When the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated during reentry in February 2003 and CNN’s major anchor Aaron Brown was out of pocket, science correspondent Miles O’Brien stepped in. Clearly and calmly, O’Brien—a trained pilot with hundreds of hours logged in the skies—guided viewers through the tragedy.
This pinch-hitting led CNN to name O’Brien co-anchor of the weekday newscast Live From… and, this past June, co-anchor of the high-profile, New York-based American Morning. Working alongside Soledad O’Brien (no relation), O’Brien has helped build the show’s audience 12% in news’ target demo (viewers 25-54) and 5% in total viewers—to an average 495,000 in July.
“I’ve been in the business 25 years, and I’m kind of a late bloomer, I guess,” he says, wiping off makeup from the three-hour shoot he just wrapped. “I’ve just kind of plugged along and done what I liked to do.”
Getting on the Air
The Detroit native left Georgetown University one semester shy of graduation in 1981 to take a job at the Washington NBC station, where he had been interning. After ripping wire copy on the overnight shift, he would shadow reporters during the day to learn about reporting and shooting segments. He resolved to land an anchor job, and mailed résumés and a cobbled-together demo tape to at least six stations each week.
After collecting enough rejection letters to “wallpaper a house,” O’Brien recalls, he grew indignant enough to call the general manager at a St. Joseph, Mo., affiliate and demand to know why his efforts earned him only a form letter.
“I said, 'You’re the 191st market [out of some 210], and you just gave me a form letter,’” he says. “'You gotta do me a favor: Tell me right now if I should stop looking for a job on TV.’”
A month later, O’Brien was offered a job there, although the station could not even afford to fly him to Missouri for an interview. In St. Joseph, he became a one-man band, earning $220 a week for shooting, writing, editing, producing and anchoring his own stories for the 6 p.m. telecast, for which he ran the teleprompter with his foot.
From there, he worked his way through reporting, anchoring and producing jobs at affiliates in Albany, N.Y., Tampa, Fla., and Boston, and a brief job at the Christian Science Monitor Channel in the early 1990s, before interviewing at CNN for the network’s science-correspondent post.
A former history major, O’Brien endured a two-day trial that included a written exam and a test segment, all to convince then-science editor (and genetic biologist) Bailey Barash that he would best fill the position, despite his lacking a science background.
“She’s asking me stuff about global warming and the ozone hole, and I’m way beyond my depth,” he says. “I thought I botched the whole thing.”
Instead, O’Brien earned the job, and both reported and anchored over the next decade. He also learned to fly and cultivated a passion for real estate with his wife, Sandy; the two have flipped some 10 houses and own two Atlanta apartment buildings, which he has been known to maintain himself. He says, “I think I’m the only CNN anchor who shows up with the toolbox and the plunger.”
CNN President Jon Klein sees O’Brien as much more than a handyman. “Miles is a Renaissance man, perfectly suited to lead our morning renaissance,” he says. “He has the ability to be informal and informative. He makes information go down easy, which is what morning-news viewers want.”
O’Brien’s skills in covering everything from chlorine-gas leaks in St. Petersburg, Fla., to Atlanta’s Olympic Park bombing to simulated walkthroughs of the flight hijackings on 9/11, have earned him two local Emmys, a News and Documentary Emmy, an Overseas Press Club Award and a National Headliner Award. In 2002, he took home the Space Communicator Award from the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement.
With NASA’s Discovery space shuttle dominating the news this summer, O’Brien—who’s pondering completing his degree, at Columbia—reported on the mission throughout the day, until its completion—long after the American Morning telecast. He even made an appearance on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.
O’Brien, who credits late CNN correspondent John Holliman as a mentor (after Holliman’s death, O’Brien took his place next to Walter Cronkite in reporting John Glenn’s 1998 return to space), was slated to cover the Discovery mission from on board, but the arrangement was called off after the Columbia disaster.
More Pressure, More Help
His feet firmly on the ground at American Morning, O’Brien’s goal is to deliver news in a way that keeps viewers tuning in. “We can reflect a full range of things,” he says, “and give people serious stuff, as well as the stuff that’s entertaining.”
And while the new job means more pressure and long hours, it also means a bigger supporting cast to help the former solo player’s ideas come to fruition.
“I have a crazy idea and there’s somebody to help me execute it,” O’Brien says. “I’m still kind of a do-it-yourselfer, but it’s nice to have the help.”