Ready for Prime Time

Forty years after his first break at KCRA, Lester Holt was tapped this summer for the top spot in American broadcast journalism—the anchor of "NBC Nightly News." Here’s how “Lightning Bolt Holt” guided his career from the streets of Rancho Cordova to the heart of Rockefeller Center.

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"NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt at KCRA’s downtown Sacramento news studio on July 18 (Portrait by Jeremy Sykes)

 

OOne Saturday morning this past July, Lester Holt parked his rented red Toyota Corolla at the mouth of Television Circle. It’d been 40 summers since, as a teenage news addict growing up in Rancho Cordova, he took the No. 18 bus to J Street and walked six blocks north to this driveway bordering downtown Sacramento. At the end of the driveway loomed the brick building that houses KCRA, the TV station whose newscasts young Lester had consumed regularly, prompting his unannounced visit to ask for his first job in broadcasting. Four decades later, as blue sky punched through soft, streaky pewter clouds overhead, Holt strode toward the building as part of his latest job in broadcasting—the anchor of NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.

KCRA executives had known Holt was coming this time, stopping by on a tour of influential NBC affiliates. (He’d inaugurated the tour in Detroit two days earlier.) Now they could prepare: A few dozen staffers gathered inside a newsroom that was unusually populous for a weekend, slugging coffee and munching on pastries from Estelle’s Patisserie. Chatter and anticipation drowned out the piercing groans and squeals of police scanners. Shortly before 11 a.m., a KCRA executive ushered Holt into the newsroom. An eruption of cheers and applause burst around him, rippling out through the station’s corridors.

Holt, tall and trim in his check-patterned shirt and brown necktie, grinned and waved. The occasion carried more than a whiff of hero’s welcome. NBC and KCRA had arranged a day of tapings on- and off-site, starting with a homecoming interview in the news studio with anchor Kellie DeMarco. Then there would be a recorded greeting to prospective advertisers attending the station’s upcoming Fall Launch Party. Next, a “Commitment 2016” spot promoting KCRA’s election coverage with DeMarco and fellow anchors Gulstan Dart and Edie Lambert. Then they’d shoot in the newsroom before heading downtown for more footage, including a meet-and-greet with firefighters and a succession of viewers around the Capitol and K Street.

First, though, Holt had to reckon with the uneasy curiosity also pervading the space—the awkward undercurrent of replacing his embattled friend Brian Williams as the anchor of America’s most-watched network newscast. A months-long saga had seen the face of NBC News deposed for false claims made during a broadcast, triggering an existential crisis within the organization and shaking the faith of important affiliates like KCRA, whose symbiosis with NBC—the top-rated Sacramento newscast leading into the top-rated national newscast—helped sustain their respective leads in the Nielsen ratings. Williams’ suspension, Holt’s fill-ins, and NBC’s frantic efforts to recover had transfixed viewers and industry observers across the nation. Now, exactly one month after being officially announced as the permanent anchor of NBC Nightly News, Holt was back to help calm nerves in the same newsroom he essentially crashed as a high schooler, at the start of his career.

“I do want to say on behalf of all of us at NBC, thank you, everybody, for your patience,” said Holt, his serrated baritone conferring its customary authority. “It’s been a bizarre six months, and trust me: I was caught in the middle of that riptide. I know everyone was on pins and needles. And by the way, so was I. There were all these rumors and reports as if I knew what was going on. I really didn’t. They told me [in June] as I was walking out the door for vacation, ‘By the way, when you come back, you’ll be the anchor of Nightly News.’ ”

A cluster of ahhhs burbled up from the KCRA staff, punctuated by a man’s voice uttering, “Congratulations.” The staff resumed its applause. Holt wrapped up his speech and introduced himself around. He strolled to the studio, completing his tapings before the group shoved off to shoot their downtown interludes. Five hours later, sipping iced tea in the living room of his parents’ house just outside Elk Grove, the necktie comes off and Holt—seemingly at complete ease without ever fully relaxing—reflects on the day.

“The promotional stuff—listen, it’s part of what we do,” he says. “We have to get the message out that there’s a new anchor. People want to be comfortable—they want to know who’s delivering their news. My folks live here, they watch KCRA every day. They know those [anchors]—but they don’t really know them. They’re in your living room every day. Even today, as I went there, I’d seen them a million times. But it was like, ‘Wow.’ It was kind of cool to meet them.”

“No one has ever said a bad word to me about Lester Holt,” says Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s media show Reliable Sources. “This is the television business! People have bad things to say about everybody.

The thing is, Lester Holt means this. He, too, watches KCRA when he visits Sacramento every five or six weeks, just as he watched anchors like Bob Whitten, Stan Atkinson, Kaity Tong and Joanie Blunden (later Joan Lunden, the Fair Oaks-raised former co-anchor of Good Morning America) deliver the news when he was growing up. Of everything that the 56-year-old makes look easy—intangibles like longevity, patience and charm, or the careful steering of his network’s nightly newscast out of the biggest media-industry scandal in recent memory—little comes easier to Holt than a sincere interest in stories and the lives inside them.

That sincerity has helped make Holt a figure of dizzyingly high esteem both on and off the air—a unicorn of sorts in 21st-century TV news. “No one has ever said a bad word to me about Lester Holt,” says Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s media show Reliable Sources and the author of Top of the Morning, a best-selling behind-the-scenes chronicle of upheaval at NBC’s Today show and other morning TV escapades. “This is the television business! People have bad things to say about everybody. It just says so much about who he is that there’s such universal love and support and affection for him. ‘Love’ is not a word often heard about television anchors.”

Holt in the "NBC Nightly News" studio in New York on Aug. 4, minutes before the live newscast. “This is where it gets fun,” he says. (Photo by Katie Orlinsky)

In an era when a diffuse generation of anchors is held up against Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and other standard-bearing newsreaders of yore (or, more often, is eclipsed by hosts of comedy news shows like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver), Holt is both a throwback and an anomaly. He self-identifies as the Swiss Army knife of NBC News, and his résumé—12 years as the co-anchor of the weekend Today show, eight years as Nightly News’ weekend anchor, four years as the anchor of Dateline NBC, with various fill-ins and innumerable dispatches from war zones, disaster sites, sporting events and revolutions in between—backs this concept up. Holt’s new role as the Nightly News anchor, meanwhile, draws deeply from his years of hard-earned, carefully crafted perspective.

“There’s a yearning for storytelling,” says Stefan Holt, 28, Lester’s elder son and a news anchor himself at Chicago’s NBC TV affiliate WMAQ. “The ability for an anchorman—such as my dad or even myself—to tell stories is a really good way to connect the viewer or the reader or the listener to a piece of information and how it affects them. I still think there’s a yearning for connection. Sure, times have changed. It’s a different landscape. But even with all the different sources out there, I think having the human connection makes a huge difference and is still important.”

Holt’s NBC News tenure builds on his live coverage of stories like the 2000 presidential election recount for MSNBC (where his long shifts on the air earned him the nickname “Iron Pants”) and, prior to that, 20 years of work as a local anchor and reporter in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, where he piloted a news truck for the erstwhile AM country radio juggernaut KRAK while juggling a full load of classes at Sacramento State. (He dropped out in 1979 for a radio job in San Francisco, but was bestowed an honorary doctorate from the university in May.)

(Top) Holt celebrates with a new Sacramento State graduate at the school’s commencement ceremony in May, where he received an honorary doctorate. (Bottom) Holt, who got his start in television at KCRA in 1975, chats with the station’s president and general manager Elliott Troshinksy (right). (Top photo by Max Whittaker; bottom photo by Jeremy Sykes)Wherever he was based, Holt made regular visits to Sacramento to see his parents Lester Sr. and June. During July’s whirlwind trip, he even attended church with them on Sunday before flying back to New York. That’s a new luxury for Holt, who hasn’t had Sundays off for years. It’s also a testament to his utter—and utterly refreshing—normalcy. 

“He’s kind of like we are—the way we raised him,” says Lester Holt Sr., 83. “He has the trappings of the job now, as far as the office is concerned. The private toilet, all this kind of stuff. But he says, ‘I’m still me. When I need to get coffee, I don’t need to tell somebody to get me a cup of coffee. I’ll get up and get my own coffee, and while I’m up, I’ll say, “Can I get you one?” ’ That’s just who he is. I don’t think there are any problems with ego running away with him.” Lester Sr. smiles wryly. “If there is, I’ll handle it.”

While that type of everyman authenticity has its advantages both inside and outside the newsroom, Holt’s effortless cool on both fronts has proven an even more potent weapon for a network under the type of duress that threatened NBC this year. “What I’d say he brings to the party is an absolute calm in the storm,” says NBC News president Deborah Turness. “When news breaks, Lester says, ‘OK—when’s the next flight? I’ll get on a plane, I’ll go there.’ And he’s a guy who can land an hour and a half before airtime, [produce a story] package and anchor the show with no rehearsal and hardly any preparation. He can fly by the seat of his pants, and it doesn’t show.”

Holt is hardly the only seasoned reporter to humbly pay his dues en route to a high-profile anchor job. But he is the one whose path to the anchor chair—a product of uncommon ambition, luck, patience, preparation, tragedy, talent and goodwill—winds through more peaks and valleys than perhaps any of his peers or predecessors. And more than any name appended to his newscast’s title, Lester Holt’s singular pursuit of the news—initiated four decades ago in Sacramento—will define what happens next at NBC.

“One of the things I’ve learned in all my years in this business is that you can only hide the real you for so long,” Holt says. “And I think working [on weekend Today] for all those years helped me find that place where it’s OK to be [me]. At this point in the game, there’s no point in changing that. I’m doing a broadcast that has a lot of history; there’s always been a lot of reverence toward these broadcasts. And I respect that. At the same time, it’s 2015. We’re a little more informal. I just want to talk with people every night, not preach to them. And I want a broadcast that does the same thing.”

When you stand back and look at the last eight months—the intense ratings pressure, media speculation, affiliate soothing and other corrections required in the wake of NBC’s shocking anchor shuffle—it’s almost enough to ask: What’s a nice guy like Lester Holt doing in a cutthroat business like this?

*****

Seventeen days after Holt’s KCRA visit, good news came to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the iconic building in New York City whose third floor houses NBC News headquarters. In the vital July “sweep” contest—one of four annual Nielsen ratings clusters that helps set advertising rates for the season to come—NBC Nightly News had topped the ratings as the most-watched evening network newscast in America, averaging 7.9 million viewers per night for the month. More crucially, the program was No. 1 among viewers between the ages of 25 and 54—the demographic most coveted by television advertisers. By comparison, Nightly News had edged out its closest competition in the demo, ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir, by just under 100,000 viewers per night during the July sweep.

“Total viewers is a popularity contest; the demo is where the money is made,” says Stelter, adding that the industry-wide doubts heaped on NBC News after Williams’ suspension made both the overall and demographic wins all the more impressive. “If you had taken bets in TV newsrooms in June and said, ‘Is Lester Holt going to beat David Muir in July?,’ I don’t think anybody would have taken that bet. Yes, people love Lester. But people were betting against him from the perspective of, ‘Wow, NBC just went through a trauma. Those viewers went through a big change. It’s going to take a while to rebuild.’ Everybody assumed NBC was going to be in this rebuilding mode for a while. Instead, Lester comes out of the gate No. 1. I think it was a wonderful surprise.”

“What he brings to the party is an absolute calm in the storm,” says NBC News president Deborah Turness. “He’s a guy who can land an hour and a half before airtime and anchor the show with no rehearsal. He can fly by the seat of his pants, and it doesn’t show.”

To reward the Nightly News team for its win, NBC caters lunch. A little before 1 p.m., while working on a script for the show’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots, Holt rises from his desk and walks down the hall outside his office. The NBC newsroom is long and narrow, overlooking Sixth Avenue, then bending at the building’s northwest corner, forming a kind of “J.” Holt’s office is at the lower terminus of the “J,” where his windows peer out at the elegant red neon and artist Hildreth Meière’s giant Art Deco plaques on the façade of Radio City Music Hall. He’d moved here roughly three weeks earlier, replacing Williams. Catching the light from one window is an Emmy statuette from 2010, when a brief substitution for anchor Matt Lauer on Today netted Holt a share of the show’s Daytime Emmy win for Outstanding Morning Program. Around it are mementos of Holt’s lifelong love of aviation: a model Alaska Airlines jet from his eldest brother (one of the airline’s senior pilots); a certificate commemorating a 2009 flight with the Blue Angels; a ’90s-era photograph of himself in a flight suit, flanked by sons Stefan and Cameron, from Holt’s coverage of a flight team based outside Chicago. Holt has yet to learn the electronic intricacies of the multiscreen video wall displaying live news feeds opposite his desk. “I got one going,” he says proudly, fidgeting with the controls.

He greets and congratulates the trickle of staffers joining him in an adjacent conference room, surveying the spread of wraps, salads, desserts and soft drinks on a table. After returning to his desk with his lunch, he turns to a colleague seated on the couch to his left. “It’s nice to see those numbers!” Holt tells her. “Of course, every time, then, you look at last night’s [ratings], but still. That’s a win.”

Indeed, as a newsman, Holt is loath to rest on his laurels. He keeps track of the numbers as closely as anybody in the front office. His job depends on them, and he wouldn’t be in his position were it not for numbers. Take the number one, for obvious starters—Holt’s hard-fought place in the nightly news ratings. Or six, the number of months NBC News suspended Williams without pay after his fateful Jan. 30 newscast. In the final segment, repeating a false story he’d told previously on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2013, Williams claimed to have been on an Army helicopter shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003. In fact, Williams and his crew were on a helicopter that later landed near the stricken chopper. A report in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes exposed the exaggeration, leading to Williams’ announcement on Feb. 7 that he would take a voluntary leave of absence from NBC Nightly News.

Holt was at home with his wife, Carol, when Williams called to read the announcement, a three-sentence statement that said in part, “Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue.” Williams wanted to make sure Holt approved before NBC distributed the message.

“Of course,” Holt told him. “Whatever I can do to help us through this.”

From there, Holt didn’t know what to say. The men acknowledged to each other the difficulty of the situation. Holt informed Williams, whom he considers a friend, that he would be there for him.

Holt hung up, stunned. “He got off the phone and he said to me, ‘I feel like somebody’s just kicked me in the stomach,’ ” Carol recalls.