shooting his own stuff -
Alec Baldwin: Lincoln, Nebraska.
Brian Williams: That’s—our poor children, because my wife’s trajectory is a lot like mine. They’ve had this work ethic speech, like one of your films -
Alec Baldwin: Oh my god. I know. Me too.
Brian Williams: All their life, so they’re just doomed.
Alec Baldwin: I say to my daughter, my ex-wife and I, I mean, we laid it on. You—I would out Tom Joad, Tom Joad. We’re talking about, ‘Do you understand what life was like for me when I was your age? Growing up in Massapequa. My mother made me wash my own football uniform.’
Brian Williams: Well, a lot of it is just cultural, and how much things have changed, and how much kids know. I was in adulthood before I knew what the Ivy League was, before I knew what a prep school was, again, before I knew there were fresh vegetables. It’s just—it was my worldview. I was working. I thought I was always just going to be working. I’ve always worked. I’ve always had as many jobs as I could have, and that’s what you do. You work. You die, and if you’re really lucky, you spend some summers on the Jersey shore.
Alec Baldwin: But your wife’s going to be the one who’s going to be the one to tap your forearm.
Brian Williams: I think we’ll know. I mean, there’s a lot of living I and we want to do. A lot of places we want to go.
Alec Baldwin: What do you and she like to do? Are you European travelers?
Brian Williams: No.
Alec Baldwin: Travelers of any kind?
Brian Williams: That sounds very Perillo. ‘Have your bags out at 9:00 am.’
Alec Baldwin: Now, now. [Laughter]
Brian Williams: But my parents used to go on Perillo tours, just not our cup of tea. No, we just—we went out to Utah for four days and just sat there, and just did nothing, because it’s -
Alec Baldwin: You’re the anchor of the NBC Nightly News, and you view European travel as snobbish.
Brian Williams: No, no, no. We never have the time. We can’t do it.
Alec Baldwin: You don’t have time, but would you like to have time?
Brian Williams: Yes. We’ love to have time, and that’s part of our figuring. There’s a lot I want to do. I want to take an insanely fast car across the Bonneville Flats before I die.
Alec Baldwin: You do love this NASCAR thing.
Brian Williams: Oh yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Brian Williams: My Dad took me to the Chemung County Speedrome in Horseheads, New York, when I was a little kid. Friday night -
Alec Baldwin: Near Elmira?
Brian Williams: Friday night races to watch the Bodine brothers race. I’ll watch anything go around in a circle too fast.
Alec Baldwin: What’s the name of the place near Elmira?
Brian Williams: Chemung County Speedrome, it was called. I think it’s now just The Fairgrounds.
Alec Baldwin: Isn’t it amazing that the thing I’m going to take away from this interview—when I look at you, you’re a very, very, very important to me. Being a news junkie, it’s like pitching for the Yankees.
Brian Williams: You’re shattered.
Alec Baldwin: I’m not shattered. I’m just sitting here thinking Brian Williams, the anchor of the NBC Nightly News, when his wife indicates that it’s time to retire, they’re not going to Rome. They’re not going to Madrid. They’re going to the Chemung County Motor Speedway.
Brian Williams: Yeah. Oh yeah.
Alec Baldwin: That’s all we have time for tonight.
Brian Williams: I recommend Wall Township speedway on the Jersey shore for a great Friday night of fun.
Alec Baldwin: I’m going to take your word for it.
Brian Williams: Third of a mile paved oval. Great action under the lights. I’m telling you for your admission charge, there’s no more a great night of entertainment.
Alec Baldwin: You know what I want to do one day—and I’m going to say this right now -
Brian Williams: Will you come with me?
Alec Baldwin: If I thought I was going to have dinner with you and your wife, I would have thought the Four Seasons restaurant, and we’d go see something at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I’d get an SUV with a bunch of bodyguards. We go out to BAM, but no. We’re going to what, the Waltrip? What’s it called?
Brian Williams: Right. First of all, you’ll get an SUV. I drive a Chevy Yukon. And you’ll have dinner maybe on our deck in Jersey, or we’ll take you to a favorite place, but then we’ll cap off the evening around dusk, they start the first heat races, and then the main race is after dark. We’ll go to the Wall Township Speedway. Route 34. This is family racing. I raised my kids going to small tracks, saying ‘Never criticize a driver because there’s a very good chance their parents, a family member, a friend, is sitting in front of us or behind us at a small track.’ It’s absolutely heaven.
Alec Baldwin: You really haven’t lost touch with your roots, have you?
Brian Williams: Well, it’s more -
Alec Baldwin: That kid from Ridgeway. Because for me, I completely sold out. My idea of the summer is to be on a boat and to try to find, like, have a meal with Plimpton or someone. I want to be with some kind of -
Brian Williams: The other thing that’s changed in the time that you and I have been in the game is haters. The rise of haters being as close as a send button. Comments on the internet are the cheapest currency there is.
Alec Baldwin: The anonymity.
Brian Williams: The most hurtful thing is someone thinking you’re a fake populist when you’re a rich guy, and at root, I’m a populist who’s had to fake being a rich guy, who has—I’m surrounded by fancy people, and people wanting to sell me very nice clothing, and all that, but I, you know this week, I got a phone call from a guy who was my lieutenant at the old village fire company in Middletown. ‘Fire house needs a new generator. We’re wondering if you’d donate one, post-Sandy.’
And I say to Mike Leigh, like 20 years haven’t passed, you can’t get that money out of the township still? Because we used to go door to door and solicit money for our engine company. He says, ‘No, it’s unbelievable. Can you believe it?’ And you know, I’m so happy to be able to donate a genny to my old fire house, but I can go back like that, much easier than I can walk into certain social circles here in New York, or any fancy schmancy place.
Alec Baldwin: I never—I feel the same way. I think one thing that you and I have in common, and that is, it’s a decision you make. It’s like literally to me, it’s always the same image. And that is I’m in a ski chute. I’m in the chute of a ski run of a black diamond ski run; a very, very tough ski run. I say to myself, ‘There’s only one way down.’ I get a sense that you’re the same way, which is that, you know, as much as we’re like, ‘Pinch me, pinch me’, one of the ways we succeeded was we just jumped out of the plane and we pulled the ripcord and took it one step at a time, and we turned around, next thing you know, we’re skating.
Brian Williams: Yeah, there’s this ‘I got this’ syndrome. I guess I do say to myself and to others, ‘I’ve got this.’
Alec Baldwin: Yes I can.
Brian Williams: And I don’t know where that unbridled confidence came from, and I’ve done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq, with rounds coming into the airframe, but I -
Alec Baldwin: Did you think you would die?
Brian Williams: I also—briefly. Sure. There have been probably more than -
Alec Baldwin: A handful of those?
Brian Williams: Yeah. But and -
Alec Baldwin: Do you tell yourself that’s the job?
Brian Williams: Oh absolutely. You have my job and not go and sense and cover and feel these dual wars that we have asked these millions of terrific Americans to go fight, and they’ve raised their hands and volunteered for the honor of it, would be malpractice.
But on an average night when the red light comes on, two things happen. Our announcer is Michael Douglas. ‘This is NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams’. And I hear that, and a part of me every night of my life says ‘Wow that’s funny.’ This broadcast is anchored by someone with my name, because they sure as hell’, and the light comes on, I’m on. Then the ‘I’ve got this’ gene kicks in.’
Alec Baldwin: Host of NBC Nightly News and Rock Center, you know where to find Brian Williams on the weekend.
Alec Baldwin: So I’m going to come see you at the Speedway.
Brian Williams: I would love it. I will host you at Wall Township Speedway, Route 34, in Wall Township, New Jersey.
Alec Baldwin: Deal. I’ll see you.
Brian Williams: Right off the Garden State Parkway.
Alec Baldwin: How do we sign off again?
Brian Williams: I hope to see you right back here again tomorrow night.
Alec Baldwin: That was perfect.
Announcer: This is Alec Baldwin. Here’s The Thing comes from WNYC Radio.