Spend an hour watching Robin Meade and you might start to feel a little dizzy.
Meade, the long-standing HLN morning anchor, was holding forth earlier this week at 6 a.m. on “Morning Express,” the program that takes up the biggest part of the CNN-owned network’s schedule. She had to juggle the biggest stories of the morning – the impeachment proceedings and the Grammys that took place the night before – while continuing to pivot back every few segments to covering another angle of the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. And she had to find time to make room for appearances by some of the show correspondents. Jennnifer Westhoven had a story about pharmacies in supermarkets being closed. Meteorologist Bob Van Dillen had “you are there” footage of being on the Outlaw Mountain Coaster in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Despite the news whirl, Meade is one of the most stable things going in the frenetic world of TV news. She’s been on the air at HLN since arriving for work on a tragic day, September 11, 2001, and is the longest serving anchor at a national morning-news program in the U.S. “Many regimes have come and gone. Each of them has allowed me to be myself and in large part to let this show be its own thing,” she says, speaking recently via phone from her office in Atlanta.
She’s gone skydiving with former President George H.W. Bush and thinks coffee tastes like “goat’s a–,’” and readily acknowledges that viewers “might hear me cackle on the air.“ Her appeal lies in the fact, as she likes to say, that she’s “not coming from a 12-block radius in New York City – not to say that there’s anything wrong with the 12-block radius in New York City, but it’s a different sensibility.”
Meade curates a news program that has something for everyone – particularly people tuning in from the Midwest and southern United States. “If you are watching from the cornfield in Ohio, there is something for you, and if you are watching from a high-rise in New York City, you will feel like the point of view is pretty inclusive here,” she says. “We are not just covering stuff inside the Beltway or on the coast.”
Meade’s long tenure in the role is remarkable in an era when TV networks are more disposed to tinker with their morning programming. The A.M. shows fill hours and hours of daytime schedules and often serve as a cultural touchstone – for viewers as well as advertisers. Her show “is a material part of the schedule, and hence it is important to the network,” says Ken Jautz, an executive vice president at CNN who oversees HLN’s operations and programming.
It was Jautz in 2005 who, upon first taking oversight of HLN, cut the “news wheel” format that Meade was anchoring and created a show called “Robin & Co.” that would place more focus on her. In 2007, the program was rechristened “Morning Express,” and has continued in much that vein ever since – even as HLN’s overall positioning over the years (true crime, social media) has occasionally zigged and zagged.
Having her based in Atlanta “is an advantage,” says Jautz. “It allows this show to take a broader overview on the news. It’s deliberately broad and deliberately not focused only on one or two topics.” CNN’s “New Day” can dig down on politics, but viewers want to see Meade tell them what’s happening in different parts of the country, and “Morning Express” often relies on footage collected from local stations’ newsgathering. Some of her most loyal audiences, he says, can be found in Philadelphia, Charlotte, New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore, Fort Worth, Atlanta and in Florida.
Meade says she’s very cognizant of what her audience wants to know about – and doesn’t. “The old cereal test is still our filter,” she says. “If I’m going to make you spit out your cereal…maybe I don’t need all the details about how someone was stabbed 26 times.”
She knows her personality can be a little quirky. She’s not shy about laughing about an oddball news item, or breaking from the flow of stories for a quick discussion on set. But she says viewers accept her for who she is and that she’s learned to tread her own path.
“When I was coming up the ranks, I just wanted to be successful so badly that if a consultant said, ‘Your laugh is a little much,’ then I would never laugh. ‘Your hair is a bit all over the place.’ I would cut that off.” Over the years, however, “I realized I’m not perfect. I don’t dress like everyone else. My hair is too long, but I like it. And I might laugh on air. But there’s just a level of acceptance that the viewers feel.”
On rare occasions, Meade has broken format. In 2017, she took time out for a 16-minute interview – an eternity on a broadcast-news program, but something more on par with one of the “Lord of the Rings” movies on HLN – with Mike DeWine, who was at the time the attorney general of Ohio, about the nation’s opioid crisis, and how it affected a member of her own family.
Producers had snagged DeWine right at the end of Meade’s four-hour run, and “Morning Express” was supposed to move into taped programming. Instead, Meade plowed onward into the next hour. “It wasn’t planned. It just happened,” she recalls. “There was something in my gut that knew not to be beholden to the time slot. When those moments happen, this little engine can turn it around,” she says of the show’s staff. “This is a nimble show, because we are smaller.”
There has been occasional speculation that CNN executives might ask Meade to come to New York, but she says she’s never been asked and has no desire to change locations. “I keep seeing that report but [CNN President} Jeff Zucker has never asked me to move, and I have no reason, no desire to,” she says. “No,” says Jautz when asked about the idea of moving Meade to Manhattan.
She gives credit for her longevity to the people who watch her. “If they weren’t there watching, we’d all be fired,” she says. “There are no illusions about that.”