Shack’s Big Test
By Billy Townsend ’94
Photographs by Beth Perkins
When Brian Shactman ’94 became an MSNBC host, he knew he had to boost ratings, beat CNN and get home in time to take the kids to soccer. Would that be enough?
Mika Brzezinski looked perplexed.
Across a split screen, Brian Shactman ’94 tried to explain to the co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe why it’s funny that some WNBA trash talk the previous night had ended with one player kissing another on the cheek.
A couple of hours earlier, Shactman had made an instinctive call to play up Diana Taurasi’s aggressive cheek peck on his 5:30 a.m. show, Way Too Early. The greater MSNBC morning extravaganza was still
getting mileage out of it.
Shactman knows Taurasi a little, from his days as a TV sports reporter in Hartford and hers at the University of Connecticut: “She’s got more charisma than almost any athlete I’ve covered.” As he explained on the air, it’s just like her to break the tension of a near-fight on the floor with a wicked grin and a made-for-TV smooch.
Brian Shactman ’94
But Brzezinski, the straight-woman, shook her head as the kiss clip repeated like a GIF. “I don’t get it.”
In mock exasperation, Shactman turned, puckered and kissed the air over and over again. His lips landed precisely where Brzezinski’s cheek would have been if she were not 225 miles away in Washington, D.C., covering the approach of the government shutdown.
The air-smooching further vexed Brzezinski, and she proceeded to slap Shactman, virtually. The control room erupted. “That was awesome,” said one producer, giggling into his headset.
Welcome to the peculiar and demanding alchemy of successful cable news. Brian Shactman, my old dorm mate in James Hall, is one of its sorcerers.
In January, Shactman wrapped up an eight-month gig as host of Way Too Early—the “pre-game show,” in the network’s mind, for its flagship Morning Joe. Now he’s covering the Olympics.
As part of his Way Too Early job, Shactman was a regular Morning Joe contributor, where, on Sept. 27, his unscripted slapstick with Brzezinski provided the high point of the program. It also provided a glimpse into how Shactman made his show a success.
Way Too Early was the 42-year-old’s first shot at hosting his own national show. The opportunity arrived with mandates to improve ratings and beat CNN.
Shactman did both.
Every weekday morning, in 30 brisk minutes on camera, Shactman’s version of Way Too Early recapped whatever international drama occurred overnight and chased it with a hint of TMZ-ish celebrity news, a touch of business and a heftier dose of sports. In the wrong host’s hands, the mix and segues might have come out ridiculous and cringe-worthy. But Shactman managed them with earnestness, irony and wit. On camera in MSNBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza studio, he held court with viewers and crew as if he were in an Amherst common room with his buddies. In the process, he raised his own profile in the industry.
Seventy miles away from Manhattan in tiny Blairstown, N.J., Shactman has another show. But he doesn’t so much anchor it as hang on for dear life. Sure, Blairstown looks like Mayberry with a slight Jersey accent and a prestigious prep school dropped into the middle of it. But out here, he is
Jessica Matzkin’s husband. He’s Max, Annie and Bennett’s dad. He’s Coach Brian.
The family lives in a comfortable but modest home on the campus of Blair Academy, where Matzkin is a dean of students. “Most of the people here don’t even know what I do,” he says, and he has little time to inform them. He’s too busy herding three spirited kids—all younger than 8—through a modern professional family’s day.
As host of Way Too Early, Shactman’s day started at 2:30 a.m., and it went much easier if he could make it home from work by noon. That gave him time to take Bennett, his youngest son, to the Blair dining hall for lunch. Then he could fit in a run before picking up the other two from school, sending the nanny home for the day, overseeing homework, organizing a bike ride and toting everyone to soccer, which he helps coach. Matzkin routinely works late, so Shactman’s afternoon and evening duty is essential.
Unfortunately, on my late-September visit, Amtrak and I conspired to wreck his schedule. We were supposed to meet at 30 Rock in the late morning—21 hours before the Morning Joe air-smooch—and ride to Blairstown together. But a power outage delayed trains all around New York. I arrived almost three hours late.
I’d come to follow Shactman for 24 hours and get sense of how he and his family navigate the Big Media world. Even among Amherst grads, few people live the life of an almost-star. I wanted to see if that life is really so different from the rest of ours. The plan was to start my visit by listening in on a call with Shactman’s agent, and then to hit lunch at the Blair dining hall with Shactman and Bennett.
Before sunrise Shactman and his team whittled away at their story list.
But the train snafu killed those ideas. It also made one thing abundantly clear: In many ways, Shactman remains the “Shack” I knew at Amherst. On camera he exudes easy confidence. He’s just as charming in real life, but I know that he’s also intense and emotional. He’s not good at hiding it when he’s stressed or upset. Shactman is forthright about this quality, and nothing stresses him like his schedule. So a late-arriving train—or a 7-year-old’s missing shin guard before soccer practice—can quickly become a minor crisis mingled with a vague sense of personal betrayal.
After some testy texting and phone calls, the MSNBC car service saved the day—and maybe our friendship. One car took Shactman home; the other picked me up outside Penn Station. Just like that, everything calmed down. During his time at Way Too Early, car service—the one noticeable Big Media perk in Shactman’s life—was absolutely vital to balancing the duties of home and studio.
“I want to make people happy as a husband and a father and a host,” he said by phone a few weeks after my visit. “And I’m pretty intense. But I’ve gotten much better at work. Ultimately, it’s just TV. If somebody says something nasty about me on Twitter, it doesn’t really matter. It’s more of a work in progress at home. I don’t lack for self-awareness. I know I’m a little too intense about some things at home. I have to keep working on it.”
Seven-year-old Annie puts it more directly: “Sometimes he comes home grumpy.”
But at least he’s able to come home. In his previous job as a national correspondent for CNBC, Shactman might have gone anywhere in the country on a given day. The 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico kept him away for a week. So did Hurricane Sandy. His work on North Dakota’s energy boom garnered an Emmy nomination. But Emmy nominations for North Dakota stories wreak havoc on family life.
During his stint at Way Too Early, Matzkin and the kids saw much more of him. The family usually ate dinner together before he piled the kids into bed at 8 p.m. for a story. On the night of my visit, it was Dr. Seuss. Shactman paused halfway through the rhymes: “Man, this is a long book.” His clock was always ticking. Before bed he led a conference call for the following day’s show and arranged his clothes so as not to wake the family in the middle of the night. At 9 p.m., he was off to sleep.
Afterward, Matzkin spent a few minutes chatting with me. She ran through the demands of her day and how she and Shactman met. She chuckled lovingly about her husband’s irresistible mix of charm, ambition and sensitivity. Then she noticed school folders on the dining room table. She started picking through papers. She sighed.
“They didn’t do their homework.”
Two-thirty came early. Or was it late?
Stepping into Shactman’s world felt like jet lag. But he had the Way Too Early morning routine down to a precisely scheduled science. Up at 2:35. Shower. Throw on jeans and a sweatshirt. Put nothing in the hair.
The hair used to add a few moments. Then he got some tough love from the studio’s make-up team. “They told me I was an overgeller.” So he surrendered total control of his face and coif to the professionals, which bought him a couple of extra minutes at home.
He got some tough love from makeup: “They told me I was an overgeller.”
He used them to kiss Annie goodbye as she slept. “She made me promise I’d kiss her before leaving,” he said as we stepped into the 3 a.m. darkness. “She knows when I don’t do it, so I do it every morning.”
A driver in an important-looking black SUV waited in the unlit driveway. The ride let Shactman catch a few extra minutes of sleep. He used the rest of the time to work his iPad for stories that may have developed after the pre-bed conference call. By 4:15, we’d traded family and Blairstown for a 30 Rock cubicle and banter with producers.
“We’re spending an awful lot of time on Mariano Rivera,” said one producer, referring to the famed closer’s emotional final appearance at Yankee Stadium the night before.
“That tells you what a slow news day it is,” said another. It also tells you how seriously Shactman’s Way Too Early took sports. Shactman grew up near Boston as a devoted Red Sox fan, and he was never afraid to open the show with the Sox. (A few weeks later, he’d pull an all-nighter driving to Fenway and back for Game 1 of the World Series. He told viewers the morning after, “I have enough makeup on my face to putty a house.”)
For 45 minutes Shactman and his team whittled away at their list of stories. They tightened up intros and wrote a few jokes. Their editorial choices illustrated what Way Too Early wanted to accomplish. “I like to use the Matrix metaphor,” Shactman said later. “You know, they plug Neo into the Matrix and instantly he knows kung fu. That’s what we’re after. You can plug into the show and get the knowledge to be conversant in any setting—water cooler, coffee shop, locker room. You get a good news briefing. You get sports, business and popular culture. We can quickly help you get comfortable in any conversation.”
At 5 a.m. Shactman dashed into an empty office and threw on his suit. Next he headed to makeup. He taped the show’s opening at 5:25 without his jacket, which he’d forgotten to bring to the studio. It arrived just in time for the live action.
Shactman glided smoothly through five minutes of Mariano Rivera, and then through somewhat less time on Syria and the looming government shutdown. A scripted joke about actor Zach Galifianakis pretending to beat up singer Justin Bieber fell flat, as Shactman half-predicted to me when he typed it into the computer. “Most jokes work best if I don’t write them out,” he’d said.
In fact, on-camera spontaneity is one his strengths as an anchor. So it’s no surprise that, that morning, an off-the-cuff moment killed. During a business segment, correspondent Geoff Cutmore brought up a possible boycott of Barilla pasta over its owner’s homophobic comments, but Shactman couldn’t get past Cutmore’s outfit—striped shirt, striped tie, striped jacket. “You know what you’re not boycotting, Geoff? Stripes on stripes on stripes.”
It was a complete non-sequitur—one that made everyone on set giggle and left Cutmore, whom Shactman admires as a “complete pro,” momentarily speechless. During a commercial break, executive producer Ben Mayer told Shactman that he was running long. That’s the price of ad-libbing: Something had to drop from sports. Shactman cut a college football game but kept Taurasi’s hoops kiss. It was a good choice—and typical of Shactman’s story judgment.
“Brian hates repetition,” Mayer told me. “He is constantly pushing the team to frame stories with what’s new, what’s uncanny, what our viewers won’t hear on some other broadcast or read online. He’s never had his own show before, so I think he’s more and more finding his voice.”
Actually, Shactman has always had his own voice. And it’s been vital in getting him this far.
Few people make a more powerful first impression. I remember exactly where I met Shactman in the fall of 1990, just outside his first-floor room in James. I can’t say that about any other Amherst friend. It was nothing more than a strong handshake and “I’m Brian Shactman. Good to meet you,” but the impression lingered. Tall, confident and good-looking, he stood out from his fellow freshmen.
One-name status came quickly. Within a week he was “Shack.” A few days later he became “Love Shack,” for obvious reasons. (The B-52s were big at the time.) If the Class of ’94 had held a vote for “Most Likely to Have a Career on Camera,” he would have won, even though he never spent a moment with any campus journalism or broadcast outlet. When I heard he’d gotten a news anchor job, I thought, “Of course.”
Shactman has repeatedly talked or charmed his way into opportunities. With virtually every one, a combination of restlessness and ambition has driven him to seek the next. After some postgrad wandering, including a brief stint teaching at the Taft School in Watertown, Conn., and a master’s degree in English, Shactman—who’d played hockey at Exeter and Amherst—parlayed some connections into a strategic phone call to the then-fledgling ESPN.com in 1998. The network needed an online hockey writer and editor who’d work terrible hours for lousy pay. Shactman was a hockey-playing English major in desperate need of career direction.
He called Andrew Everett, son of a colleague from Taft. “I had met him a few times and knew he worked at the start-up that managed ESPN.com and NFL.com,” Shactman says. “While I was on the phone with him, he spoke to executive editor Jim Jenks, who hired me days later.”
Shactman went to work grinding out NHL and college hockey content and aggregation. ESPN held the NHL’s television contract at the time, and Shactman used his hockey knowledge to seize an on-camera opportunity. He shudders at the memory of this first TV appearance: “I was sweating. I stammered. I couldn’t think.”
Despite his struggle to get comfortable on camera, he became the network’s go-to voice for hockey when its prime-time commentators were unavailable. Then ESPN gave up the NHL contract. Online hockey columnist and off-hour TV analyst was always a niche job. With no TV contract to support, Shactman realized the niche itself would go away.
He sent out tapes to local stations across the country and got one bite—from a station in Hastings, Neb. It wanted to make him the second sports anchor on Nebraska’s fourth-largest station. He visited Hastings, picked out an apartment and came within inches of signing a three-year contract.
But he didn’t pull the trigger, largely because of Matzkin, whom he’d met playing pickup hockey at Taft. Like all successful relationships, this one started when he went on a blind date with her friend. It blossomed after Matzkin tripped him with her stick during some on-ice flirtation. Shactman broke a rib on the fall. He was smitten.
“If I had gone to Nebraska, I don’t think we would have made it,” he says. “I really don’t know where I’d be today.”
Fortunately, the powers-that-be at WVIT in Hartford also saw Shactman’s tape. “They said, ‘You’re terrible, but we like you. We see possibility.’ So they gave me a six-month contract to see what I could do.” That was in 2002, and it didn’t hurt that he’d chatted up the news director’s mother-in-law at a youth soccer game. (“She loved me. I think she may have gotten me that job.”)
Shactman soon won awards for sports reporting and anchoring, including an Associated Press award for a documentary on the UConn women’s basketball coach. WVIT made him co-host of its morning show. Within months he’d gone from “terrible” to local star. Commuters on I-91 looked up into his grinning face on billboards.
This unorthodox rise didn’t always sit well with veterans at the station; Shactman acknowledges tension behind the banter with his co-anchor. Also, he chafed at some of the more Anchormanish aspects of local news: Too many mornings he opened the show with the latest Britney Spears meltdown or breathless reports about busting a pirated-DVD ring.
When CNBC offered him a spot, he jumped. He joined the business network in 2007 and soon became co-host of its Worldwide Exchange program. But he never found a breakout anchor role. Not knowing where the day’s economic news would take him, he dreaded telling Matzkin that he was off to Arkansas or Louisiana or Eastern Europe. On a 2010 trip to Poland for a tobacco documentary, he got stranded by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano that grounded European air traffic for days. “The youngest was about 7 months and still not sleeping,” he recalls. “My wife had to cancel a slew of things.” He ended up driving to Vienna just to fly home. “A few days later, I had to go to Bolivia. That almost broke us.”
Shactman began to question his future in TV.
“Honestly, I was starting to consider what else I could do. Should I try to get a job with a prep school? I’m not really young anymore, and I thought this might have run its course. I had to get off the road. The road was killing me.”
He saw a chance when Way Too Early’s Willie Geist left for the Today show in October 2012. Morning Joe sometimes uses CNBC reporters for business news, and Shactman had worked hard to make himself available to its hosts and producers. That gave him a shot with Way Too Early, which shares studio space with Morning Joe. Early morning cable news is a constant churn of shows, personalities and time slots, but there is one relative constant: Way Too Early, like Morning Joe and virtually every other MSNBC program, looks up in the ratings at Goliath: Fox News. Geist had never managed to beat his 5:30 a.m. competitor on Fox, but he’d held his own against CNN.
It’s hard to find an expert critique of Shactman’s work as a solo host, for an obvious reason. “Wish I could do it, but I haven’t ever seen the show,” says NPR television reporter and critic Eric Deggans. “It airs, um, way too early.”
But Shactman succeeded where it matters. In the first two quarters of 2013, Way Too Early lagged behind CNN’s morning-show ratings. That changed after Shactman took over in May: Way Too Early beat CNN in the third and fourth quarters. And in his final days, he even knocked off Fox on a few mornings.
Yet on the day of my visit, the logo for Way Too Early with Willie Geist was still painted on an office door window. It was an unsentimental reminder: Big Media life is precarious and often capricious.
As Matzkin put it in September, with a wry smile, “He might be unemployed by the time this story comes out.”
Shactman won’t be unemployed, but despite his ratings success, the network announced in January that Thomas Roberts, another MSNBC news anchor, would take over Way Too Early. It’s an open question as to whether Shactman will stay with MSNBC after he helps cover the Sochi Winter Olympics for NBC.
After going to Russia to cover the Olympics, he’ll announce his next move.
Although Morning Joe and Way Too Early present themselves as non-ideological, MSNBC as a whole is often considered the liberal counterpoint to Fox News. Various reports, none of which come directly from Shactman or MSNBC, suggest that the network’s leadership saw Roberts’ status as a high-profile liberal as a better fit for MSNBC’s political brand.
After the announcement, Shactman said in a statement, “I don’t want politics to be my only focus. I want to continue to branch out.” By covering a bit of everything, every day, Way Too Early has positioned him well for that future.
As Way Too Early’s numbers improved, Shactman became an integral part of Morning Joe, participating in sports and business segments almost daily and coming to view himself as the “sixth man” on that show. Way Too Early recaps or looks ahead at the news that will have the country talking. Morning Joe is where high-powered people come to talk about it. “I’m not a stargazer, but the chance to interact with those people is just very rewarding,” Shactman says. “I think you’re lucky if you can have a job at 42 where you still get to learn every day.”
Engaging with newsmakers and athletes of stature matters more to Shactman than personal fame, to which he seems indifferent. He and Matzkin got a taste of fame during his time in Connecticut, where he became well-known enough to consider a 2010 run for Congress as a centrist Democrat—ironic, given that he might not be political enough for MSNBC. He thought that serving in Congress might actually prove less disruptive to the family than his work as a CNBC correspondent. Ultimately, he decided against a run, but he acknowledges that politics is one of few potential careers that could satisfy his itch to mix it up with smart people and influence public debate and national conversation.
That itch, rather than any specific goal, is likely to drive his professional future.
It was during a Morning Joe business segment that Shactman had his playful moment with Brzezinski. It was funny—and audacious. Not every “sixth man” can pull off repeatedly air-kissing the co-host across a split screen. Shactman can.
Still, audacious banter doesn’t always turn out so well. In a now infamous Morning Joe interview with Russell Brand in June, Shactman made a crack about finding the comedian’s accent indecipherable on satellite radio. Brand was not amused. He snapped back that Shactman shouldn’t listen to jokes while driving and proceeded to dress down all the interviewers—Shactman, Brzezinski and Katty Kay—in a spectacle of awkwardness that became a YouTube sensation.
“I meant to talk about how I had trouble with his accent as I listened to him on the car radio,” Shactman says. “People took it as me being anti-British or something. It got millions of hits on YouTube and scathing criticism from his fans.”
Brand’s ire aside, to Shactman, the rewards of taking chances on camera and letting “Shack” shine through outweigh the risks. Don’t expect him to stop taking those chances, wherever he lands next.
For now, he’s excited to be an NBC correspondent at the Olympics, after which he says he’ll announce his next move. At press time, he was enjoying the quiet chaos of Blairstown, where the weeks between leaving Way Too Early and traveling to Russia gave him a sort of family vacation. He supervised homework. He stayed up late. And he always made it to lunch at the dining hall with Bennett.
Billy Townsend ’94, a former reporter and editor at several Florida newspapers, is the author of Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida, about violent racial and religious conflict in Florida between 1915 and 1930.