Students share Sesquicentennial celebration with Katie, Matt, and Al

Sitting behind the desk in studio 1A, “Today” show co-host Katie Couric flashes her trademark smile and reports the news, just as she does every weekday morning. However, on Feb. 9, something unusual happens: a 6 foot tall lion in a white T-shirt peeks in through the opaque window behind her and waves. On his head, he’s wearing a plush cake embroidered with the words “Happy Birthday.”

Unbeknownst to most of America, it was Roscoe the Lion, the College’s mascot, snagging his 15 seconds of fame on national television to celebrate Founders’ Day, the College’s 150th anniversary.

We, two typically humble Signal reporters, were also looking for some short-lived stardom along with two busloads full of the College’s students, faculty and alumni who sacrificed a full night’s sleep to be in Wednesday morning’s “Today” show audience. We left the College at 4 a.m. to make it into New York City before the three-hour morning news broadcast on NBC.

However, as journalism students, we weren’t there just to wave to mom or wish the College a happy birthday. We were on a special, and admittedly naive, mission: to personally meet Katie, the highest-paid woman in network news.

Our bus drivers dropped us off on the empty sidewalks of Rockefeller Plaza at 6 a.m. Much of the city was asleep, contrary to the popular saying that it never does. The streets were absent of traffic jams and rushing taxis. The stores and offices were darkened and deserted inside, although neon lights and the “Today” show news ticker added some vibrancy to the pre-dawn cityscape.

We packed ourselves behind the metal gates enclosing the camera tripods and sidewalk where Al Roker gives his weather report. Students waved bright, glittery posters that shouted out to friends and screamed school spirit. Alongside those waving posters, some reading “150 years of Jersey attitude” and “Hey Mom, guess what I did for Mardi Gras beads last night?,” we proudly clutched our own little message to the world.

Ours was a pink poster painted with the front page of The Signal, complete with the headline “We Y Katie,” a hand-drawn portrait of her and our names in the byline of the accompanying squiggly-lined article. Journalists just love seeing their names in print.

After all the times we’ve reported on campus events as passive observers, this was our chance to participate. Appropriately, we were smack in the middle of the country’s number one media outlet, where we dream of working one day.

Besides the signs, Janis Blayne-Paul, chief Sesquicentennial officer, led our group in donning cardboard cone birthday hats and flashing blue-light necklaces, blowing noisemakers and chanting “T-C-N-J!” and “Roscoe!” Students may complain about Carte Blanche and housing, but when it comes to national television, there’s no denying their College pride.

Thankfully, the wind chill was low “in our neck of the woods,” as Al would say, making the long wait for our air time bearable.

Our eyes focused intently on the outdoor monitors that captured the action within the studio, hoping after each news story it would be time for Katie, Matt and Al’s segment on the plaza. But whenever the golden revolving doors spun, it was usually only a cameraman or unknown NBC employee exiting the studio.

At 7:37 a.m., Al finally made his debut, shaking our outstretched hands and greeting the enthused, sometimes starstruck fans.

After Al returned to the studio, rumors flew amidst the crowd.

“Katie will be out at 7:55,” somebody promised. Later, another reasoned, “the cameras are still out, so they must be coming back…”

It wasn’t until 8:30 a.m. that Katie and Matt left their anchor chairs and put on their winter coats to chat in the plaza about upcoming stories. Despite all the distractions surrounding them, the anchors carried on a conversation as naturally as they would have off camera. Katie and Matt zoned themselves out so well, they didn’t even question why a bunch of college students were on the plaza and not in class. Neither interviewed the College’s students. Contrary to our plan, our sign did not draw Katie toward us, although our position at the front of the crowd did land us a few close-ups when the cameraman panned the audience.

Throughout the taping, our group tried to catch a word with the expressionless cameraman, forgetting that an extraordinary day for us was just ordinary for him.

When watching the news at home, we easily forget that the cameramen’s, producers’ and hairstylists’ careers revolve around making the anchors look attractive and intelligent. Not until you see a make-up artist spray Katie’s hair or watch a young assistant carrying the camera wires (and hitting on college girls) behind-the-scenes, do you realize all the effort that goes into three hours of live morning television.

And, with any luck, the millions of people who tune into “Today,” the highest-rated network morning news show, will finally realize what TCNJ stands for and that despite its widely unrecognized name, the College has a history worth celebrating.