My Life in the Age of COVID: NBC 10 Anchor Phil Lipof

In a pandemic, the nightly news comes to you live from an iPhone.

phil lipof

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As the COVID-19 pandemic upends every aspect of Boston life, we’re checking in with some local residents to learn how they’re processing our new normal. They’ll share serious thoughts on their concerns for the city—and yes, what to binge-watch. For the rest of the series, click here.

As a veteran journalist and TV news anchor of two decades, Phil Lipof is used to being close to the action. But due to concerns about the health of his family—particularly his wife and former co-anchor Juli, who has an autoimmune disorder—he has found himself sheltering in place in the midst of what may well be the story of the decade. Last month, he traded his chair at NBC 10 Boston for a makeshift studio in a home office, where he now leads the 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 11 p.m. news.

It’s an adjustment, for sure, but like the rest of us, he’s finding ways to make do. We caught up with him to see how his family’s holding up, what he’s doing about his hair, and the nuts and bolts of doing live TV on an iPhone.

What is your level of concern right now?

I’m concerned on one level as a journalist. Over the last 24 years I’ve put myself in danger in a lot of different ways. Whether it’s covering Hurricane Katrina or Sandy, or riots in Miami, so you kind of get a false sense of security being in the media, but this is different. I knew that going to work I could possibly carry this virus home to my house and my wife, who has lupus, which makes her immune system extremely compromised. The common cold hits her twice as hard as it hits you or me. So this was the first time in my life that covering a story could endanger someone in my house. So that was a level of concern that made me rearrange my life.

Hydroxychloroquine is used to treat lupus. Given all the hype around the drug, has she had trouble accessing it?

Now the world knows about it in part because our president announced it may be a potential benefit to fighting COVID-19, so people have been hoarding the medication. My wife has a three-month supply, but after that, we’re uncertain. I’m concerned for my wife’s life, so there’s a ton of stress in this household. To be clear, I’m not speaking politically by pointing this out, I’m just stating a fact. I hope that this works [as a treatment for COVID-19], but I also don’t want people who desperately need it for what it’s approved for not to be able to get it. My wife knows people whose prescriptions are up and they have not been able to get it, and that’s scary.

How have you been coping so far?

As hard as it is for everybody, it’s something of a blessing for me because I work three to midnight. So usually when I get up my kids are in school and when I get home they’re asleep. There are weeks I don’t see them Monday through Friday. Now, for the past three weeks I’m with them every day. We built a home gym in the basement, we play catch in the yard, I go on walks with my wife. It’s more family time than we’ve had in years, so that’s a silver lining.

What’s it like anchoring from a home studio?

My wife’s been in the business for 16 years, so she helped get me set up with a great spot with a great backdrop. There’s nothing worse than a Skype shot with a wall right behind the person, so we added depth. One of our favorite pieces of artwork in the house is actually the Boston magazine cover [which features the shoes of runners after the marathon bombings in 2013, arranged into a heart], so for the first week that was my backdrop. I thought that was beautiful, because it’s another one of those crises right now, and it reminded me of how strong this city is and how resilient it was after the marathon bombings. Having it over my shoulder while anchoring in this market was perfect. Now we have a TV on the wall with the station logo on it, and a lamp over my shoulder, and a table with a black bedsheet draped over it, and that’s it.

What kind of tech are you using to broadcast live to our TVs?

These days the technology is incredible. I’m just using my iPhone with an app that sends the video to the station, and the station puts me on TV. The video quality is pretty darn good, and they gave me a professional microphone. That’s all it is. There’s a second-and-a-half delay so station directors just cue me early. So when Cassy Arsenault is out in the field and says “In Boston, I’m Cassy Arsenault, NBC 10 Boston,” when she says “In Boston,” they cue me. That way it looks seamless on television. Watching from home, you’d never know it’s like MacGyver: paper clips and duct tape.

Meanwhile our reporters are out there in danger every day. Sometimes they’re using Skype and Zoom when they can, but you gotta go where the story is. It’s amazing to watch local journalism work through this pandemic.

Ever had any unexpected interruptions on air?

My kids are older so I don’t have to worry too much about that. But I do have a five-pound Yorkie named Rosie who always wants to be where I am. So what we do is my daughter takes Rosie into her room for the early shows, and then at 11 p.m. my wife takes Rosie into our bedroom. She barks constantly, so it would be a problem.

How is it doing hair and makeup solo?

We do our own makeup, so that’s really not a change. But the hair situation, everybody on TV is dealing with that. It’s gonna be worse for the guys than the girls. I know some women are worried about the roots showing and color changing, but I keep my hair pretty short, and I cut it every two weeks. It’s almost been four weeks since I cut my hair, and my hair gets thick, so there is the chance I might wind up looking like a Chia Pet on television. I really hope that doesn’t happen.

The guy who cuts my hair is a wonderful guy and has offered to come to my house and cut my hair outside. He’d put a mask on, I’d put a mask on, and then wash my clothes right afterward. I haven’t decided if we’re going to do that yet, but it might be the way to go.

What else do you miss about your pre-quarantine life?

I miss being able to shake hands with someone I meet, or have face-to-face conversations. We usually have a debrief after the 11 p.m. show and I miss huddling around the desk and talking to everyone. Now we send each other texts. I’ve been telling my kids for years about social media and texting and now I’m living proof: I’d rather be with someone than text them.

Have you picked up any hobbies?

I haven’t picked up any new ones, but I get to meditate a little bit more. I bought a book of American poetry a few months back that I want to read, and I have a couple of books on Buddhism I’ve been meaning to get to. Importantly for me, I’m getting to play guitar. I don’t really ever get to pick up my guitar, but now there’s time.

Are you getting in any binge-watching?

People have been telling me for years you’ve got to watch Homeland. Three weeks ago I started and I’m already on season 5! I put my phone on the treadmill and watch an episode, then do another one before bed.

What are your go-to comfort foods right now?

Homemade pizza. When we knew we were gonna start quarantining, we went to Bertucci’s down the street and bought a ton of dough and froze it. We love making it together and talking to each other the whole time. Plus eating pizza is awesome.

Any advice for fellow self-quarantiners?

I’m no expert. I’m doing what all of our viewers are doing, what you’re doing, what everyone else is doing, which is trying to make the best of it. I’m trying to do the things I don’t get to do because life is so crazy. Life is crazy now in different ways but we all seem to have a little bit more time for ourselves and our family. So I’m trying to indulge in things I love. It’s a silver lining to all this horror.