A One-On-One Interview with E! News Co-host Jason Kennedy
The news-obsessed South Floridian had a career in television before he had a driver’s license. Now, he’s among the best broadcasters in Hollywood.
At the age of 10, Jason Kennedy became enamored with broadcast journalism after a fifth-grade field trip to Miami’s WSVN Channel 7 changed his life. What began as a hobby—practicing newscasts in his parents’ basement—grew into a healthy obsession that led to Kennedy landing his own weekly Sports Talk show, interviewing the likes of Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino and racing to beat local news teams (who later bought his footage) covering shootings on I-95 all before he could drive. These days, the E! News co-host and Today show contributor has built an impressive career covering the biggest stories and people in the entertainment industry. Flamingo’s editor in chief, Jamie Rich, recently turned the questions on the South Florida native, who opened up about getting his big break with E!, losing out on Ryan Seacrest’s job, finding the love of his life and even his favorite Sunshine State entertainers.
What was life like for you growing up in Lighthouse Point?
JK: It’s a smaller town in between Pompano and Boca Raton. My dad had a construction company at the time. My mom was working as a guidance counselor at my high school, Westminster Academy in Fort Lauderdale, which was a great experience.
But ever since the fifth grade, I would just get so excited about anything to do with broadcasting because I took a trip to a local news station. When I went down there and met the news anchors, something inside of me just blossomed. It was one of those things where I went home and I put up a bedsheet in my basement and borrowed my mom’s camera, and long story short, it turned into a full-on news studio. We had four cameras, 16 TVs. I had a green screen in there. The good thing about my dad being in construction is you’ve got guys that can build you a news desk. You’ve got guys that can put an extra circuit breaker in because I kept blowing the power out because I needed more studio lighting, you know?
What kind of content were you creating at 10 years old?
JK: We were just practicing, really. I mean, we would take what happened in the news that day—and when I say we, I mean my neighbor Alex DiPrato, who worked at Channel 7 as a reporter and now is up in Boston as a reporter, and I—we would essentially remove the anchors from the local station there and put in our faces.
How did you know what stories to report?
JK: I just remember coming back from school, if I saw a news truck anywhere in Broward County, I would have my mom go to the scene. We would sit there, and I would hang out with the reporters, and I would just learn from them. And I did that as much as possible. I couldn’t drive at the time. I was 14 years old.
One time, there was a shooting on I-95. I hired a cab, and he dropped me off on the side of I-95, and I was doing a broadcast for no one to see. I just wanted to be there and practice. And then all the news trucks went back to the station for a break or for dinner, and I’m standing on the side of I-95 by myself, and I’m 14 years old. I didn’t have a cellphone or anything like that. My parents [saw the news and] figured out that’s where I was, and they came and picked me up in a ditch on I-95.
When you were 15, you were beating some of the local news crews to the scene. How does that happen?
JK: I went to RadioShack and got one of these massive antennas because I needed the police scanner to reach a certain radius of the city. This thing was the size of a Prius. And then I had my friend put it up on the side of the house, and my mom didn’t notice it for a few months. I could listen in to the police reports on the radio, and I would hear about stuff, and then I would either take a cab, or by the time I hit 16, I would just drive.
Any big stories you broke as a kid?
JK: One time, the Lighthouse Point police officers won the lotto. It was one of the biggest stories that happened at Lighthouse Point in all my time down there. And they weren’t giving interviews to the media because six officers split the lottery ticket. CNN was there! So, I went to the chief of police at the time, Chief Tierney, and I walked up there, and all the crews had tried to get the interview. And I knocked on the door, I was like, “Kim, this is Jason Kennedy. I’m 15, and I’m assuming you probably need some milk or maybe some eggs because you can’t leave your house right now and all the press is out here. Can I go get you some milk?” And she loved it so much she ended up giving me an interview. And I got to sell that to the local station.
That’s awesome that you were making money.
JK: Yeah. My parents were incredibly supportive. But the part-time work was either selling the footage or videotaping weddings. But that didn’t go very well because my first wedding was someone that worked for my dad. And I had a two-camera setup. And both cameras somehow only recorded audio for their big day. I was mortified. I decided to take a bunch of pictures and lay it over the audio so I kind of recovered it and gave them some sort of a wedding video. But I realized that was not my specialty so that only lasted a few years. But it helped with the finances, and we needed to put more stuff in the studio. I mean, I needed money for a new news desk. Every three years, you’ve got to get a new news desk if you’re 16.
How did you go from a cameraman to on-air talent?
JK: The camera and stuff was really because I wasn’t an incredible athlete, and at Westminster Academy, there were a lot of great athletes. So I said, “All right. Well, why don’t I videotape the football games? Why don’t I help out the announcer for the basketball games?”
Then there was a cable-access channel, and they had a sports show. And I said, “The show needs a little something. You guys need footage. You’re just sitting there talking around a desk.” So I would video games, and they gave me a press pass to cover the Miami Dolphins. So on my lunch break at school, I would drive to Davie, which was like 25 minutes away, and I would interview Dan Marino. And then, I would come back, and I would be slightly late for my class, but my mom worked there, so she would write me a hall pass, which was always a nice thing.
I was living the dream. So, then they realized, “Maybe he could do some interviews.” And then from interviews, [I went on] to hosting the sports show—Sports Talk. And that was around for four or five years. It was really great because my teachers were watching, and I would give them shout-outs. And my friends. It was a live show once a week. And I was just in the zone. I wanted to do anything possible on camera. I wanted to get all of the practice that was out there. So, by the time I went to University of Miami, I felt like I was kind of ahead of the curve because I’d been practicing since I was a kid. I studied broadcast journalism at UM.
How did you move from sports to celebrity news?
JK: Celebrity entertainment wasn’t always the goal when I was younger. I wanted to be a sports broadcaster, but then I realized I didn’t know enough about all the sports. And after doing some internships, I realized this wasn’t really for me. Towards the last couple of years at UM, I said I wanted to move out to LA. And I was a PA [public address announcer] on a show in Miami for NBC. And one of the judges happened to be a manager in LA, and I picked her brain and she brought me on. We worked together for 14 years. I moved out to LA right after I graduated from UM. And I remember she said, “A quick success in LA is three years for you to land any sort of job in the business.” And I’m like, “That seems like a long time. I’ve got to do it quicker than that.”
Clearly you had a lot of experience from a young age, but how did you land the job at E!?
JK: So I worked at the mall. I worked at Diesel at the Beverly Center in LA. I folded jeans and hated every minute of it. But I knew that was good for me because I hadn’t worked in retail before. And then I went into casting for a little bit. As I was on a casting gig, I got a phone call saying, “E! wants to bring you in.” So I went on the audition, again on my lunch break. I didn’t hear back for six months. So I said, “Oh, it’s not going to happen.” And then six months later, almost to the day, they said, “We’d love to bring you back for a week.” And my boss was nice enough to let me take a week off. I covered a party at the Emmys, and I thought I did pretty good. But then I heard nothing back. Then maybe a few weeks later, they said to come back for another week. My boss was like, “Well, I’m going to have to let you go. [Giving you this much time off] won’t look good.”
So I said, I’m unfortunately going to have to step away from the casting job. After that second week at E!—I didn’t hear back for a little bit—they offered me a full-time contract. I started in 2005, and I can’t believe it’s been 14 years. I started out as the weekend anchor and as reporter. And I was a nervous kid that didn’t even know what I was doing, and I’m just so thankful for the opportunity that E!’s given me.
What have been some of the most compelling stories you’ve covered through the years?
JK: I would say my first big one that really resonated with me and has a South Florida connection was the death of Anna Nicole Smith. I remember I was just pulling into the office when I heard that she had passed away at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino there, and my boss said, “All right. You’ve got a connection down there. Get on a plane.” It turned into over a month that I was gone. But I was totally fine with that because my parents would bring me lunch and they could do my laundry.
I was in and out of the courthouse. Then there was a dispute about burial, and I had to go to the Bahamas to cover that. And it really shaped me because I had never covered any story like that. I felt like I had really matured, and I just wanted to learn as much as possible. I’ve never seen a presence like that in terms of media from around the globe. We were at her funeral in the Bahamas and there was a jib camera on a crane in front of the church, and hundreds of reporters. I’m like, “This is a funeral.” It was wild.
Have there been any career lows that challenged you?
JK: Yeah, years ago, after Ryan Seacrest left, I thought that I was going to get the hosting job, and it didn’t happen. I was really prepared to get it. And it was pretty crushing. They brought someone in, and he turned out to be one of my really good friends. So, I made a good friend in the process. And after he left, I got the job, so, it just wasn’t God’s timing for that, and I learned a lot in the process. But it opened up the door for me to work at the Today show and contribute there for six or seven years, which was my dream. I would stand outside the Today show every year with my family at 30 Rock and watch. In 2013, they were like, “Willie Geist is going on vacation. You’re going to anchor the entire week.” I was really nervous, but when I got on that set, I felt so comfortable. It was a dream come true.
So what is Jason Kennedy up to in five years?
JK: Once I got married, my focus, first and foremost, became my wife and making sure she felt good out here in LA and working on a family, and then trusting God that career-wise, the next thing will happen when it happens. And I would love to stay at E! as long as they will have me, honestly. So that’s kind of where my head’s at, because I don’t even know what’s going to happen a year from now, let alone five years. I think goals are great. I’ve just learned that sometimes you’ll set a goal and it’s like, “I don’t know. Maybe I don’t even need to do that right now.”
Five FLA Faves
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Favorite Florida celebrity?
JK: I would say Dan Marino. Going back to being able to interview him as a kid, and then going to those games and watching him with my dad—I’ll never forget that.
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Favorite hotel, at the moment?
JK: We just stayed at the Biltmore in Coral Gables for the first time since I graduated, and that was really cool. I like the old-school vibe and feeling of it.
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Favorite place to eat, drink and be merry?
JK: Casa Tua in Miami. It’s so cool. Downstairs, anybody can make a reservation. I think it used to be someone’s house, but it’s really intimate. It’s turned into one of my favorite places.
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JK: South Beach for sure. I realize that it’s not for everybody, but it makes me feel like I’m back in school. I’m big on nostalgia. There’s so many great memories that I’ve had there.
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Favorite Florida musician?
JK: I like Gloria Estefan. We’ve gone dancing before on an E! news shoot. I spent a lot of time with her and Emilio, and they’re just incredibly kind and generous people. I’m a Gloria fan. I like what she’s done for the city of Miami too.