NBC News anchor Tom Llamas taps into his roots for a new streaming newscast
It’s possible that the future of NBC News started in a Miami dentist office.
The Cuban immigrant father of the network’s newest anchor, Tom Llamas, had a dental practice in the city where he treated the children of Jorge Ramos, the renowned TV journalist at the Spanish-language network Univision. Luis Llamas told Ramos that his then-15-year-old son had an interest in journalism and asked about getting him a tour of the network’s newsroom.
“I said ‘absolutely,’” Ramos recalled in a recent interview. “When I met Tom, he was totally committed. He was observing everything in the studio. I knew he was going to be a great reporter.”
Twenty-seven years later, Llamas, 42, will be the lead anchor of a new nightly newscast, “Top Story With Tom Llamas,” for NBC News Now, a free full-time streaming service using the resources of the news division, including NBCUniversal’s Spanish-language network Telemundo. Starting today, the hourlong newscast will stream live nightly at 7 p.m. Eastern and 4 p.m. Pacific, with repeats throughout the evening, and will also be available on demand.
The launch represents a significant commitment to NBC News Now, the channel aimed at capturing viewers who are leaving traditional television for online streaming. NBC News says users spent 20 million hours watching the 2-year-old channel in August, up 147% from the same month in 2020.
The new program also marks a professional homecoming for Llamas. After graduating from Loyola University New Orleans, he started out in 2000 as a production assistant at NBC News. He worked his way up as a correspondent for its Miami station and a local anchor for WNBC in New York.
Llamas jumped to ABC News in 2014, where he developed a high profile covering the 2016 presidential campaign and in 2017 was named Saturday anchor of “ABC World News.” His return to NBC earlier this year led to chatter in the TV news business that he is being groomed to eventually succeed Lester Holt as anchor of “NBC Nightly News.”
“I will leave that speculation to others,” said NBC News President Noah Oppenheim when asked about the long-term plans for Llamas. “We absolutely expect him to be at NBC News for a long time. He will report for our various platforms and there is really no bigger priority right now than NBC News Now.”
The hourlong format for “Top Story” will give Llamas the chance to cover a wider range of topics than a half-hour broadcast network evening newscast. He is using the time to include a nightly segment called “The Americas,” focusing on Latino issues in the U.S. and Latin American countries at a time when immigration at the southern border remains an intractable issue.
“If you want to know why immigration is a problem, you’ve got know what’s happening in those countries,” Llamas said in a Zoom call from his home in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer, a former NBC News producer, and three young children. “We’re committed to doing it.”
NBC News increased its dedication to Latino-related stories last year when it announced a formal initiative to collaborate on reports with Telemundo and present them in both Spanish and English. NBC News is also among the many media entities to state a commitment to improving diversity in its ranks — the division’s chairman, Cesar Conde, wants to eventually have a 50% diverse workforce.
For Llamas, the immigration issue is personal and likely prepared him for his profession. His parents came to the U.S. from Cuba as children when their families fled the Castro regime with only the clothes they were wearing. He gets emotional when telling the story of how their perseverance led to him getting opportunities to succeed.
“It’s something I don’t take for granted,” he said. “Growing up there weren’t a lot of people with the last name Llamas anchoring network newscasts.”
Being the son of political refugees in Miami who lived through the Cuban revolution and the Bay of Pigs required Llamas to pay attention to current affairs from an early age.
By the time he reached middle school, the Miami Herald was required reading in the Llamas home. While he was exposed to strong points of view (“Politics are very personal for Cubans”), he still believes in delivering the news without a political slant.
Llamas has never drifted far from his Cuban roots. One of his fondest memories is taking his future wife to see Cuban American music legend Celia Cruz perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
As a TV correspondent in his hometown of Miami, Llamas gained a deeper understanding of the immigration crisis.
“I’ve done stories on Cubans who have tried to cross and have been stopped at sea,” he said. “You see the desperation in people’s eyes. When you see someone take a baby on a boat in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of the night with someone they have never met. Just think about that.”
Llamas, a bilingual speaker who in 2019 interviewed Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Spanish, said “The Americas” segment on “Top Story” will be designed to connect with every viewer, not just Latinos in the audience.
Kornacki becomes a multi-hyphenate with roles at NBC Sports and a prime-time game show in addition to MSNBC.
“It’s your backyard,” Llamas said. “At some point, they will become a member of their family. America’s changing and I want to explain why it’s changing. The more we listen, the less shouting will happen.”
Llamas believes diversity strengthens journalism, and he demonstrated it in 2015 when he again crossed paths with Ramos, whom he considers a mentor along with Jose Diaz-Balart, another Cuban American NBC News anchor who handles the Saturday edition of “NBC Nightly News” and a daily program on MSNBC.
Llamas was covering the presidential campaign in Iowa where then-candidate Donald Trump held a news conference after kicking off his White House run with a stream of anti-immigration rhetoric. Ramos, representing Univision, was also in the audience.
Trump refused to call on Ramos. But the relentless journalist remained standing and proceeded to ask Trump about his promises to build a wall and deport millions of undocumented residents. After Trump told Ramos to “go back to Univision,” a security guard ushered the man many regard as the Walter Cronkite of Spanish-language TV out of the room.
Ramos stood outside the door, where he was accosted by a man who told him to “get out of my country.” (A native of Mexico, Ramos is a U.S. citizen.) The news conference resumed, but the expulsion of Ramos was ignored by other reporters until Trump called on Llamas.
“I was maybe third or fourth in line for questions for Trump after that,” Llamas said. “Nobody mentions it. I can’t believe it. So he comes to me and I said, ‘Mr. Trump, you want to be president. You just kicked out one of the biggest journalists in the world. Is that the behavior of someone should be president?’”
Kasie Hunt, then a correspondent for NBC News, followed up with the same line of questioning, and Trump relented. Ramos was led back into the room and delivered his queries.
“To me it was a textbook example of why newsrooms have to be diverse,” Llamas said. “I don’t fault my colleagues for not asking about that, but I wasn’t going to ignore it. I got a press pass for a reason, and that reason is to ask a question like that. You’ve got to come from that community. Because if you don’t, that washes overs you.”
Ramos has not forgotten the gesture.
“What was courageous of Tom is that instead of taking his turn asking a question to the candidate who became president, he used his time to defend me and defend journalism,” Ramos said. “I’ll always be grateful to him for that.”
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