Waking up with Jason DeRusha

A look behind the scenes with the hardest-working man in Minnesota media

Waking up with Jason DeRusha
Tony Nelson

The workday begins at 2:28 a.m. Jason DeRusha awakens to the intermittent wail of his alarm clock and staggers, bleary-eyed, toward his bathroom, where he lets the shower run.

DeRusha wipes away the steam, and his face becomes clearer in the green-framed mirror. His mouth fills with the dull hum of an electric toothbrush as he checks Facebook, Twitter, and email on his iPhone. Sometime in the night, an admirer wrote to ask him to run for mayor. He laughs to himself and spits jasmine-mint toothpaste into the modernist ceramic wash basin.

To avoid waking his wife and children, he treads lightly down the stairs, passing the orange couches and lime green walls in his living room. He makes a pit stop in the kitchen to prepare a salad for lunch, then he's out the door.

Tony Nelson
DeRusha hard at work on a food segment with authors Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois
Tony Nelson
DeRusha hard at work on a food segment with authors Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois

In the driveway, he pauses and casts his gaze across the row of houses in Maple Grove and up to the stars. It's too dark for witticism. Maybe in another hour. For the moment, he says nothing and hops in his maroon sedan to commute downtown. His is the only car in sight.

"It's so quiet," he says, the muscles of his throat beginning to loosen. "It's like you're literally waking up with the city."

It's been five months since DeRusha began anchoring the WCCO Morning Show and noon broadcast. Each weekday he rises well before dawn and for the next 12 to 20 hours draws from a seemingly endless reservoir of energy.

As WCCO's Good Question reporter, DeRusha achieved a rare level of local celebrity with his deft blend of reportage and off-the-cuff wit. During a single week in October, he hosted three charitable events and spoke at the University of Minnesota. At each, he entertained crowds with his wry and self-deprecating sense of humor. He loves to perform and hates to say no. And this ability to be everywhere, in every medium, without tiring, is his unspoken genius.

Still, his critics worry that he's too interested in building a personal brand and see a potential dark side. Being at every fan's beck and call certainly makes him accessible, but it also pushes his level of exposure to an extreme that borders on exhibitionism.

"I don't think he ever tires of being Jason DeRusha," quips Star Tribune gossip columnist C.J., who enjoys a gentle rivalry with him.

To say DeRusha doesn't look the part of the polished newscaster is an understatement. At five-foot-ten with a bulbous waist, DeRusha's mien is more soccer dad than playboy. He makes no secret of his recent hair transplant.

"He's a bit of an anomaly," says Rick Ellis, the founder of allyourscreens.com, which tracks local and national broadcasts. "He's not a classic TV look, but particularly with local TV in the morning, the originality and the believability is more important."

Around 4 a.m., DeRusha reaches the WCCO green room, a tiny enclave in the back hallway that can fit only a couple of reporters comfortably. He drops a makeup bag on the counter and unpacks bottles of fake tan and hair-building fibers to cover his bald spot. He swings a black apron over the front of his suit and stares into a mirror that's rimmed with pulsating lights.

An observer asks DeRusha what he sees. He laughs, and for the first time this morning flashes a hint of impatience.

"Is it flaws? Is it success?" he asks himself sarcastically. "There's just so many directions you could go with an absolutely obnoxious answer to that completely obnoxious question."

Daylight wanes as DeRusha hurries down the hallway of International Market Square. In the bricked atrium, string musicians play softly for the several hundred people mingling among the white-linen-covered tables.

DeRusha's here to present awards to the donors and patrons of a local nonprofit that works with the disabled. He shakes hands on his way to the stage and glances at his script. As usual, it won't be long before he deviates.

During the presentation, DeRusha wades into the crowd with his microphone, asking a Walmart employee who's being honored to repeat the chant he'd started at a recent store opening. The bear of a man — bespectacled and suited — growls into the mic to the room's delight.

DeRusha lingers at the end of the night to say his goodbyes and is approached by another of the night's honorees.

"I don't watch WCCO but I'm going to have to start," he says, blushing. "I feel like I'm in the presence of a celebrity."

DeRusha's love of performance began early in life. As a boy growing up in Des Plaines, Illinois, he watched plenty of daytime television and became fixated on game shows. Staying home from school meant he could watch men like Peter Tomarken of Press Your Luck.

His earliest lesson in journalism, however, came in high school. A drama teacher discouraged him from using his fake game-show host voice — the same one he used on the morning announcements — while narrating Our Town.

Young DeRusha excelled in two areas: school work and quick remarks. An English teacher nicknamed him "Sir Jason the Cynical," and to this day, DeRusha remains conscious of how thin the line is that separates cynicism from sarcasm.

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