Morning Son

Willie Geist, BA’97, Follows His Father’s Example to Success on Morning TV

By Seth Robertson

Willie Geist, right, joins his father, CBS News correspondent Bill Geist, at the 2011 induction ceremony honoring the elder Geist with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (© Fred Prouser/Reuters/Corbis)

 

In many ways Willie Geist was born to be on television.

The co-host of NBC’s Today show and MSNBC’s Morning Joe is blessed with the good looks and self-assurance that one might associate with, say, a football or basketball team captain—which he was, incidentally, for both sports at his high school in Ridgewood, N.J. Yet there is also something relaxed and unassuming about Geist, who seems just as comfortable participating in Morning Joe’s political discussions as he does in the breezy segments on Today. Whether covering a rift in Congress or a rift in the Kardashian family, he is in his element.

But perhaps more than anything else, Geist is a natural on camera because he comes by it honestly. His father, Bill, is a longtime Emmy Award-winning correspondent for CBS News, and some of the younger Geist’s earliest memories have to do with his dad’s profession.

“I grew up around television, around cameras,” he says. “My dad used to shoot a lot of his pieces in our house in New Jersey. It became a part of our lives. I’d come down for breakfast, and there’d be lights and cameras all over the place.

“I’d look around and think, That’d be a fun thing to get paid to do.”

“GO! DO ANYTHING.”

That’s not to say, though, that Geist was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. As he likes to joke, he very well could have stuck with the summer job he got after graduating from Vanderbilt in 1997: driving a liquor delivery truck around northern New Jersey.

“It was a total blast,” he says. “I was delivering booze in an old beat-up, two-tone brown van that had rusted through a little bit. That job stretched on closer to the holidays, and my parents, having just paid for four years of Vanderbilt, said, ‘OK, what’s the actual job you’re going to get?’ I was having so much fun driving the liquor truck that I hadn’t really stopped to think about it.”

Spurred into action, Geist moved to Atlanta, where many of his college friends were living, and applied for two job openings: one at the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper and the other at fledgling sports network CNN/Sports Illustrated. A die-hard sports fan, he jumped at the opportunity when CNN offered.

“I was a production assistant—about as low-level as low-level can be,” he says. “From 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., I’d sit in front of a little computer and watch the late game—the Mariners or the A’s—then log it, pick out the best plays for the editor, and he’d put the highlights together.

“Of course, I’m not complaining because I was at least getting paid to watch games for a living.”

Gradually, Geist worked his way up the production ladder, becoming an editor, then associate producer, then line producer and eventually field producer. “In a span of five or six years, I learned everything you could ever learn about television,” he says. “It happened by accident. I moved to Atlanta and took the first job that came my way.”

Relocating to New York City for a short-lived show on Fox Sports Net, Geist then joined MSNBC in 2005 as a senior producer for Tucker, a show hosted by political commentator Tucker Carlson. Geist often appeared on-air, but his big break didn’t come until 2007, when he was literally thrust into the spotlight during a shake-up in the network’s programming.

After MSNBC fired talk-show host Don Imus for racially insensitive remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, Geist was asked to help fill a three-hour slot. “The next day they threw a few of us on-air and said, ‘Go! Do anything. Just talk for three hours,’” Geist recalls. “I feel bad for the Rutgers women’s team for being called a bad name. And I feel bad for Don, too—but it changed my life for sure.”

“IMPOSSIBLE TO COMPARE”

MSNBC eventually offered Geist a spot on Morning Joe, the political talk show that replaced Imus in the Morning. Geist co-hosts the show with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski every weekday from 6 to 7:30 a.m. EST.

“I knew from the moment [President of MSNBC] Phil Griffin told us we were going to replace Imus, Willie had to be part of the team,” says Scarborough. “Willie is more than a co-host; he’s a member of our family.”

If Morning Joe’s cast is a family, as Scarborough suggests, then Geist is perhaps best considered the sensible younger brother who often plays mediator. Former Republican congressman Scarborough and left-leaning Brzezinski rarely see eye to eye on issues, but somehow the dynamic works when Geist is added to the mix, as evidenced by the show’s consistently strong ratings.

“Everything Willie touches turns to gold,” Brzezinski says. “But honestly, I’m so glad that Movember [no-shave November] is over because facial hair on Willie is just one thing that doesn’t work.”

All kidding aside, Geist’s golden touch is what prompted NBC to recruit him to Today. In late 2012 he gave up hosting MSNBC’s Way Too Early, a half-hour news show that airs before Morning Joe, to join the NBC morning newscast. He now co-hosts Today’s third hour at 9 a.m. EST with Al Roker and Natalie Morales.

Balancing two shows on different networks every morning would seem problematic, but fortunately for Geist, the commute is a breeze. “I literally run across 49th Street, which separates the building where Morning Joe is and where Today’s Studio 1A is,” he says.

While the sets of Today and Morning Joe are separated only by a few yards, the shows are in some ways worlds apart. The differences between the two are what make his job so appealing, says Geist.

“People say they’re both morning shows, but really they’re impossible to compare,” he says. “Morning Joe has a smaller, niche cable news audience. It reaches the right people—but it’s all politics all the time. I get to talk about Washington, Syria or Afghanistan and have conversations with all the smart people who know about those things. And then I also get to go across the street and have a blast on Today talking about a totally different set of stories—lifestyle segments and things like that where you can cut loose and have a good time.”

Willie Geist co-hosts two successful shows on different networks each weekday morning. He stays grounded by not taking himself too seriously—sage advice from his parents. “The truth is, you’re not quite as important as you think you are,” he says.

 

“A LITTLE PIECE OF THE VANDERBILT NAME”

Regardless of the set he’s on, Geist never misses an opportunity to mention Vanderbilt on the air. When, for instance, the football team makes the highlight reel during a sports segment, he proudly reminds everyone that he is a devoted Commodores fan.

“Joe inserts ‘Roll Tide’ into every other sentence, so I figure I should be able to throw a few ‘Anchor Downs’ in there as well,” says Geist, referring to Scarborough’s ardent support of the University of Alabama.

Geist is no stranger to campus. He often returns for games and other events, like his induction into the Vanderbilt Student Media Hall of Fame in 2012. And even when he can’t make it back to Nashville, he stays connected with the university through social media. As his 190,000 followers on Twitter (@WillieGeist) can attest, Geist bleeds black and gold.

“I just want people to know how honest-to-goodness proud I am to be a Vanderbilt alum,” he says. “When I look at where the university’s come since I was a student, and the national and international profile that it has earned academically, it just makes me feel good. Of course, it helps to have winning sports teams, too.

“I’ll always do anything I can for the university to give back what it’s given me, which is a little piece of the Vanderbilt name.”

Geist credits the university with expanding his horizons in a number of ways. He got a taste for journalism as contributing editor of The Vanderbilt Hustler and a taste for politics while earning his degree in political science. In particular, he says a freshman class about Southern politics, which covered memorable characters like Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana and Gov. Lester Maddox of Georgia, “really whetted my appetite and made me want to major in political science.”

The highlight of his college experience, though, was forming unexpected friendships that have stood the test of time. “My best friends in the world now are from places like Albany, Ga.; Cleveland, Tenn.; and Pewee Valley, Ky., as well as Atlanta and Birmingham,” he says. “Those are parts of the country I hadn’t been exposed to [before coming to Vanderbilt]. The highlight for me was the fact that I got to meet all these people who broadened my world in so many ways, especially culturally.”

“BY HIS EXAMPLE”

Since college, Geist’s perspective on the world has only continued to broaden. In the course of his television career, he has met newsmakers of every stripe, from politicians to business leaders, actors to athletes. But when asked whom he admires most, he does not hesitate in his answer: It’s his father, plain and simple.

“Professionally and personally, my dad is my hero,” he says. “He showed me—not by sitting me down and telling me, but by his example—that a life in journalism, a life in the media, could be rewarding and also fun. He was the guy I looked up to, and it remains that way.”

For his part, Geist’s father plays down his role in his son’s success. “I’m extremely proud,” said Bill Geist in a 2012 interview with The Record. “At first I was reluctant to say ‘proud,’ because that kind of insinuates that I had something to do with it. I mean, we never had any sit-down talks where I told him how to be successful.”

Although there were few sit-down talks in their household, Geist clearly enjoys a filial bond with his dad that goes beyond their shared profession. And it has only grown deeper since Bill revealed on CBS’s Sunday Morning in 2012 that he has been living with Parkinson’s disease for 20 years.

“It was tough for him to do. He doesn’t want to be known as ‘the sick guy,’” Geist says. “But he’s showing people that you can continue living your life and not shrink from the disease. That makes me appreciate him even more.”

In fact, Parkinson’s is one of several topics covered in a new book the two are writing together, called Good Talk, Dad, which is scheduled to be published in May. “It’s a non-schmaltzy father–son book,” says the younger Geist. “I think people will laugh a lot, and that’s the point of the book, but they’ll get some tender stuff as well. He writes a chapter about Parkinson’s, which was cathartic for him, and also a chapter about serving in Vietnam—something he’d not previously talked about much.”

Now that he and his wife, Christina Sharkey Geist, BA’97, have two children of their own, Willie is trying to set the same type of example that his father and mother, Jody, set for him. It’s a safe bet that if his children, Lucie and George, want to follow in his footsteps with a career in television, Geist will offer the same gem of advice he got from his own parents.

“They told me, ‘Don’t take yourself too seriously,’” he says. “There’s a temptation—and, frankly, a lot of people in this business do it—to think, Oh, my God, I’m the most important person in the world because I speak in front of a television camera.

“The truth is, you’re not quite as important as you think you are. I keep that in mind and carry it with me every day.”