Nov. 17, 2021
Emmy-winning reporter and alum Derick Waller on Trump, journalism, VCU and life in New York
Waller’s journey to WABC-TV — the most watched station in the nation’s largest media market — has been one of big stories and big dreams.
Share this story
In 2009, Derick Waller was an aspiring journalist taking classes in mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University. Enrolled in Advanced Television Newsgathering under the instruction of news reporter-turned-professor Bill Oglesby, Waller and his classmates were challenged to go out into the community and find a story. Waller went to Greensville County, 75 miles south of Richmond, where John Allen Muhammad, “The D.C. Sniper,” was to be executed by lethal injection.
“It was a major national story happening in Virginia and so as a student journalist I wanted to go,” said Waller, now an on-air reporter at WABC-TV in New York. “There was press from all over the country camped outside the prison. I found and set up an interview with a relative of [a] victim. We did the interview in a hotel lobby and right after we were done, a crew from NBC4 in D.C. noticed what was going on and swooped in to interview him as well.”
Oglesby, an associate professor in VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, was impressed.
“I remember how impressed I was with him gathering a story that was of statewide importance,” Oglesby said. “He did that on his own. It showed enterprise.”
A three-time Emmy Award winning journalist
More than a decade after that trip to Greensville County, Waller is still covering the big stories, now at the most watched station in the nation’s largest media market. Last month, he won two New York Emmy Awards for being part of the WABC team on a winter weather special and for outstanding morning newscast for the station’s coverage of a deadly shootout in Jersey City, New Jersey. He won his first Emmy last year for best morning newscast. In September, he covered the devastating flash floods that broke out in the northeast from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
“I have covered hurricanes, but I never covered anything like that. It caught people by surprise and off guard,” Waller said of the flooding. “Thirteen people died, mostly from flooded basement apartments.”
On days when he feels sad after covering a tragic event like that one, Waller reminds himself that his lifelong goal was to work as a reporter in New York. The big stories — good and bad — come with the job.
“There are so many other journalists that want to be where I am, at the number one-operated station in the country,” said Waller, who joined WABC in 2017.
Waller graduated from VCU in 2010 with bachelor’s degrees in political science and mass communications from the College of Humanities and Sciences (the mass communications degree is awarded by the Robertson School). He landed his first job in television as an on-air reporter at WVIR in nearby Charlottesville. He worked in Charlottesville for one year, and then was stationed in Richmond as a state capitol reporter during his second year at the station.
While it now feels natural to go on air live, Waller’s first few days were difficult, he said.
“Doing live broadcasts is incredibly difficult. It’s an unnatural skill,” he said. “You have to know what you are talking about, but you don’t want to ramble on. You have to write a script and present it as though you are not reading the script. You have to be conversational and hit your cues. You have to get the points right. Starting in a small market is so crucial because you can make mistakes on a small stage and not get into too much trouble.”
From Charlottesville to Raleigh to Cleveland
Waller’s career unfolded like many talented young broadcast journalists, taking him to positions in new markets, each larger than the one before, first to WNCN in Raleigh, North Carolina, and then WEWS in Cleveland, Ohio, a top 20 market according to Nielsen. Then, he moved to New York.
“I went to Cleveland with the goal of getting to a top 10 market like New York City,” he said. “Stations want to see that you have experience in a top 20 market.”
Waller, who is interested in politics, covered his first political campaign in 2012 in North Carolina and then the 2016 presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for WEWS.
“In fall 2015, they were having early campaign rallies in Cleveland. I was sent to cover a Trump rally in Columbus well before he was the front-runner,” Waller said. “In hindsight, I think it was a bad call. The reason we covered it was because Trump wasn’t being taken seriously as a candidate because of the circus-like atmosphere that surrounds him. The news media covered him like a moth to a flame. We eat that up. We didn’t go out of our way to cover other candidates.
“Too often we are attracted to the spectacle. We have to take a step back and remind ourselves of our responsibility not to elevate the largest voice in the room.”
A year later, Waller covered the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. He was in the room when Trump gave his acceptance speech.
“It was surreal to watch this guy, who a year prior was the producer of a television show, win the nomination,” Waller said.
‘I was curious about the world around me’
Waller was born at the Medical College of Virginia (now part of VCU Health System), and grew up in Chesterfield County. His mother, Sharon Pulliam, a Richmond Public Schools teacher, raised Waller as a single parent. Waller’s dad, Derick Waller, was a detective in Brooklyn, and every summer until he turned 13, Waller would come to New York and stay with his father in Queens.
Waller was a quiet and shy kid. He never felt he fit in at the predominantly white schools he attended.
“I am light skinned, mostly African American, but I would consider myself mixed race,” he said.
He realized he was gay when he was in middle school.
“I was trying to convince myself that I wanted to have a date with a girl. But I had an early realization that it wasn’t anything I was interested in,” he said.
He became interested in journalism while attending James River High School, where he served as assistant editor and then editor of the school newspaper, the James River Current.
“I had an early interest in television. From a young age I wanted to be a weather person on TV. Later I was interested in current events and politics. I was curious about the world around me,” he said. “I was thinking about what I could do for a living. I love journalism, and I love learning about the world. I also enjoyed the technical aspect of television as well as the behind-the-scenes aspect.”
After graduating from James River, Waller came to VCU. There, everything clicked, he said. “I was learning how to do the news and I was super engaged in that.”
One professor in the Robertson School he admired most was Oglesby.
“I remember I loved the fact that before becoming a professor he was a local news reporter at Channel 12 for years,” Waller said. “He provided a wonderful perspective that I could learn from.”
Waller took both Introduction to Broadcasting and Advanced Television Newsgathering with Oglesby, the latter in 2009, when Waller went to Greensville County.
“He found his mojo as he worked through the courses,” Oglesby said. “By the time students are in Advanced TV Newsgathering they are expected to concept news stories: you go out with a camera and come up with a news story.”
“I had an early interest in television. From a young age I wanted to be a weather person on TV. Later I was interested in current events and politics. I was curious about the world around me.”Derick Waller
Looking toward the future
Waller, 34, lives in Manhattan, and spends time exploring the city’s ethnic neighborhoods.
“They are all around you. It’s like traveling the world. That’s one of the best things about New York City, all the different cultures,” he said.
Still, Waller, a serious foodie, said he has yet to find an exact replica of a true Mexican restaurant or a southern biscuit.
“But there are amazing bagels,” he said.
He doesn’t see himself doing the same job he’s now doing for the rest of his career. Waller loves traveling and has thought about doing something involving journaling and traveling the world. But for now, he said, he’s still energized by his work as a reporter.
“I’m really happy where I am.”
Subscribe to VCU News
Subscribe to VCU News at newsletter.vcu.edu and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox.