by Carrie Frye | Photography by Diana Matthews
Viewers know Deborah Holt Noel as UNC-TV’s host and producer of its popular shows, “North Carolina Weekend” and “Black Issues Forum.” Noel is the friendly face showcasing a myriad of locales across the state from historic inns to quaint coffee shops and everything in between. A CINE Golden Eagle media award recipient for her documentary, “The Joe Holt Story,” Noel is proud to call the Triangle and North Carolina her home and appreciative of the viewer support that makes public television possible.
On the set and in front of the “North Carolina Weekend” green screen, we sat down with Noel to talk about some of her favorite Carolina destinations and learn more about the host who is usually the one asking questions.
ONC: Did you grow up in North Carolina?
DN: I’m a military brat. Both of my parents were born and raised in Raleigh, so I just say I’m a North Carolinian for that reason. I was born in South Carolina, but I was there less than a year. I went through grade school and junior high in New Jersey, and then our family moved to Alabama. I came back to Raleigh when I attended St. Augustine’s (University). I finished my degree, and I worked for a year before I went to Maryland and worked on my master’s degree, worked in foundation work, and then I got the opportunity here at UNC-TV.
How did you develop your love for broadcast journalism?
I think it probably started with my interest in stage and theater, and grammar and speaking. I remember my dad saying, “You know, as you’re thinking about college choices, why not think about communications? That’s a new field that’s coming up.” So when I went to college, I majored in communications with a focus in television broadcasting. Initially, I was intimidated by the prospect of working in TV, because I didn’t know anyone in the field, so I thought it was just an impossibility. There’s such a narrow window of possibility of getting to do it, so I thought about being a producer as well. It was something inside that I really wanted to do, but I didn’t know exactly how it was going to happen.
How do you balance those different roles from host to going out in the field and taking on the interviewer role to producing the shows?
It’s a big difference. I used to just be the producer of “Black Issues Forum,” and I was focusing my time on doing research, finding guests, making phone calls and making sure the host had everything he needed. I would write the questions, communicate with the technical crew to make sure things were lined up, and brief the host on the upcoming topics. So, that’s the producer role, and then coming back after the taping and making sure everything looks good and where the music needs to flow.
Along the way, I’ve learned editing and developed a rhythm for that. Professional editors are really good at what they do, and it takes me three times as long to accomplish what they can accomplish. I’ve sat here all night long, early in my career, editing or working on whatever it was to get the project done.
Hosting came about as a combination of things. Essentially, as the producer, I would go onsite and do interviews, and I told myself, “I’m out here. Nobody’s stopping me. Do a stand-up, see how it goes and see if you can do it.” Then there were opportunities during our fundraising campaign and they said, “Hey do you want to come on and invite people to call in?” So I said, “Yeah, sure, let me give it a try.” One of the major talents wasn’t available and a star was coming in and they said, “Deborah, can you do it?” I said, “Yes…and I remember what I wore that day. I had on a black jacket and black pants and a white tank top and I was just thinking, keep it simple.”
Who did you meet that day?
Dr. Wayne Dyer. And they played that show over and over again. But, it was a success for me. It launched me into being able to play a more prominent role as a host here at UNC-TV.
With “North Carolina Weekend,” you get to visit so many different places. Can you talk about some that resonated with you?
The Stokes County Art Council in Danbury. They had a concert with this great bluegrass band. It was a beautiful country setting with a country dinner before the performance, and everything was homegrown. It was so nice to be welcomed, and it was great music and people just having a good time. Recently, I got to go to Bryson City. We did the Pumpkin Patch Express train ride. It’s a fun, little town. I went to this place (this story hasn’t aired yet) called the Everett Hotel. These two gentlemen opened up this boutique hotel in downtown Bryson City with a rooftop lounge, a rooftop area that you can go hang out at night and enjoy the sky. So, that’s really nice.
Another place that was a wonderful surprise was Elizabeth City. That is a sweet town, and the people are wonderful. I’ve wanted to go back there.
I’ve gotten to travel all over the state, and the most magnificent trip was probably marked by the fact that I got to take my family, and that was at the Grove Park Inn (Asheville). I served as a judge for their annual gingerbread competition, and it just so happened that year I was able to take my daughter, who was only maybe a year and a half old at the time, my husband and my mother.
It’s that kind of thing that we try to capture on the show. There’s so much I could tell you about this experience, so you try to put that in words to let people know to just take a moment, come out to this place and breathe for a little bit.
Any places in the Sandhills area that stand out?
Oh, certainly Pinehurst. It’s a beautiful resort area, and I’ve had an opportunity to stay at the resort and also visit the village with its great shops. I love shopping. And Fayetteville, home to America’s heroes. The folks with their visitor’s center are just wonderful, and I’ve gotten a chance to see some of the fun things in Fayetteville. I was downtown once, and I remember I was doing a stand-up shot outside, and these teenagers were running in the background, and they would photobomb the shot. I used that in my story, because you know, it’s real, it’s having fun.
Has there been a story on “North Carolina Weekend” that wasn’t your feature, but made you want to plan a trip there?
There’s a story that aired recently that makes me want to go check it out. It’s Statesville. I thought that was really good. They talked about how the downtown area is really blossoming and showed a number of different little places that are up and coming, so I would like to visit Statesville. But beyond that, I travel so much that to try to go to one of the places that has been featured, it’s kind of strange, because when I go to places, it’s because it hasn’t been featured yet on the show (laughs). But visiting-wise, I wanted to go to Concord and I’ve wanted to go to Hickory, and I have and those are neat places to visit.
How much do you travel for the show?
I don’t travel a whole lot during the week. When “Black Issues Forum” is heavy in season, it’s kind of hard to get out and travel. But we’re getting ready to wrap up, so this summer, I really want to get out to the Outer Banks and the coast and get some warm weather stories going. They’ve been trying to get me out there to do the big marlin fishing.
What do you hope viewers leave with?
It’s viewer support that keeps us doing what we do and on the air. I definitely want viewers of “North Carolina Weekend” to be introduced to the different opportunities that are here and places for them to visit throughout our state.
We have a great team of producers, and when you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s a little easier to go to these different places and find a way to share their story. That’s our challenge, as producers and storytellers, but we just want people to be engaged and to enjoy the show and to go visit these places.
For “Black Issues Forum,” I want people to be better informed about issues and concerns for people of color so they can make the kinds of decisions that improve their way of life or just have a healthier view about our world and our society.
What do you love most about living in North Carolina?
I like being able to get to beaches and to other kinds of landscapes like the mountains. We really do have a wealth of rich and deep history here, and we’ve got access to great museums and one of the best children’s museums I think in the whole country, Marbles. There’s nightlife here … it’s not New York, nobody’s New York, and we’re not Atlanta either, but I don’t think we’re trying to be Atlanta. We’re trying to be North Carolina, and we’re creating our own culture and our own fit. So, there’s Southern culture here, small places and large places. It’s not a perfect state, no place is perfect. We definitely have our challenges and have some work to do, but I think it’s a wonderful place to live.
And when you’re off the set, what things do you enjoy doing?
I love spending time with my family, my husband and daughter. She’s the joy of my life. I have a great, wonderful husband who has converted my thinking about Alabama, “Roll Tide.” I love staying at home and cooking as much as I do traveling, and doing my Zumba classes.
Do you have any travel goals for your Second 50?
I would love to go to Africa. It’s important for me to go back to a place where my roots are. I’ve never been to Europe either. In terms of other places, I love Washington D.C., the monuments and museums. I love going to New York City and Atlanta. I like big cities. I’m not much of a laid back and take-a-rest kind of person. That’s my speed.