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When the call comes, you answer: Hosting 'Today' on a moment's notice

by Morgan Radford /  / Updated 
Morgan Radford was hired by NBC about three years ago.
Morgan Radford was hired by NBC about three years ago.
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It was 6:37 a.m. on a cold January Sunday, and my cell phone was ringing off the hook.

Groggily, I reached over and answered, my eye mask still on my head.

"Hello?”

“Hey Morgan. It’s the assignment desk,” the person on the phone told me. “Willie [Geist] is sick. ‘Today’ is asking if you can anchor.”

A jolt passed through my body. Did I hear him correctly?

“What time is it?” I asked.

“Almost 7,” I was told. “The show starts at 8. They need you on set in 45 minutes.”

NBC News correspondent Morgan Radford.
NBC News correspondent Morgan Radford.Courtesy of Morgan Radford.

I leapt from my bed and hopped in the shower. This was urgent. Usually, anchors arrive three hours before their show. They research stories, rewrite scripts and review the news. There would be no time for any of that today.

There was also the fact that I had rarely anchored for NBC, let alone a solo-hour of “Today.” I was hired as a general assignment correspondent by the network almost three years ago. I covered mostly breaking news, from the death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro to the recent terror attack in New York City. I had experience anchoring at my previous job at Al Jazeera America – but the “Today” show was something different, a venerated institution watched live by millions of Americans every day.

Needless to say, I got to the studio as quickly as I could, arriving 20 minutes later in the sweatshirt I had slept in the night before.

Willie, the anchor of “Sunday Today,” was sitting at the cluster of computers beside the control room along with the executive and senior producers going over his scripts.

Morgan Radford preparing to anchor "Sunday Today" earlier this month.
Morgan Radford preparing to anchor "Sunday Today" earlier this month.Courtesy of Morgan Radford.

“Thanks so much for coming, Morgan. So sorry to wake you up at the last minute,” a producer told me.

“We think Willie may be okay,” his executive producer added, “But his voice is going in and out. Why don’t you get your make-up done, protectively?”

But by 7:30 a.m., Willie’s voice was gone completely.

Running out of the makeup room, I swapped my college hoodie for an “emergency dress” I always keep in the communal closet at work. Minutes later, I was on set, wires swiftly being connected down my back, my earpiece plugged in.

“Morgan? Can you hear me?” the executive producer said from the control room. “Sorry to do this to you on such short notice, but we have to start rolling in five minutes. Are you good to start?”

My heartbeat doubled. Was that sweat on my forehead?

“Of course!” I said, trying not to show my nerves.

The lights came on. Scripts were shoved in my hand.

I had just started reviewing the first page when I heard:

“This is Sunday Today….”

As the cameras began rolling, Willie used every last bit of his vocal cords to sit on set with me and tell his viewers what was happening: “I sound like Peter Brady going through puberty. So in an act of TV heroism, my colleague Morgan Radford answered an early morning call to the bullpen, hustled over here just a few minutes ago…”

Then, Willie stepped away from the desk – and just like that, we were off!

Over the next 60 minutes, I helped guide our viewers through what was happening in the world, from the White House to the red carpet. We hosted a question-and-answer session with NBC’s “Meet The Press” moderator Chuck Todd, a man I have never met in person but deeply admire. Throughout the program, I tried to stay 15 seconds ahead by quickly scanning my scripts during commercial breaks.

It was a tremendous opportunity – and admittedly, I was nervous.

I couldn’t help but think about how research shows that male employees almost never hesitate when given an opportunity; they feel ready. But women, we often doubt ourselves, looking for confirmation of our readiness before we leap. On this particular day, I knew I had to leap.

I thought about how my father once told me “the antidote to fear isn’t knowledge, it’s trust; trust in your own ability and in the memory of past achievement.” Having the answers won’t ever ease our fears, he explained, because we’ll never have all the answers. But if you trust in your preparation, if you rest into the deep understanding of your own capabilities, then the memory of your past success should serve as a reminder that there is no room -- or need – to doubt your future.

In fact, opportunities like this are far more sweet because of the setbacks that have made me stronger: the rejection I received the first time I applied to journalism school, the news director who told me I didn’t have a “traditional” undergraduate degree to pursue this career, the hours I spent in my early career sleeping on a couch at work between 14-hour overnight shifts. Too often we celebrate the peaks without understanding the valleys, and it’s the valleys that give us the why– the answer that powers us forward, and the question that any storyteller knows is most important.

But the truth is, on that particular Sunday morning, I didn’t dwell on those things in real-time. In fact, I didn’t have time to process what was happening.

After the show, the producers thanked me and we all hugged our crew. Willie remained in the studio the entire time to make sure the show went off without a hitch; weather anchor Dylan Dreyer was very gracious to make me feel comfortable on set.

Ten minutes later, as I was walking out the door, my work phone rang again. The news desk was now sending me to Massachusetts to cover a snowstorm – a far different assignment than the one I had just moments before. It would be another 36 hours before I would sleep again – churning out five live shots and four new stories in below-freezing temperatures.

But you know what? Even that was preparation for the next time; the next time a teammate needs a hand and you’ve got to be ready to step up from the bullpen.

So that when the phone rings, you're ready to take the call.

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