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Tuned In to the News

Bob Epstein’s morning ritual, unsurprisingly, is all about the news. While preparing to leave his New York City home, he’ll catch the first half-hour of the Today show, listen to news radio, read the newspaper and scroll his iPad, all at the same time.

By 8:30 a.m., he’s at the NBC Nightly News offices at 30 Rock, where he’s been executive producer since December 2008. He often doesn’t leave until 9:30 p.m., when the last nightly feed goes out to the West Coast. “Nothing gets by him,” says Steve Capus, president of NBC News. “He’s kind of got a scanner built into his brain—he always seems to know when something’s going on.”

Epstein, 58, is a 35-year veteran of television news. During his last two years at the University of Illinois, he got his first taste of the medium as a campus reporter for WCIA in Champaign. After working in radio for several years after college, he made the transition to television when he was hired as a news writer at WBBM Chicago, a CBS O&O, in 1978.

Epstein joined the industry as it was in the midst of a technological transition from film to tape, allowing TV to be live everywhere, and as local stations were expanding their news coverage from 30-minute newscasts to larger afternoon and morning blocks. “The networks had seen the value of expanding their local identity by expanding their local news operations,” Epstein says.

After Epstein’s four years of rising through the ranks at WBBM, Eric Ober, then president of CBS News, moved him to New York to be executive producer of WCBS’ 11 p.m. newscast. It was a homecoming of sorts for the Brooklyn-born Epstein, who, despite growing up in the Milwaukee and Chicago suburbs and lacking an accent, considers himself a New Yorker.

And he’s stayed on the hard news side of television ever since. After an 18-year tenure at CBS, he went on to run the dayside operation at the newly launched MSNBC in 1996 (where he hired his current boss Capus as his deputy). From there, Epstein produced specials at NBC News for a year before moving to the weekend edition of NightlyNews, where his resourcefulness with a smaller staff eventually landed him the top job at Nightly News With Brian Williams.

“A lot of us thought, well, if Bob can do that with weekend kind of staffing, let’s see what he can do with the weekday organization,” Capus says. Since Epstein inherited the EP role at the nation’s top-rated evening newscast, his goal has been to grow on that success. In leading coverage of numerous major stories over the past two years, Epstein is most proud of his team’s work reporting on the Gulf oil spill and the earthquake in Haiti—not just for their breaking news coverage, but in the breadth of stories they told.

“Bob is devoted to the news,” Williams, anchor and managing editor of Nightly News, says via email. “He tends to be a little bit like the search engine commercial—the one where people recite their direct recall of facts, many completely unrelated. I don’t think he finishes a complete sentence for days on end—perhaps weeks at a time. He lives a fact-based life, and while it’s not for everybody, it’s the way he is.”

Epstein describes himself and Williams as having that same string of DNA—both came from local news— that has kept him chasing stories for so many years. And while he has considered moving to long-form programs such as Dateline or 60 Minutes, Epstein doesn’t believe the format is in his nature. “There is a bit of me that likes to clean the desk off at the end of the day and just start fresh and see what tomorrow brings,” Epstein says.

It’s a lifestyle that doesn’t allow for much free time, but Epstein tries to read mystery novels when he can and travels every summer to places such as Canada or Greece, although he admits he can never completely escape. “Nowhere is disconnected anymore,” he says. “I’m looking forward to this summer to see if the iPad works everywhere. I’m sure it will.”

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