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Wake-up Call

As executive producer of NBC’s ‘Today’ show, Libby Leist ’01 has one of the top jobs in TV news

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It’s 8 a.m. on a Tuesday in late October, and Libby Leist ’01 is in the control room of Studio 1A in Rockefeller Center, the heart of NBC’s “Today” show. Surrounded by more than a dozen staffers and twice as many monitors, she keeps a sharp eye on everything in front of the camera—and behind the scenes—to ensure that the broadcast appears seamless to its approximately 4 million viewers. “There are so many parts to the show,” she says. “It’s like conducting an orchestra.”

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Leist (left) on the set in December with co-hosts Savannah Guthrie (center) and Hoda Kotb.Courtesy of NBC Universal

Leist has just watched co-host Hoda Kotb do an emotional interview with Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who’s calling for an investigation of USA Gymnastics in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal involving the team’s former doctor. Minutes later, Leist smoothly preps for a lighter topic: the “Baby Shark” toddler and her parents are on set and ready to dance, having been invited to appear after an adorable video went viral of the two-year-old asking Amazon’s Alexa to play the catchy kids’ tune. “You always have to think about the segment, and then have a back-up plan because it’s live TV,” she says. “Everything moves so quickly. You have to be able to adjust.”

That’s nothing new for the seventeen-year NBC News veteran, who was promoted to executive producer of “Today” in January 2018 after five years as a senior producer. Leist oversees the franchise’s prime hours—7 to 9 a.m.—which bring in a reported $500 million in annual ad revenue. It was a groundbreaking hire: she’s the only woman to hold that position in the show’s sixty-six-year history. Her elevation was part of a network shake-up after longtime anchor Matt Lauer was fired amid sexual misconduct allegations; at the same time, Kotb was named Lauer’s replacement, making her and co-host Savannah Guthrie the first female duo to anchor the iconic morning show. Leist says she’s grateful for the opportunity, but tries not to think too much about her trailblazer status. “I just want to do the best job that I can,” she says. Still, she adds, “you don’t want to be the first female executive producer who doesn’t deliver.”

Leist studies notes, wearing headphones, during a broadcast

Leist in the control room.Courtesy of NBC Universal

Leist started her first day in the role reassuring staffers shaken by the circumstances surrounding Lauer’s departure. She weathered another challenge in her second week: “Today” was in South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics when the school shooting occurred in Parkland, Florida. “We had all of these Olympic shows planned, but it was such a big story happening back home, a lot of changes had to be made,” she says. “We had to pivot to cover it from Korea.” Since then, Leist has been finding other ways to make her mark. The day before CAM’s visit, she’d pushed to send Guthrie to Pittsburgh after a mass shooting at a synagogue, in what’s believed to be the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. “It’s a big deal when the show sends the anchors into the field,” she notes. “It’s our way of saying that we think this story is really important.”

She’s also eager to build programming centered around significant causes and initiatives, noting that she’s proud of bringing in former First Lady Michelle Obama and others for an extended segment celebrating the International Day of the Girl in October. “We haven’t focused on one issue like that for an hour in that big a way,” she says. “The ‘Today’ show brand is so powerful, I always feel a responsibility to make sure we’re using it in a way that’s significant.” She certainly has a fan in Kotb, who marvels at Leist’s ability to be a tough but kind boss. “She’s a born leader who gets things done and gives you the straight truth, but somehow does it in a loving way,” says Kotb. “I’ve worked with a lot of executive producers, and Libby is the best one I’ve ever worked with, without question. I feel like the sky’s the limit for her.”

Later in her 30 Rock office, Leist reflects on rising through the ranks at NBC. A communication major on the Hill, she worked as a summer intern at its affiliate in her hometown of Utica, New York, before landing a job as a desk assistant in the network’s Washington, D.C., bureau. She started two months before the September 11 attacks, and was soon helping with pieces about the aftermath, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iraq War; as she puts it, “9/11, and the years afterward, is what I consider my journalism school.” Over the next decade, she traveled the world as reporter Andrea Mitchell’s State Department producer and took on several senior producer roles, including for the bureau’s Capitol Hill coverage and MSNBC’s weekday political talk show “The Daily Rundown.”

Leist moved to New York in 2013 to work at “Today,” where she led political coverage and special events that included three Olympics, a live show from the White House, and three presidential candidate town halls in 2016. “It has felt like a new career every few years, which is nice,” she says. “It keeps my brain fresh.” These days, Leist typically wakes at 4 a.m. and doesn’t leave the office until 4 p.m., conferring with colleagues again in the evening to see if breaking news affects the morning broadcast. “It can be a grind, and people work long hours,” she says. “It’s tough. We have to cover the news and fulfill our responsibility as journalists. But at the same time, this is a fun job. We’re lucky. I want it to be a place where it feels that way.”

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