Made in Cola Town
Craig Melvin balances hard news with fun, human-interest topics on Saturday mornings on NBC News’ Weekend TODAY.
Craig Melvin balances hard news with fun, human-interest topics on Saturday mornings on NBC News’ Weekend TODAY. He presses for answers to tough questions during presidential elections on MSNBC. And when a breaking story is developing, he’s frequently the network reporter on the ground to find out what’s happening.
Craig Melvin is an MSNBC news anchor, co-host of NBC News’ Weekend TODAY and a national correspondent for NBC News. His accomplishments are impressive; his future is bright. But it’s a career that started in Columbia, inspired by an ad he saw on local television in 1995 when WIS-TV was looking for teens to cover the news. Craig Melvin was a junior at Columbia High School when he saw a commercial about auditions. “I remember thinking, ‘That would be cool,’” he says. So he went over to a local shopping mall, applied to be an Our Generation reporter, and secured the job. “I would not be where I am right now had it not been for that,” he says.
Randy Covington is Newsplex Director at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and was news director at WIS when Craig landed that Our Generation spot. “I remember the first time I saw one of his stories, I thought, ‘Whoa, he’s a natural.’ We had other kids, bright kids, working on Our Generation,” Randy says. “Craig was in a different class.”
What seemed a “cool” idea to the self-described news nerd turned out to be the first paying job of his television career. “We received $25, and I think my mom still has one or two of those check stubs,” Craig says.
His reporting was strong enough that WIS submitted one of his stories for the state Associated Press awards. There, competing head to head with veteran journalists, Craig took the top prize in education reporting for a story he produced about his high school history teacher’s classroom innovations. “Nothing like that had ever happened before — a high school kid winning against professional journalists,” Randy says.
“I was 16,” Craig shares. “Randy invited me and the family to go to Cashiers, North Carolina for the banquet, and I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Oh, this would be cool to do as a career.’”
Despite that early success, Craig still considered other career possibilities. He went to college at Wofford College in Spartanburg and worked in Senator Ernest Hollings’s office one winter. “I realized I did not want to work in Washington, D.C. on the Hill,” he says, “so I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.”
Calling Randy to see if a return to WIS might be possible, he then took what Randy describes as “the worst job in the TV newsroom” — associate producer for the early morning news. His day started at 3 a.m., writing news copy, making photocopies and doing anything else needed to get the daily live show on the air.
Craig, Randy says, never complained. The Sunrise team loved him, and Randy was eager to keep this young man with such potential on staff.
Without a full-time on-camera job available, Randy offered Craig the only position he had — working as a news photographer with the chance to do some reporting. From there, Craig Cam was born, a WIS News Sunrise segment that required Craig to find and report stories live. “The segments were hokey,” he says, “and there would be some mornings where whatever we planned fell through –– and we just basically had to go to Lizard’s Thicket and find people to talk to.”
Craig says that his experiences of being a one-man production team and learning to solve problems on the fly developed skills that help him to this day. “One of the things it really helped me do was learn breaking news. You’d be surprised how often I find myself in a similar situation on cable news these days where I don’t have a lot to go on but I’m expected to go for 10, 15, 20 minutes and sometimes even longer. The ability to speak extemporaneously to people is something I learned very early in my career because I didn’t have a choice.”
Those first jobs required hard work and long hours, and came with little pay. Craig shares that he was making so little money that he had to live at home with his parents. “It was hard, and it was hard for a number of years. I’m convinced that’s why a lot of guys get out of the business. But I loved it. I’ve always loved telling stories, and I’ve always loved talking to people, but I especially loved being able to cover the news in my hometown, because there is nothing like that.”
His hometown news was quick to elevate him to a top slot, anchor desk position on WIS-TV’s evening news — a job that meant more, he says, because he had grown up there. He recalls his thoughts during those first weeks: “I grew up watching Susan Audé, Joe Daggett, Joe Pinner, Ed Carter and Rick Henry. Then, all of the sudden, I get to do the 6 o’clock news every night sitting next to Susan Audé. I was this 23-year-old kid sitting across from her every day, having her give me unsolicited relationship advice,” he says with a laugh. “You know, I look back on it, and I don’t know that I necessarily appreciated it as much as I do now, but man.”
Susan Audé remembers Craig’s early anchoring days and the relationship advice, too. “I think Judi Gatson and I were especially hard on him. He’d talk about a lady he’d met, and we’d start quizzing him,” Susan says. “One day, Craig was talking about his mom, and I realized I was older than his mother.”
Susan also had one of the closest seats for watching Craig’s talents and skills mature. “He’s conscientious. He really has a dynamic personality. Everything about him is very approachable,” she says. “He’s the real deal.”
That assessment was shared by others. Randy recalls a meeting with an old friend, an NBC headhunter. He was in New York on business and stopped by 30 Rockefeller Plaza specifically to sit in her office and talk about Craig. “I said to her, ‘You’ve never heard me say this before. I want you to look at the tape of a future host of the TODAY show.’” Soon after, Craig’s career was on a track to take him there.
The first stop was WRC, the NBC-owned station in Washington, D.C., where he anchored and reported. That’s also where he met and married Lindsay Czarniak, an anchor for ESPN’s SportsCenter. From WRC, Craig was promoted in 2011 to MSNBC as a news anchor and correspondent. He started filling in on Weekend TODAY in 2013, landing the Saturday co-host spot in 2016.
He and Lindsay have two children, a 2-and-a-half-year-old son named Delano and daughter, Sybil, born in November 2016. They live in Connecticut, but Columbia is still home for Craig. “My entire family is in Columbia,” Craig says.
Visits now are mostly spent with his parents, Betty and Lawrence, his brothers, and their families. It’s a change from his days as a single 20-something who got off work around midnight and headed to Five Points with co-workers. He’s discovering new aspects of his hometown, including the local children’s museum. “There was no reason for me to go to EdVenture before, I suppose, but I was like, ‘Wow, Columbia is a great place for families.’”
Craig also notes that Columbia is gaining a reputation as a great place for foodies and says he’s impressed by the growth he’s seeing on Main Street, particularly along North Main. “My late grandmother had a house on Burke Avenue. I’ve long thought that was or should be the next area of development,” he says.
Family ties aren’t the only thing that keeps Craig coming home. He’s returned to South Carolina several times in the past two years to cover news stories here for NBC — the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds and the flooding in October 2015, just to name a few.
“When I come back and cover stories like that, the stories are very personal. I remember standing there on the lawn of the State House as the Confederate battle flag was lowered thinking about the number of stories I’d done as a local news reporter,” he says. “When I went back and covered the floods, for instance, I was traipsing through the yards of people who I know, who work with my mother or who know my brother. When I went down to Charleston the week of the church shooting, I was talking to friends who were also lawmakers or friends who knew someone who was inside the church. Every time I come back for a story, it affects me in a personal way.”
He also keeps in touch with former colleagues from the WIS newsroom, people who are now dear friends. And they continue to watch him work. “It’s fun to see how far he’s gone at such a young age,” Susan says. Randy admires the way he responded to comments from the candidates’ teams during the recent election. “Craig did a terrific job holding them accountable. He was smart. He was polite, but he was tough. That’s what journalism’s about — holding the powerful accountable,” Randy says. “I am just so proud of him.”