When you think of “celebrity” journalists, a thorough background in covering political campaigns or working for Fortune 500 businesses does not fit the typical profile. But for Carlos Watson, not adhering to the norm has brought amazing results. Although his face is not exactly plastered on billboards across America, his interview shows have booked big names from every field, garnering rave reviews and top ratings nationwide.
Audiences get intimate chats with personalities like Heidi Klum, Barack Obama, Joss Stone, and even Rudy Giuliani in the hour-long Conversations with Carlos Watson. NBC produces the quarterly show, the latest one aired on December 18, and others are set to run in March, June and September. What makes the show different and interesting is its set up: essentially an interview show, guests are treated more like pals chatting over dinner rather than professionals answering stiff questions.
Thanks to his charismatic personality, Watson makes it even easier for guests to unwind and share things like childhood memories or business projects alike, all the while cooking a meal or testing racecars.
Watson, 37, was raised in Miami, and attended Harvard University, having graduated with a degree in government. After graduation, he worked as chief of staff and campaign manager for Florida state representative Daryl Jones, and managed Bill Clinton’s 1992 Election Day effort in Miami-Dade County. He began legal studies at Stanford Law School, where he became editor of the Stanford Law Review and president of the Stanford Law School Student Government. As he explains he has a need to explore.
"I always had a broad set of interests and while I loved politics, it wasn’t the only thing I was interested in," he explained. "The best conversations I ever had happened at a barbecue or at a coffee shop or on an airplane. You may talk about your views on world events or family and the conversations are wild ranging, unpredictable, unbinding and I wanted more of that."
Watson later ventured into a different field, having worked at McKinsey & Company, a global strategic consulting firm. He left the company to co-fund an educational company, Achieva College Prep Service, and help students reach higher education. His company did so well that it was sold to a publicly traded corporation, leaving the field wide open for Watson to finally pursue a career in media.
"I grew up loving Barbara Walters specials; I loved how she was intimate with guests but though it would be good to have a show that was broader, hipper, with writers or entrepreneurs being interviewed because viewers are interested in Barack and Heidi and everything in between," said Watson.
The idea for the show began in the late 90s, but Watson didn’t start working on it until 2003. He spent a number of years making guest appearances on Fox and Court TV as a political analyst, manned primetime specials for CNBC, and was eventually offered a position as a regular contributor with CNN.
"The shift was scary but I had to do it because it would have been worse not to do what I wanted to do,” said Watson. “The reality is that this is such an interesting world and working in politics and business before being in media helped me be more involved and creative, I think you can be a better innovator when you have more experiences.”
Being involved and creative made him co-producer of the show, but the position came with greater responsibility. With tapings in New York and press engagements across the country, Watson’s schedule now makes it hard to have an active personal life.
"It’s a challenge for sure,” he said. “In the course of seven days I’ve been in eight or nine places so it makes it tough to be completely available for anyone really; but, as my dad reminds me people have harder things to deal with than traveling so I can’t complain.”
His efforts are not only focused on managing his program and surviving travel, though. After selling his college preparatory business, Watson remained interested in helping middle and high school students continue their education.
"As a young kid I got in trouble in school, I was kicked out of kindergarten but thankfully, I got two, three, four chances. I still believe we all have promise and potential and I love the opportunity to help kids," said Watson, who currently serves on the board of directors for College Track, a program he co-founded to aid students in East Palo Alto and Oakland, Calif.
Watson’s wide-ranging interests continue expanding, but his persona remains accessible and grounded. He rarely gets star-struck; considering everyone equals who deserve respect and acknowledgment for their achievements.
“I think it is because I realize we are all fortunate to be here, there’s a fundamental humanity about all of us which means I am not ‘not’ excited about meeting celebrities but I’m not star struck,” he said. “I mean, what folk wouldn’t enjoy meeting Heidi? I’m lucky I get to see [personalities] in a personal level and I want to explore the whole picture to show audiences that their favorite celebrities or idols are human too.”
So what can an accomplished 30-something do to thrust some more excitement into his life? Playing basketball and trying to regain his cooking abilities can do the trick. One of the things Watson said he’d like to return to is cooking, saying that he enjoys trading recipes with his guests.
More specials are scheduled for production and Watson continues his involvement with College Track, hoping his efforts can prompt others to achieve and dare to try.
“The conversations I can have with people are not only fascinating but will get you thinking about the possibilities in your own life, different issues and topics in the show can prompt fresh thinking,” he said. “I would love even more if audiences enjoy the show and regard it as meaningful. I’d be honored if they did.”