Like father, like son: Lester Holt’s eldest joins the family business
BY MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org February 17, 2012 5:20PM
NBC 5 weekend anchor Stefan Holt poses for a photograph in the studio at Pioneer Court Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times
Updated: March 20, 2012 8:01AM
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not gay / But I tell you, man, if I were that way / It’d be paradise, just me and Lester Holt / Champagne on ice and double-lock the deadbolt.”
So goes a 2003 musical, um, appreciation of NBC News workhorse Lester Holt (set to the strains of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”) by New York radio hosts Scott Shannon and Todd Pettengill.
A less libidinous 2011 follow-up proclaims, “He went from a talking head to King Kong. If there were a vote, the best would be Lester Holt.”
It’s a highly subjective assessment, but not untrue; the former WBBM-Channel 2 anchor has come a long way indeed.
A quarter-century after landing in Chicago, where he spent a sometimes bumpy 14 years, Lester is one of the most ubiquitous figures in national news.
Besides anchoring NBC’s weekend “Nightly News” and serving as co-host of the weekend “Today,” he recently began helming the network’s venerable newsmagazine program “Dateline” and pops up sporadically on the Discovery-owned ID channel.
His WBBM work notwithstanding, Chicagoans may also remember a suavely moustached version of him from the comically long-running instructional video “You, the Juror.” Produced in 1996, it continues to educate and entertain captive audiences in seven jury assembly rooms around Cook County.
For the past few years Lester’s eldest son Stefan, who just turned 25, has been following in his dad’s increasingly Bob Lanier-esque footsteps. A recent on-air hire at WMAQ Channel 5, where since mid-June he has reported from the field and manned the weekend anchor desk, Stefan is two years younger than his father was when former WBBM general manager Johnathan Rogers summoned Lester from WCBS-TV in New York. Starting Monday, Stefan shifts to the higher-profile weekday morning anchor desk, where he’ll soon be joined by Daniella Guzman of Houston’s KPRC-TV.
But Stefan insists there’s no shadow to escape. And the only pressure to perform, he says, comes from within.
“I’m my toughest critic. [Lester] is my second-toughest critic. But he’s never one to slam me or put me down. ... He’s not tough to be tough. He’s tough because he knows how the business works. In this business you’ll find a lot of people who want to help those who are just getting their feet wet.”
Unlike most of his news biz peers, Stefan has the benefit of name recognition in America’s third-largest media market. Not that it means much where job security is concerned.
“If you can’t make it,” Lester says, “someone will let you know.”
Maybe so. But Chicago isn’t the world’s least nepotistic city, politically or otherwise. So what are the chances Stefan would be here at all if not for his Holt-ness?
Then again, in local television Stefan’s situation is hardly unique. He’s one of several Chicago scions of broadcasting big shots to score plum on-air gigs. At NBC5 alone, reporters Lauren Jiggetts and Dan Ponce are the daughter and son of Comcast sportscaster Dan Jiggetts and “Chicago Tonight” host Phil Ponce. Reporter Christian Farr has a familial connection too — he’s the son-in-law of WGN’s Robert Jordan, whose daughter, Karen, is an on-air personality at WLS Channel 7.
Suspiciously cloutish though such appointments may seem, NBC 5 president and general manager Larry Wert regards his pedigreed staffers as assets rather than liabilities. They’re “familiar with the landscape,” he reasons, and have instant “market equity.” In the end, though, “performance is the real driver of success.”
That’s one media observer’s take as well. “I don’t think these folks, even though they have a good name, [would] be hired if they didn’t know what they were doing,” says AdWeek Washington bureau chief Katy Bachman.
She adds that among the Nielsen ratings company’s 56 “metered markets” countrywide, hopping around is common — be it from market one to three or, in Stefan’s case, 38 to three. Prior to Chicago, he honed chops at WPBF in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Unsurprisingly, news and a name aren’t all the Holt boys have in common. Stefan shares the 52-year-old Lester’s passion for aviation — so much so that the professed acrophobe earned a pilot’s license.
On the musical front, both are bass guitarists. When feeling jazzy, Father Holt plucks a mean upright.
Both, too, are dedicated “news junkies.” There was a time, Lester says, when he was glued to his police scanner. And he still thrills, in a purely journalistic sense, to the sound of sirens — like those that blared on his block just a few weeks back and caused him to scramble outdoors for a better view of the hubbub.
“We may be the only two guys at this network who have aviation, police and fire scanners in our homes,” says Lester’s NBC colleague and boss, “Nightly News” anchor and managing editor Brian Williams.
Stefan seems to have inherited that curiosity and drive, which emerged early on. On a couple of occasions during his stint at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., he scrambled to capture video of raging wildfires — and emergency response crews aiding evacuees — near campus. The footage, and Stefan himself, made national newscasts — including the “Today” show.
“How much did you get for the tape?” Lester asked after the “Today” segment.
Stefan told him.
“You could’ve gotten more.”
Following a country-and-western DJ stint on the West Coast, Lester migrated to the New York small screen and never looked back. Four years later a spot opened in Chicago thanks to a burgeoning boycott of Channel 2 that made national headlines.
After veteran anchor Bill Kurtis was called up to the network, WBBM tapped in-house vet Harry Porterfield (an African American) to helm weekday evenings. Upon Kurtis’s multi-million-dollar return, in 1985, Porterfield was kicked back to Saturdays and all hell broke loose. Picketers gathered outside the studio at McClurg Court. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH got involved. Racial tension mounted and demands were made. The re-installation of a black weekday anchor was one of them. Rogers offered Lester the job.
And so, in summer of 1986, the still-greenish newsman headed westward to assume afternoon anchoring duties. His ascension to evenings came almost a decade later.
“I didn’t quite know what I was walking into,” Lester says of his Chicago foray. “I wasn’t quite prepared for some of the racial polarization and the residual [effects] of that boycott. So I became a fast learner and developed a bit of a thick skin. But Chicago is a tough market. It’s hard on folks, and I think there’s a real value placed on knowing Chicago. The audiences expect a lot out of their on-air people.”
Ditto the critics. Lester claims to have saved every story written about him — including withering ones he worried his kids would see. Channel 2’s ratings were sinking fast and Lester’s reputation with them. He was ultimately demoted and detractors jabbed away.
Erstwhile Sun-Times media columnist Robert Feder (now with TimeOut Chicago) delivered some especially stinging blows. In 1999, he called out the anchorman for embarking on an independent promotional campaign that included T-shirts with an image of Lester’s face and the words “Thanks for Making Me Your Choice For News! Lester.” Feder also tweaked Lester’s six-minute-plus on-air farewell — complete with montage — in July of 2000, describing it as “a send-off that would make Ted Baxter blush.”
Although nowadays such print whuppings have ceased, Lester admits that online comments from “snarky viewers” can lodge in his craw.
He offered no specifics, but in one 2010 Internet thread, barbs ranged from “Ewwwwwwww! He is gross looking and has the wierd [sic] jaw” to “As soon as I hear his voice I lunge for the remote and change the channel!”
Such surface slights notwithstanding, Lester says he feels more appreciated as a national figure.
Perhaps most rewardingly, he’s free to reveal his entire personality. On “Today,” he can dress up as jowly Scottish songstress Susan Boyle (for Halloween) and lip-synch to “I Dreamed a Dream.” On “Dateline,” he can refer to Jennifer Hudson’s fiance as “one chiseled piece of man-candy.” And on “Nightly News” he can broach serious topics with a gravitas-laden tone that one WBBM consultant deemed “too network-y.”
“I don’t know what that meant,” Lester says. “Maybe a little too officious or something. Anyway, it was considered a negative then. But at the network level I’ve been able to really open up. There’s more runway than doing the 10 o’clock [local] news.”
As children, Stefan and his younger brother Cameron — a mathematically inclined student at Stanford — were sometimes squired by their mother, Carol, to WBBM’s now-razed Streeterville headquarters to see Dad in action.
After Lester accepted an anchor position with then-fledgling cable outlet MSNBC in 2000 and moved his family to New York, Stefan began to observe even more closely. He watched as Lester reported on the contentious 2000 presidential election, the jarringly close horrors of Sept. 11 and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq — all the while garnering more national acclaim.
In 2005, upon graduating from Manhattan’s progressive Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (where tuition tops out around 35 grand), Stefan spent his Pepperdine years studying political science and broadcast journalism. Career plans remained vague.
Though Lester never earned a college degree, he studied government at California State University in Sacramento. Dropping out to work in radio “was what it was,” and he doesn’t regret the decision. After all, things turned out pretty well. Of course, “it was a different time and I recognize that.” He made sure his sons did, too.
In the same vein, when Stefan set off on a similar path professionally, Lester “was very honest with me. He didn’t push me into it or push me out of it. He got down to brass tacks: it’s a tough business. There’s a lot of good things to it and there’s a lot of bad things to it in terms of the stories that you tell. And he was honest [about] the fact that it’s a changing and evolving business. It’s not the same one that he got into back in the late 1970s.”
On your way up, Lester advised, ask questions. Make friends with the camera operators and fellow reporters — they’re the folks who’ll “keep you out of trouble.” Oh, and be humble. (Read: Hold off on the promotional T-shirts.)
“I made stupid mistakes and I’m sure he’s made or will make some,” Lester says. “But it’s just a matter of work ethic and applying yourself, and I think he’s been successful at it.”
Wert certainly thinks so — not that he’d indicate otherwise to a newspaper reporter. Among other qualities, he lauds Holt the Younger’s “work ethic and attitude” and calls him “a natural on the air.”
Williams’ same-team cheerleading is even more exhuberant. Stefan, he proclaims, is “frightening on television.” As in scarily good.
And BriWi, as poorly received “Saturday Night Live” singer Lana Del Rey recently learned, isn’t always so effusive.
Almost a dozen years ago, when Lester bolted for MSNBC, it was with the “internal understanding” that if things fell through he could always find another job in local news. That’s no longer necessary — or even an option.
“This is where I belong,” he told himself almost from the start. “This is probably where I belonged all along.”
Stefan, meanwhile, is still finding his footing in a town where TV types are lionized and lambasted with equal relish — something his father knows better than many. All he can do is “work hard and put the pedal to the metal and really go for it.”
And if someone, someday pens an paean (or two) to his total awesomeness, well, that’s just icing on the cake.