Mike Rowe, TV Star, ‘Returns the Favor’ to Giving Americans
Host of 'Dirty Jobs,' 'The Way I Heard It,' and more is shining a light on deserving people — and having fun, too
Americans have always reached out to each other — in friendship, in crisis, in peace, in war, and at just about every other time in between.
Most acts of outreach occur quietly, without fanfare or fireworks, without press releases or pep rallies or parades.
When Americans see a need and have an idea for addressing it, many step right up — and right into it.
Now one man is bringing those tales of kindness and charity to light in an informative and engaging way in a TV series on the web. He’s making a difference by doing it, too — and having fun.
Television star Mike Rowe’s latest successful venture is “Returning the Favor,” and in it, he travels the country to find those who are giving back to their communities in some meaningful way. Contributions made by his nonprofit, mikeroweWORKS, help boost these individuals as well, and allow them to do even more of what they do. (He’s shown above; on the right is a scene from one of his shows.)
The reality web series premiered on Facebook Watch nearly two years ago, on Aug. 28, 2017. It’s since produced more than 40 episodes.
LifeZette also talked exclusively to Rowe this week about his wildly addictive podcast, “The Way I Heard It,” which covers everything from pop culture to politics, Hollywood to history, through “a series of short mysteries for the curious mind with a short attention span,” as Rowe and his team put it.
That podcast is already approaching 100 million downloads — making it the most popular short-form podcast in the country.
In addition, Rowe is working on a new book out this fall of the same name. “The Way I Heard It,” while based on the podcast, goes well beyond it as he shares insights and experiences from his own life to complement the existing stories.
Add up all of this and more — and Mike Rowe is one busy, bustling guy. But none of this goes to his head. For him, it’s about good people and common-sense acts of kindness, about those who freely give others their time, energy, and attention — he’s just happy to share it.
Check out this revealing and rollicking conversation with Mike Rowe. LifeZette talked with him in a phone interview this week (he’s based in San Francisco).
Question (LifeZette): How in the world do you have all the energy to do what you do every day?
Answer (Mike Rowe): Caffeine, mostly.
Q: You actually had this interviewer in tears over your new “Sole Mission” episode of “Returning the Favor.”
A: Oh, no!
Q: You really did. You showed the world how amazing this Texas couple Kelly and Alisa Ward are by giving sneakers to kids who have never had a new pair of shoes in their lives. And then, as these folks are giving of themselves to others, your nonprofit finds a way to give back to them. It’s amazing and unforgettable.
A: Well, viewers are really responding to this story and others. “Dirty Jobs” and now “Returning the Favor” were and are made popular by the viewers, and these shows feature people who I think are really worth knowing. So that’s the reason I’m running around the country “returning the favor.”
Q: Many Americans regularly do kind, thoughtful things for their neighbors, their communities, even for complete strangers — yet don’t get much attention. They pour their hearts into these actions, and often their own money. There’s no personal gain for them. So it’s fantastic that you’re giving these people some attention.
A: It’s even more personal than that. There’s a lot of “sturm und drang” and anger in the average newsfeed these days — and some people were really starting to depress themselves online, with people unfriending each other and so much else. We’ve got this forum, so why not use it to tell really worthwhile, positive stories? That’s why I do this.
Q: The public is responding.
A: Yes, and 350 million views can’t be totally wrong. There’s a hunger for it for sure. But even beyond the views, people will often say, ‘Mike, you’ve gotta meet so-and-so.’ That’s really the thing that “Returning the Favor” and “Dirty Jobs” have in common. Whether I’m in a Starbucks or in line somewhere or out and about, people will say, ‘Hey, get a load of my uncle, brother, cousin …’ You know, that’s cool, to be able to cross the country and find these amazing people and tell their stories.
Q: As Americans, we’ve always been connected. People have always reached out to others, but now there are more ways than ever to do it.
A: Yes. People are connected. We’re all connected, more than we ever imagined — even as we’re more disconnected than before. I never imagined that, generally, as a people, our relationship with our history, with food, with all kinds of things, would be this perilous right now. Yet at the same time, we can reach around the world and share a recipe with somebody in Belgrade. It’s an odd combination.
“It’s cool to be able to cross the country and find these amazing people and tell their stories.”
Q: And there’s a guy like you who can spread these stories of connection and outreach — and do it with some entertainment value. That’s the magic mix.
A: If there is a secret in this hot mess, it’s variety. Today, it’s important to have a brand. It’s vital to have a presence. It’s helpful to have a book. And it’s useful to have a podcast. And if you can use all of those to share your ideas, then you have a story — and can tell your story in a lot of different ways. And if you’re lucky, you get to stick around for awhile.
Q: There’s luck plus talent — let’s admit that.
A: Well, flattered by that, but look, in the end, you can’t control certain things, yet there are other things you can control. You can control, for instance, how hard you work. There are actually a lot of things that are within our control. It’s worth reminding ourselves of that.
Q: That brings us to Army veteran Gregory “Doc” Dubay, who’d served in Vietnam and then beyond that as a medic. He gave you the flag patch he’d been wearing for what, 35 years or so, as a gift — out of the blue. How do you account for that amazing gift — and have you always felt a connection with veterans in this country?
A: Well, I love these guys, and they know it. And what’s interesting is, the segment of “Returning the Favor” wasn’t about him, specifically. That was a totally random connection — more evidence that the most random things can wind up being the headline of a story you didn’t even know you were writing.
We were doing a follow-up segment about a group called Operation Combat Bikesaver (OCB), which helps veterans who have PTSD get out of their own heads and focus on something that’s out of their comfort zone by working on motorcycles. They call it “hot rod therapy.”
Other vets in other parts of the country [are now doing something similar]. And in the follow-up [out later this year], I was talking with “Doc” Dubay about his time in the service and his commitment to caring for the guys he served with over the years. And we discussed PTSD and the efforts to fight that sad scourge by honorable men and women all over the country — people like Jason Zaideman, who started OCB in Indiana, and Rob Dinsmore in Alabama, who was inspired to follow in Jason Zaideman’s footsteps. Then we talked about the flag and his insignias that he’d collected over the years. And then — “Doc” just gave me his flag.
He said, “I want you to have this.” What do you say to that? You can’t refuse that gift.
And what did I have to give him back? Nothing — except the cameras and the show and the Facebook page and the photo. And so, five million people have gotten to know who he is and what he’s experienced in his life.
Q: And that photo and story, in its own way, shares a love of America, too, and of patriotism — a topic that somehow elicits so much angst and confusion these days.
A: You know, when I posted that photo and story on Facebook [on June 13 of this year], I didn’t realize I’d posted it the night before Flag Day, June 14. And when a soldier who’s worn this thing for 35 years says, ‘Here, have this,’ what do you say? And yes, some people aren’t sure what the flag stands for these days. But when a soldier, who’s worn it for 35 years, gives his own flag patch to you and says, “Thanks. Have this. I want you to have this, thank you for what you do” — that’s powerful.
Q: It’s such a gift.
A: There are macro and micro — or “Mike Rowe,” as I call it — lessons to be found here. There are lessons of sacrifice, and connection, and more. And that’s what this Facebook Watch program, and Facebook, have let me do: Report on these small but important acts across the country. And start looking around for other moments in other places wherever I can find them.
Q: What keeps you going? What motivates you?
A: What keeps me going is the opportunity to do shows, and write books, and work on projects that check several boxes at the same time. I think it’s fun, it’s engaging — and ultimately, if I do things that my mother [Peggy Rowe] looks at it and says, “Well, Michael, it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good,” or, “Your father and I are not embarrassed by this” — well, then, I guess I’ve done OK.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of LifeZette’s exclusive interview with Mike Rowe — coming up soon.
For more info on Mike Rowe’s web TV show “Returning the Favor” on Facebook Watch, click here. To learn more about his podcast, “The Way I Heard It,” click here. To learn about his upcoming book, click here. And for info on his foundation, mikeroweWORKS, click here.