Al Roker opens up about first experience with racism at work

The TODAY weatherman shared how he handled his first encounter with racism on the job, which occurred live on the air in the late 1970s.

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By Scott Stump

Al Roker's new book that takes a look back on what he's learned in his 44-year career has prompted him to reflect on his first encounter with racism on the job.

The 65-year-old weatherman and TODAY co-host writes about the moment in his book "You Look So Much Better in Person," which was released Tuesday, and also spoke about it with Craig Melvin on TODAY earlier this week.

His career with NBC began as a 24-year-old in 1978 with WKYC, an affiliate in Cleveland. Not only did he face his first racist experience at work, it happened live on the air.

Al described the backstory that led up to an uncomfortable on-air situation with anchor Doug Adair, who died last year.

"There was an anchor guy in Cleveland," Al told Craig. "Every night we'd leave and go off, we were in downtown Cleveland. And there was an older homeless gentleman who happened to be African American, and one night he came up behind Doug with a rolled-up newspaper and bopped him on the back of the head and ran off.

"Anyway, the next day we get on the air and his wife, Mona, is about to introduce me, and he goes, 'Mona, before you introduce Al, Al I don't know if you know this, but last night, one of your people attacked me.'''

Al was admittedly stunned but handled it in the quick-witted fashion that TODAY fans have come to know and love over the years.

"Now this is one of those moments where time stands still," he recalled to Craig. "What do I do? And I just looked at him and I go, 'Doug why would a weatherman attack you?' And then just went into the weather."

His response also resonated with WKYC's viewers at the time.

"Well, the phones lit up," Al said. "This is pre-social media."

The incident also taught Al a lesson about sizing up his colleagues at each job.

"You gotta know who you can trust," he said.

His reflections come at a time when many members of the Black community and people of color are sharing stories of racism at work as protests against racial injustice continue across the country.

Al could only imagine what would have happened to Adair in the age of Twitter and Facebook.

"He would have been destroyed," Al told Good Housekeeping. "And, you know, I'm not gonna say 'yay' or 'nay' whether he deserved to. He was an affable guy and what he said was not typical of what he would normally say.

"But, you know, it was a racist comment. ... He ended up leaving the station and picked up somewhere else. I don't know if he'd be able to do that (today)."

Al has dealt with other racist situations over the years but has always aimed to take the high road.

"You try to," he told Craig. "There are times when you want to go low. You want to take people off at their knees, but it's just not worth it."