The everyman who is everywhere

WCCO’s Jason DeRusha straddles old media and new by pushing boundaries — including his own.

Last February, before Barb from Brooklyn Center told Jason DeRusha how she helped rescue a kidnapped child, she let out a squeal of delight. When the longtime broadcaster approached her and introduced himself, camera rolling, the star-struck grandmother shrieked, “I know!” and giddily clapped her hands. Over the past two decades, DeRusha matured from WCCO-TV cub reporter to morning anchor as Minnesotans watched. Which means he can hardly walk a block without being recognized. Or help but stop to talk: With law enforcement officers, unhoused folk, and a guy who wants to know if DeRusha’s related to Al DeRusha, the former pro-wrestling promoter (nope), as was the case during a recent stroll down Nicollet Mall. DeRusha would be the first to admit he doesn’t fit the old-school news anchor stereotype of a pretty face to read the teleprompter. The self-described “dorky suburban dad” is more Tom Hanks than George Clooney. But not only is DeRusha local TV news’ best-known everyman. He also seems to be everywhere.

By starting his day in the middle of the night — 2:30 a.m., to go live at 4:30 each weekday — DeRusha packs a lot in. He’s a regular fill-in host and guest on WCCO Radio and a magazine restaurant critic (disclosure: I was once his editor). Pre-pandemic, he made near-weekly public appearances: emceeing charitable galas and parades, judging cook-offs and art shows.

Practically any moment DeRusha’s not on the airwaves, on the page or working an event crowd, he’s interacting with tens of thousands of fans on social media. Among local journalists, he’s the openest of open books, going so far, in 2009, to livestream “Jason Cam” from his desk for a year.

It’s a new mold of newsman for the internet era. And it’s not without its risks.

Mr. Microphone

DeRusha was practically born with a mic in his mouth. Mr. Microphone, to be precise, a child’s toy that broadcast the speaker’s voice through its own radio channel. Growing up in suburban Chicago, DeRusha burned through several of these, playing game show host or interviewing kids on the playground. (“Literally no one I grew up with is surprised that I’m doing what I’m doing,” he notes.) Inspired by the likes of Bob Barker, Peter Jennings and David Letterman, DeRusha knew he wanted to be a broadcaster, even if he didn’t yet know the medium or role.

During college, DeRusha found two loves: his wife, Alyssa, and journalism. He interned at “ABC World News Tonight” in New York and worked at stations in Davenport, Iowa, and Milwaukee before coming to WCCO in 2003.

Early in his career, DeRusha reported on everything from a cow with five legs to the I-35 bridge collapse — he was among the first reporters on the scene. In 2007, he was handed the reins of WCCO’s high-profile “Good Question” segment, which gave him a chance to cultivate his signature blend of sincere and silly. Life, DeRusha says, isn’t just the super serious news headlines of the day. “Sometimes it’s funny stuff or interesting or weird or dull,” he says. “So I’ve just tried to capture all of that.”

Jason DeRusha took a photo of Sam Kjellbergm, with SK Coffee, as he prepared a cup of pour-over for DeRusha.

Switch hitter

The morning show, which DeRusha has anchored since 2013, blends news and lifestyle stories in a format that allows DeRusha to display his talent as a switch hitter. “He can demonstrate a real intellectual curiosity and use his ability to explain and comprehend complex stories,” says former WCCO news director Mike Caputa, who promoted DeRusha to the slot. “But, also, in the morning you do need personality, levity and energy.”

DeRusha is in his element when hamming it up, whether spinning “The Price is Right” wheel, flexing his biceps for Lou Ferrigno or playfully bantering with his colleagues over who has the germiest cellphone.

He’s unfazed by being seen in a less-than-flattering light, whether that’s a pore-close airbrushed makeup demo, or awkwardly mounting a rodeo training “bull.” He’s graced the covers of Mpls.St.Paul magazine in 1980s-style workout gear and City Pages in a magenta bathrobe.

This is not how TV news used to look, back when male news anchors came from the ranks of announcers, hired “for their deep, booming voices or movie-star good looks,” explains Scott Libin of the University of Minnesota’s journalism school, and one of DeRusha’s former WCCO bosses. Such anchors reflected the authority figure archetype of college dean or Fortune 500 executive: a conventional, well-coiffed conduit.

Fortunately, Libin says, viewers are “no long looking for a matinee idol in every anchor,” and broadcasters now better reflect the country’s diversity. In an industry still full of “spokesmodel” anchors with a contrived energy about them, Libin says, DeRusha comes across as genuine, because he’s comfortable in his own skin — hair transplant and all. “He’s somebody with whom I think viewers can identify,” Libin says. “He seems like somebody you’d bump into on the block doing yard work or in the store.”

Heather Brown, DeRusha’s co-anchor, calls him “not just book smart, but people smart,” for his ability to make a personal connection with all types. To those who wonder, “Is this guy for real,” Brown says, “He is — this is the real him. … He’s a good guy and he is willing to go out there and put himself out there and take those risks.”

Jason DeRusha ate lunch with his sons Sam, 13, left, and Seth, 15, at Cafe Latte

Social media fiend

DeRusha says he turned his iPhone’s screen time alert off so it doesn’t track his hours. But perhaps he doesn’t want his wife, Alyssa, to know the certainly astronomical number.

DeRusha uses each platform for different purposes (Facebook’s audience is broadest; Instagram’s is feel-good; Twitter’s always ready for a fight, and, not coincidentally, home of the trolling account @notjasonderusha). Along with news updates, DeRusha’s feed feels like a big bay window into his family life: bike rides with his teenage sons; lovey-dovey selfies with his wife; home-improvement projects.

The feedback isn’t all rosy. Viewers find his reporting tedious. (“Tonight’s Bad Question delves into the seedy underbelly of Minneapolis and asks, ‘Is that lint?’ ”) They think he hogs the mic. (“How is he still on TV? He is so rude.”) They mock his hair. (“It’s time to shave that dome or get a toupee.”)

Of course there are times when he thinks about deleting it all — it’s human nature to fixate on one snotty response among hundreds of likes or hearts, he says. Still, amid all the negativity, DeRusha says his use of social media has always been a net positive.

He acknowledges that the more you share, the more you risk a misstep — why most news media personalities aren’t as active online. “If I post one wrong thing, I’m fired,” he says.

And yet DeRusha seems to relish pushing boundaries. “I walk right up to the line,” he says. “And I’m sure I’ve walked over it before, but luckily I have some goodwill built up.”

He’s earned the respect of his peers for his ability to think on his feet and perform without a script, whether it’s hosting a wine gala or reacting to breaking news — it’s why he was asked to lead WCCO’s coverage of the Chauvin trial.

“He’s capable of ad-libbing and willing to risk forming speech extemporaneously,” Libin says. “He is effective at responding honestly, and spontaneously — but not without preparation and not without a filter.”

Though DeRusha may sound off the cuff, he’s no wild card. “As much as I am an open book, I also have spent my whole life as a broadcast journalist, so I am very used to being thoughtful before I speak. Because it happens so fast, people can have the idea that I just say whatever I want. I say most of what I want, but I also understand my role.”

Andy Doan, owner of The Dapper Wolf, gave a haircut to Jason DeRusha at his St. Paul barbershop.

What’s next?

So where does DeRusha go from here?

The evening anchor slot has always been “the big dog,” DeRusha says, something he thought he aspired to become (in due time, considering the success, and relative youthfulness, of the desk’s current duo, Frank and Amelia Vascellaro).

Now he’s not sure. The evening anchor plays things straighter, mostly introducing stories. He’d have to dial back his playful personality, forgo his riffs and jokes.

In the meantime, DeRusha says all of his side gigs keep things feeling fresh, which is why he keeps saying yes — despite his jam-packed schedule.

He promotes so many charitable causes because he feels part of the responsibility of having a job in the public eye is to leverage his fame for good. Plus, he unabashedly relishes the spotlight. (“I’m on TV, like, of course I have an ego!”) As a raging extrovert, DeRusha says he’s energized by social interaction and novel experiences that “feed the creative spirit, but also the desire to connect with people.”

In an era when TV broadcasters compete for attention not only with other stations, but Instagram influencers, YouTube celebrities and on-demand streaming of pretty much everything, it doesn’t hurt to be advertising yourself on multiple platforms. It also establishes a level of trust that may pay dividends later.

“To me it’s always been a long game, where you think, OK, a lot of the younger people that I’m hanging out with on social media are probably not watching the news. But in 10 years, when they start watching the news, I hope that they feel like I’ve been a part of their life for decades.”