`GMA' anchor is at ease in new role

September 04, 2002|By Lisa Monti | Lisa Monti,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

It's 4:30 a.m., still pitch-dark in Manhattan, when Robin Roberts leaves her 27th floor apartment to go to work at Good Morning America. It takes two alarm clocks and several swipes at the snooze button to start her day.

About half an hour later, casually dressed, she carries the day's wardrobe and a folder of research material ("my homework") delivered by courier the night before. Outside her building, she slips into the back seat of a black Lincoln Town Car for the five-minute ride to ABC's Times Square studio.

Here, in this city that never sleeps, Roberts steps out into the neon-lit morning and starts preparing for the two-hour show that will be seen by 4 million people.

Roberts, 41, is a self-described Southern belle (she was born in Tuskegee, Ala.) who started her broadcasting career in Hattiesburg and Biloxi, Miss. After working at stations in Atlanta and Nashville, she joined ESPN in 1990 and has been one of its most visible sportscasters. She even spent time as a host of ABC's Wide World of Sports.

Roberts was a longtime Good Morning America correspondent before being named news anchor in April and signing a four-year, seven-figure contract.

On this particular mid-August morning, she's filling in for co-host Charles Gibson alongside Diane Sawyer.

Roberts heads upstairs to her tiny office/dressing room, which is outfitted with a computer, phone and a fresh stack of newspapers. Family snapshots and a Biloxi newspaper clipping announcing her new job at GMA are reminders of home.

It's 1 1/2 hours until the broadcast, and the adrenaline is starting to flow. Live television, even after a dozen years at ESPN, "never becomes old hat," Roberts says.

Along with the tension and pressure of putting together and pulling off a live broadcast, there's a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere. Even at this delicate hour of the morning, there's plenty of joking and laughter.

"They're the nicest people," says Carol Meredith, who does makeup for Roberts, Gibson and weatherman Tony Perkins. "One's funnier than the next."

Ten minutes before airtime, everyone is in place on the set, a collection of furniture and backdrops with just enough room for four large, wheeled cameras and eight people to maneuver.

Roberts and Sawyer barely settle in at "home base" when Sawyer notices that the color of their blouses clash and dispatches an assistant to her dressing room for a change.

The stage manager, an animated woman who keeps the action rolling on time, shouts out the countdown. "One minute to live." "45, going live." "30 seconds. Have a good one, ladies."

Viewers have two misconceptions about GMA. One is the enormous amount of preparation that goes into each show. "People think we show up at 10 to 7, dressed like this and go to the studio and start talking," Roberts says.

The other surprise: "How loose we are in the studio. There's a lot of activity and movement."

Roberts recently interviewed the head of New York's Fire Department who, after watching the crew shift from one set to another, jokingly told her, "This is worse than a fire."

But to those watching from home, everything looks smooth as glass.

GMA moves to the downstairs studio and onto the sidewalk for its final segments, putting Roberts and her cohorts in the middle of cheering fans. When the show ends, she sticks around signing autographs and posing for pictures.

Usually, the first thing Roberts does after each show is talk briefly with her mom. (Her parents, Lawrence and Lucimarian Roberts, live in Biloxi.)

"It's like clockwork," she says of their phone calls.

For the rest of the morning, she's in meetings, working on projects and is on standby to handle any breaking-news updates until Peter Jennings arrives at noon.

Now that she's a permanent part of the GMA ensemble, Roberts appreciates the fact that she's part of a very exclusive club, consisting of about a dozen morning show stars. "Sometimes I'm a little taken aback that I am where I am," she said.

Her association with the show began with sports segments on GMA Sunday in the late 1990s. Doing sports is a natural for Roberts, a basketball standout at Southeastern Louisiana University. Switching to the news desk in April was the first time in her career she was nervous about being "outside my comfort zone."

But she's settled into her job and says the highest compliment people can pay her is to say she looks at ease.

"That means more to me than anything," she says. "People at home want to feel comfortable and if you're not, they're going to turn off the set."

Some have touted Roberts as Sawyer's heir at ABC and even a potential replacement for Oprah Winfrey when she steps down from her talk show.

"I've taught myself you have to put yourself in a position for good things to happen to you," she said. "I was ready for this."

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