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.

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.

It was around this time that DeRusha realized the power of television news. He was fascinated by the Tiananmen Square protests as he listened to a Nightline producer describe the scene for audiences on the other side of the globe.

"I just thought it was amazing watching this in my suburban folding chair, in my parents' living room," he recalls. "I wanted to be a part of that."

That passion took him to Marquette University, where he studied broadcasting and political science on a full academic scholarship. As a freshman, DeRusha quickly took over the student television station and earned a reputation as a star in the making.

Tim Vetscher, a former classmate who works as the managing editor at the NBC affiliate in Tulsa, Oklahoma, remembers being impressed by how calm and collected DeRusha was in front of a camera.

"We were all so green," Vetscher says. "As soon as that red light went on, most of us would get nervous, like a deer in the headlights. And Jason, it was like nothing fazed him."

That first summer, DeRusha drew an entirely different reaction while interning for ABC New York.

"I was the one intern who wasn't a rich kid. They viewed me as very much an oddity, being from Milwaukee," DeRusha says. "They literally asked me if there were cows walking down the street."

At Marquette, he organized a platonic version of The Newlywed Game in which roommates tried to answer questions about the others' habits.

Outside the studio, DeRusha was about to take a big step toward his own nuptials. After years of feeling insecure about his weight, he summoned the courage to ask out his crush, Alyssa Bannochie. The opportunity came when his roommate invited Jason to see a polka band at a church festival. DeRusha needed a date. He sent Alyssa a message over the school's primitive version of g-chat, explaining that he didn't want his friend to be his dance partner.

"I should have asked her out instead of beating around the bush like a little wimp," DeRusha says in retrospect. "I was very afraid of rejection."

But he was fearless in front of the camera. His Friday nights were sometimes spent as an overnight editor for WISN-TV. When he did show up to campus parties, he hardly drank. He'd pay for a cup but dump half of it out. Because he always made sure his friends got home safe, they began referring to him as "mom."

"Today as someone who drinks somewhat professionally, I'm embarrassed to tell these stories of my college loserness," DeRusha says.

Of course, he couldn't get through college without having some fun. Temptation caught up with him during his senior year, while on a trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, to cover the college basketball team's NCAA tournament game. DeRusha and three classmates convened over a couple of rum-filled fish bowls at what his friend Vetscher describes as "a chain of douche-kind-of-'80s bars."

Memories of the night are hazy, but each version shares a punch line: While stumbling home, one classmate fell into a fountain and DeRusha chased after her. About the only detail he remembers with certainty is that he was 22 at the time.

"I'm such a loser that my first story of getting drunk happened after I was legal," he says. "It's so disappointing."

But all his hard work paid off. After graduation, he took an internship with WREX-TV in Rockford, Illinois. Soon, however, he scored a weekend anchor gig for KWQC-TV in Davenport, Iowa. Alyssa graduated second in her class the next year and followed him on what would be the first of several moves.

At home in Maple Grove, DeRusha checks to see whether his two boys, ages 8 and 6, are asleep, then heads into the kitchen and grabs an IPA out of his fridge. He takes a sip and settles the bottle on his concrete kitchen table top, smiling as his wife reminisces about their college days.

Soon after they started dating, he sat her down to make sure she knew what kind of life she was signing up for. He'd be working nights, weekends, holidays — whatever it took.

"I never really had it laid out for me in such detail," Alyssa remembers. "When you're not in the middle of it, you're like, 'Sure, I can handle that.'"

Jason's smile fades. "I still think sometimes, you didn't quite sign up for all of these shenanigans."

The words hang in the air for several seconds as they look at each other.

"Well," Alyssa says, "the shenanigans get weirder by the year."

DeRusha's getting the urge. It's been four hours since his last tweet — a rarity for the man with 21,943 Twitter followers. But every time he opens his iPhone, it seems someone else is grabbing his attention.

He's spending his Saturday advising student journalists at the U of M on what it takes to thrive in TV news. Tilting his camera phone, he captures his view from the stage: a mass of wannabe anchors, reporters, and producers that's obstructed partly by the microphone in his face. Two students in the audience tweet back with pictures of the stage.

"Not too long ago I remember being on panels where I was the new young kid," DeRusha begins. "I've been here 10 years and now I'm the old man."

At 38, DeRusha has a résumé that reads like that of a journalist twice his age. Notably, it includes five Regional Emmy awards and 15 nominations, as well as the title of president of the local chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Minneapolis proclaimed September 21, 2009, to be "Jason DeRusha Day" and, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Mayor R.T. Rybak highlighted several of DeRusha's more notable accomplishments, including "dressing up like a light bulb for the Holidazzle parade."

DeRusha joined WCCO in 2003, bringing a younger face and flashier style than the station was accustomed to.

"People looked at me like I had to be an idiot," DeRusha says.

It wasn't long before he'd internalized the weird looks and started wondering: "Maybe I don't deserve to be here. Do I know what I'm doing?"

Don Shelby, a veteran anchor with two Peabody awards to his name, remembers pulling DeRusha aside not long after his arrival to pass along advice he'd gotten from his mentor, Dave Moore. Shelby recognized the strength of the young man's personality, but didn't want to see him overlay it with a superficial sense of authority.

"No one can see the truth of a human being like a television audience," Shelby remembers telling DeRusha. "You can lie, you can fake, you can act — but the first thing the audience sees is you're lying, faking, and acting."

DeRusha's breakthrough came on August 1, 2007. With only his cell phone, he provided viewers with the first images of the collapsed 35W bridge.

"The scene is pretty unbelievable," DeRusha said, his voice cracking at the sight of victims being helped from the wreckage. "Police everywhere and thick plumes of black smoke going up into the air [from] this vehicle fire here on the end of the bridge."

DeRusha was able to narrate in this fashion for several minutes before his cell phone cut out. Reception was spotty the rest of the night — for the entire Twin Cities — as the sudden crash of calls overwhelmed service. It taught him the value of having an alternate means of communication. When he got home the next morning, at 2 a.m., he signed up for Twitter.

That winter, while working on a story about people who are allergic to Christmas trees, DeRusha solicited his followers for leads and got a single reply. One was all it took. Whereas other reporters were slow to see the value of social media, DeRusha embraced it. In turn, the community embraced him.

"He's done an excellent job at making himself almost Minnesotan," says Amy Carlson Gustafson, an arts and entertainment reporter for the Pioneer Press who has written about DeRusha over the years. "He applies that mentality to whatever job he's working on."

The following year, he would bring his social media fluency to full flower when he took over the Good Question franchise. His partnership with the segment's co-creator, photojournalist Joe Berglove, was an exercise in contrasts.

"I'm sort of this born-bred Minnesota outdoor hunting, fishing guy, and he's sort of this metrosexual city kid," Berglove says. "But we have a ball when we're together."

Berglove's hand-held camerawork was better suited for Jason's more casual approach, allowing DeRusha to make even the most mundane of topics entertaining.

In one segment that later won an Emmy for weather reporting, the camera dances around an emaciated snowman as DeRusha says, "Friends of the snowman tell me his murder came as a shock."

In another, DeRusha can be seen running through downtown Minneapolis, his voice quavering as he yells, "Citizen's arrest!"

Of course, the tomfoolery was interspersed with serious news reports. The chances were just as great that you'd tune in to see him calmly interview a researcher about poverty in the suburbs. But what seemed to resonate with people most were the absurd bits.

"It's giving you a little bit of dessert with your vegetables," explains WCCO news director Mike Caputa.

Back at the U of M, DeRusha is finally ready to address the elephants in the room: No, he's not the perfectly coiffed anchor. And yes, he's very active on social media.

"But the truth is, we're still hiring people who know how to write, people who break through the camera, break through the screen, connect with viewers, people who are willing to bust their ass and work hard," DeRusha tells the young journalists. "And that hasn't changed in 15 years."

Neither has the pay.

"But you do it not for the money," DeRusha says, warming up for a signature punchline. "You do it because you love what you do. And if you don't love it — go be an accountant."

The waxy black floor of the studio set is bathed in light that creates a mirror image of whatever stands above it. Two DeRushas can be seen approaching the anchor chair, each stepping on the other's soles.

During a break in the noon show rehearsal, he leans over and asks his co-anchor, Jamie Yuccas, a loaded question: "Do you, on a plane, ever look around and see if you'd be the headline if the plane goes down?"

"No!" she says, laughing. "What are you talking about?!"

He smirks. "Just saying. I'm sitting way back in coach; I'm never going to be the headline. It's your first-class flyers."

C.J., the Star Tribune columnist, wondered in print this summer whether the pairing of DeRusha and Yuccas would end badly for the station. But ratings compiled by WCCO, which are based on data from Nielson Company, suggest that the current Morning Show lineup is more popular than the last.

"Jason is certainly a part of that," says Caputa. "We've been encouraged by these numbers. In general, when you make anchor changes, you look for there to be a dip."

C.J. has since softened her position, saying, "My information on the transition is that he has not been a pain in the butt." She admits that DeRusha's ego is no bigger than anyone else's in local television. So when asked why she continues to call him out, she says, "Because his is more obvious."

"He just radiates it," she adds. "I guess most of them just hide it better."

It's a fact of life: People who spend their day telling strangers how the world works have egos. Julio Ojeda-Zapata, a tech reporter for the Pioneer Press, says DeRusha shouldn't be blamed for having active accounts on Twitter and Facebook — it's the nature of the modern media beast.

"He's a perfect kind of animal for that habitat," Ojeda-Zapata says.

Indeed, without his self-confidence, DeRusha may never have made it in the competitive world of TV news.

"We demand people in those roles have a certain amount of ego," says Scott Libin, a former WCCO news director and faculty member at the Poynter Institute. "You kind of have to put yourself out there every day, and then we criticize them."

The better question is how to manage one's ego, and DeRusha has always kept his in check, Libin says. If the worst somebody can say about him is that he's a self-promoter, "that's a forgivable sin."

By DeRusha's own admission, the person you see on TV is 80 percent real and 20 percent restraint. Sometimes, he conceals his natural reaction to stories discussed on air to maintain the aura of an objective TV anchorman.

"Everybody to a certain degree is playing a character," he admits.

DeRusha's next step is anyone's guess, but he's certainly not as consumed with getting to the national stage as he once was as a young man. He's been here in the Twin Cities for 10 years now, with two children who've never lived anywhere else.

"If they called me I would certainly consider it," he says of CBS brass. "But it's not the no-brainer it would have been five years ago when I was a reporter."

DeRusha's running late. After covering the Vikings game in New York, where he shot CBS promos with Charlie Rose, he's back in the Twin Cities. It's his first day home and already his schedule is stacked.

In the morning, he dashed out of a food segment to go to the eye doctor, then swung back to the studio for the noon broadcast. After that, he hopped on the radio for Chad Hartman's show, then drove to a photo studio in the Northeast Arts District, where he's preparing to pose for a newspaper cover.

At the moment, he's holding down two conversations while listening to a third on the other side of the room. He overhears the photographer recounting the scene from the film Eastern Promises where Viggo Mortensen acts out a fight in the nude.

"Is that what we're doing here?" DeRusha asks. "I mean, I'm game for almost anything, but we're gonna draw the line at totally full frontal."

Without hesitation, DeRusha agrees to wear a magenta bathrobe and slippers. When the shoot ends, he sends a picture of the outfit to his wife and gets an immediate reply: "it's a manly pink."

Although DeRusha is due in Maple Grove in about an hour — to catch his kids at the bus stop — he lingers to talk shop about art, food, and photography. He bounces from one topic to another until tripping on familiar ground: his reputation for being an egotist.

"I know that perception is out there, and I think it's because I'm out there," he says. "Isn't that an OK trade-off, though? If that's the rip on me, that's fine. I'm still gonna work harder than anybody else."

And then he's off, to spend the afternoon with his family and prepare for another public appearance in Minnetonka.

There just aren't enough hours in the day. For Jason DeRusha, 2:28 a.m. can't come soon enough.

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11 comments
jamesd390
jamesd390

This morning they  brought in their moms to read the news from the set .. Riveting TV.

Onan
Onan

CJ calling someone else out for having a big ego? That's rich.

jamesd390
jamesd390

I like Jason - but the total amount of self-promotion of CCO on that morning show stops me from watching. That, plus the amount of commercial time per hour has reached it's tipping point for me. The Miss America comment is also dead-on.

Bobby Balter
Bobby Balter

How much did WCCO pay for this cover story during the first week of "sweeps period"?

lynlake
lynlake

i'll take him over the miss america pageant they have parade around that set each morning, diversity much? 

Jason Gabbert
Jason Gabbert

I don't quite understand the obsession other media have with this guy. He's a nice guy and a competent newscaster, but that's about it.

Onan
Onan

  - I'm thinking it may be just plain ol' jealousy.

 
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