INFLUENCING A MOVEMENT: Discovery Channel’s Mike Rowe On The Power Of Authenticity In Communication To Influence Your Audience
Mike Rowe’s mother, Peggy Rowe, always finds a way to outdo her son — and she does so in a way only mothers can.
“I am so brutally and relentlessly upstaged at every turn by my mother,” Mike said.
Peggy Rowe is a retired teacher, mother of three boys, wife of more than six decades and the author of two books, but it’s her simple, tell-it-like-it-is one-liners (with a mother’s touch) that Peggy is known for. They dig at the root of the stories she’s uncovering as a journalist, author, wife and mom.
At least, that’s what happened one day when Peggy called Mike about his grandfather, Carl. As Mike explained, everyone knows a man like Carl. He was the product of a seventh-grade education, but he could solve more problems with his hands than a mathematician could with a calculator.
Mike explains: “By the time he was 30, [he was a] steamfitter, pipefitter, mechanic, welder, amateur architect — a jack of all trades. I was determined to follow in his footsteps as a kid, but the handy gene is unfortunately recessive. So, I wound up with a very different toolbox.”
That toolbox led Mike through a career in the arts. He sang on stage as a Viking in the Baltimore Opera, landed a gig selling random trinkets and items at 3 a.m. on the QVC shopping channel on a $100 bet, and, at the time of his mother’s greatest guilt trip to date, hosted the San Francisco CBS affiliate KPIX’s “Evening Magazine.” On the show, Mike would fill the role of expert, leading just a handful of viewers through winery openings and art galleries.
It was a standard day for Mike at that TV station when Peggy felt compelled to dial up her son about his 92-year-old grandfather and say to Mike, “It sure would be great before he dies if he could turn on the television and see you doing something that looks like work.”
That was what Mike calls the beginning of his “peripeteia,” the Greek word for a turning point upon which a protagonist’s perspective changes. His mother had planted the seed in his head that by coasting for the past 15 years, picking up little acting gigs and hosting jobs to pay the bills, Mike was actually heading down a path he hated.
“My business model all the way up to ‘Evening Magazine’ was a controlled failure,” Mike recalled. “I didn’t want a hit show. I was looking to have four to five months off a year and work three weeks [each month] tops.”
Since that phone call with his mother, Mike’s peripeteia has sent him on a spiral into the world of hard work, exposing some of America’s “dirtiest” jobs and simultaneously becoming an advocate for trades and skilled-labor education. Mike recently shared his journey into the grimy yet powerful work that keeps America churning. From singing in the opera and hosting Discovery Channel’s hit series “Dirty Jobs” to narrating countless other series and creating a foundation to fight for America’s trades, Mike continues to live out the request his mother had for him all those years ago, proving yet again that getting your hands a little dirty is the best formula for success.
DISCOVERING AUTHENTICITY AT 3 A.M.
From the moment Mike hung up the phone after that life-changing chat with his mom, his mind raced. He had been at KPIX for 15 years at that point, a stop in a climb he had begun in Baltimore as a member of its opera company. On the hour-long break he had during shows, he would sneak across the street in full costume for a beer and watch football with his friends. It was there that a buddy challenged him to get a callback for a QVC audition slated for the next day.
Mike was given the job after he successfully sold a yellow No. 2 pencil to the QVC producer for eight minutes, likening it to the very device Albert Einstein could credit with E = mc2. That was when he first discovered his ability to influence others just by talking.
“It’s never about the pencil,” Mike said about his uncanny — and personally unwanted — ability to sell. “It’s always about the thing you can do with the thing you’re talking about.”
Admittedly, Mike had no idea what he was doing on camera, so rather than fake it, he told the viewers as much, going so far as to ask those who happened to be watching at 3 a.m. to call into the channel and tell viewers about their experience with the tools he was selling. And to his surprise, it worked. Mike had created a small hub of testimonials, filled with stories from people who had used the devices.
“I had no idea how valuable it was for me until 10 years went by, and everything I needed to know to work in television I learned at three in the morning. It was that toolbox that gave me the [ability] to book a lot of auditions,” Mike explained.
QVC wasn’t Mike’s dream job, and he also claims to have been fired three times by QVC, but to this day, he credits those early morning gab sessions with happy customers as his first test in humility.
Later, that same lesson would smack him in the face—literally—and it encouraged him to put his talents toward a cause that fueled his passion.
A SEWER MAY NOT HAVE BEEN WHAT PEGGY HAD IN MIND
The afternoon after his mother called him at KPIX, Mike went into his boss’s office and pitched doing “Evening Magazine” from a trades position, like at a factory or in the sewers. His boss didn’t care what he did because the show only had 60 viewers.
So, after a quick call to city officials, Mike and his cameraman, Branson, were scheduled to meet with Gene Cruz at a San Francisco intersection in the Tenderloin District.
From the moment he climbed into the manhole with Gene, Mike was completely out of his element.
Mike explains: “The sensory overload is so intense that your brain doesn’t know what sense to focus on first. As your eyes adjust to the gloom of the sewers of San Francisco … you’re standing up to your knees [in sewage], the ceiling is 5 feet high … you spend a couple of minutes watching the flow of this terrible chocolate tide.”
It was at that point that Mike knew he needed to document the moment for his grandfather. He asked Gene to stop his trek, made sure Branson was rolling, and began his opening.
“Good evening, San Francisco. Welcome to ‘Evening Magazine,’” Mike began. “Tonight, I’ve brought you to a different sort of place, a special place, an important place I’d dare say any of you have ever been before …” As Mike candidly shared with us, “And that’s as far as I got.”
At that moment, a gurgling noise caught Mike’s attention just in time for human excrement to hurl toward Mike’s face, and the second piece soared over his head.
Mike stared in disbelief. His cameraman puked.
Gene just rolled his eyes and said the line that would become Mike’s mantra: “Down here in the sewer, it’s best to keep your mouth shut.”
Yet, Mike didn’t learn at that moment. In his time spent in the sewer, Mike tried his line two more times, resulting in a tidal wave of sewer cockroaches — one of which crawled in his cameraman’s mouth — a rat perching on his shoulder, which would later crawl into his boot, and face planting into the “chocolate” pool beneath him. All Gene could do was shake his head before finally asking if Mike was ready to work. “Mike, when you’re done screwing around with the local wildlife, maybe you can come over here and give me a hand.”
Still rolling, Branson recorded footage of Gene and Mike rooting out rotted sewer bricks, and for the first time since he had climbed down the manhole, Mike shut up and listened. Gene then regaled Mike on his background and expertise as a sewer inspector for the city of San Francisco. He learned about replacing bricks and the sewer system that keeps one of California’s major cities humming day in and day out. He also learned that Gene was a skillful engineer.
Back at the studio—after many showers—Mike’s peripeteia unfolded.
Mike recalls: “As I watched our conversation, it killed me because what I saw was me at about 10 years old working with my grandfather in 1,000 different ways. Digging a spring cellar, putting in fence posts, running electricity, doing basic plumbing—this whole apprentice-expert relationship was suddenly unfolding in front of me at my desk.”
At that moment, Mike created the first show he knew his grandfather would be proud of. He listened to Gene and didn’t force being the host or expert on the show. He let the real worker speak instead.
The viewers of San Francisco were a different story. After the segment aired that evening, hundreds of letters poured into the studio. Half of the viewers were upset that their dinners were ruined, but the others were much more excited.
“The other half of the letters were from people who were saying, ‘Oh my god, you should meet my brother, my cousin, my uncle, my sister, my mom — wait until you see what they do,’” Mike said. “I got into my head that there was a possibility to do nonfiction television in a different way.”
He was right.
THE AUTHENTICITY OF HARD WORK
Mike’s idea landed him at the Discovery Channel, which bought his pitch to turn from TV host to apprentice who just happens to have a camera following him to the jobs that keep America functioning.
That’s how “Dirty Jobs” was born, and today, the eight-season show, its reruns and its spinoffs continue to amass fans. Mike has transformed his talent of selling, pitching and hosting into a platform for America’s workforce, teaching him and his viewers along the way the value of authenticity, acknowledging your discomfort and finding satisfaction in the opportunity to work.
But it wasn’t so much the strange and creepy jobs that had America watching; it was the people Mike featured. With an innate sense for storytelling and an ability to get people to listen, Mike let those he featured on “Dirty Jobs”—and today on his Facebook show, “Returning the Favor,” which gives back to those helping their communities—command the attention of the public.
At this article’s publish date, Mike’s personal Facebook page has more than 6 million followers, with interactions on his posts ranging anywhere from 50,000 likes to more than 3 million views. (For the record, Peggy’s Facebook page is quite popular, too.) Unlike other users in today’s politically charged landscape, Mike veers into the controversial without choosing a side.
In 2020, Mike’s foundation, mikeroweWORKS — which advocates for trade jobs and funds scholarships to lessen the skills gap in the U.S.—began creating and selling masks to raise funds for scholarships, Mike didn’t choose to endorse masks, other than to say how politically charged they had become and how much he hated those conversations. Instead, Mike did what he has always done: He steered the narrative into the benefit of purchasing the mask. The funds go directly into the workforce and help fill America’s skills gap with qualified, young, excited workers. That narrative drove thousands of buyers from Mike’s Facebook page to the ordering page, credit cards in hand.
Today, “Dirty Jobs” and the legacy found in the sewer culminates on Facebook in what Mike believes is the single most important thing he does.
Says Mike: “My Facebook page is the single most important thing I do because it allows me to create the news I want to create. It allows me to respond to headlines that are good for my brand and foundation … I realized along the way that I never actually worked for Discovery Channel. I worked for the people who watched me, and that’s where they are. They’re on my f_ _ _ ing Facebook page.”
It’s actually not far off from what Mike has done with his entire career since he began “Dirty Jobs.” When Discovery Channel wanted to create a chat room called The Mud Room, Mike was hesitant at first. But as he had more conversations, real and knowledgeable conversations, Mike realized he had stumbled into a gold mine.
The balance, Mike reiterated, is that his authenticity cannot be the sacrifice he makes for his sanity. Toeing the line between authentic and personal has made it easy for Mike to deliver his message without alienating hordes of people or the pursuit of his own goals.
“On the one hand, you’re saying to your customer—your boss—‘I want to know what you’re thinking. I want you to know that I understand this is the most important relationship I have with you,’” Mike explained. “But every once in a while, you have to log off.”
THE BIG REMINDER FROM THE SEPTIC TANK
During one of the first episodes of “Dirty Jobs,” Mike found himself in a septic tank on a sticky, humid, Midwestern day with Les Swanson. Les had quit his job as a guidance counselor and psychologist of 15 years to begin his septic tank pumping business just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. In that boiling tank, Les told Mike he was just tired of dealing with other people’s s_ _ _t.
Joking aside, Les confided in Mike that he left his stable career in counseling to open his own business because he saw a need in his community.
“It was Les Swanson who said to me, ‘I’m not here because I’m passionate about septic tanks,’” Mike recalled. “‘I’m here because I wanted to do something different. I looked around to see where everybody was going, and I went the other way.’”
By that time, Les was enjoying a lucrative career and had built a loyal following around Madison. In many ways, Mike, whose career had begun at the opera and landed him—sometimes literally —in the toilet, was doing the same thing. He had stumbled out of the sewers and into an opportunity to use his talents for good.
“It’s just the idea that you go into your life or career expecting to be surprised, expecting to be uncomfortable,” Mike said. “The lesson isn’t to not have passion. Passion is important to follow. Bring it with you in all things … Real job satisfaction comes from finding an opportunity and finding a way to be great at it and then finding a way to love it.”
Mike had left a cushy career covering wineries and restaurant openings to dig into the infrastructure that helps daily life chug along. His grandfather’s prowess and ability to fix anything and everything wasn’t a trait he acquired, but it was his passion for trades and ability to be uncomfortable and incompetent that has enabled millions of viewers to this day to learn something new about the world around them. It’s his authenticity that drives this message forward.
Mike took his opportunity and transformed it into his life’s work and dedication. Today, Mike hosts his podcast, “The Way I Heard It,” to continue sharing stories that fascinate him. He also hosts numerous shows on cable networks, and his Facebook videos have garnered millions of viewers.
All of this—the work he does to “close America’s widening skills gap,” the legacy he’s left of telling seemingly small stories with a big purpose and the lessons he has learned along the way — came from a motherly guilt trip and a face plant into someone else’s poop.
That’s about as authentic and opportunistic as anyone can get. “It’s very easy to trust someone covered in someone else’s crap,” Mike explained. “There’s just no way a guy like that is going to lie to you. He’s been utterly humbled.”
If Mike’s career is a testament to anything, it’s that the best way through is wading into the crap and letting others know you’re not afraid to do it.