By GREGORY ZELLER // If you’d suggested back in 2009 that “Live It Up!,” a kinda-web, sorta-television Long Island video magazine, would be seen in 25 countries and draw 100,000-plus weekly TV viewers, Donna Drake might have expressed doubts.
Then again, she might not. Relentlessly optimistic – think Katie Couric meets Gidget – Drake probably would have liked her chances. Her hook, as she sees it, is that she’s a “good-news journalist,” which are in short supply.
“When a celebrity is asked to be on a show, a lot of times, the journalists want dirt,” Drake said. “I want to promote the good things about the person, and they like that.”
Case in point: Drake’s interview with ex-con and former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, another dubious likelihood when her program debuted six years ago.
“He talked about the fact that he wished he was a better dad,” Drake said. “He gave examples of how he could have done things differently.”
Tyson wasn’t intimidating, she added. In fact, she’s never found a guest intimidating – not Susan Sarandon or Taylor Dane, not Howie Mandell or Michael Strahan, not Walt “Clyde” Frazier or Garden City’s own Nelson DeMille – though interviewing Jay Leno did make her cry.
“I was great during the interview,” Drake recalled. “But afterward I called my dad in St. Louis and I was crying. I remember telling him it’s not like his daughter was on ‘The Tonight Show’ – Jay Leno was on his daughter’s show.”
Working with an all-Long Island crew of about a dozen writers, producers and technicians, Drake shoots 20 studio segments – enough to fill five shows – in a one-day monthly marathon at the Ronkonkoma studios of IndiMusic.TV, a social media broadcast network specializing in independent artists. Over the rest of the month, she hits the bricks between Montauk and Manhattan, recording half-a-dozen remotes.
It’s all stitched together into a weekly positive-reinforcement talk show carried by CBS-10, a network affiliate in 7.5 million tristate homes serviced by Cablevision, Fios, Comcast and other major providers. “Live It Up!” also thrives online, where tens of thousands have caught segments on the show’s You Tube channel and numerous streaming-video websites.
While it’s since found its footing, “Live It Up!” stumbled out of the gate, and Drake has the hate mail to prove it. Criticism poured in after her very first studio guest, James Arthur Ray, was subsequently jailed for negligent homicide.
Months after appearing on Drake’s show, Ray – a motivational speaker and New York Times bestselling author previously featured on the “Today” show and CNN’s “Larry King Live” – was convicted after three people participating in his New Age “Spiritual Warrior” retreat in Arizona died and several more were injured.
ore unflattering correspondence arrived after Drake’s show featured psychic medium James Van Praagh, the inspiration for the television series “Ghost Whisperer,” which Van Praagh also produced.
Subsequently denounced by legendary newswoman Barbara Walters and various paranormal investigators, many of whom accused him of practicing common phony-psychic techniques, Van Praagh was another early misfire for Drake’s startup. But he was also part of a “valuable lesson about vetting guests,” Drake noted.
Six years and 800 segments later, Drake’s got it down, mixing celebrity interviews – survivor Gloria Gaynor for one – with serious sit-downs on social and economic issues. Her guests have included a smorgasbord of Long Island leaders, journalists and businesspeople. The show’s equally eclectic list of sponsors includes Bethpage Federal Credit Union, the Harley-Davidson Motor Co., TGI Friday’s and Lord & Taylor, which provides Drake’s on-air wardrobe.
“Live It Up!” was also the first program to be streamed on Facebook, Drake noted, and is a mainstay on the first page of Google returns when users search the phrase “live it up” – though Drake modestly (and gratefully) admits this has plenty to do with the “Live it Up” music video featuring Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull.
“J.Lo paid a lot for search-engine optimization, and it actually boosted me higher,” she noted.
Drake has big plans for her little show, including expansions to other domestic markets and a book series reinforcing the “tips of the day” published on the “Live It Up!” website.
To build momentum, she continues to network. This week, she hosted a “Live It Up!” segment inside the Raymour & Flanigan store in Farmingdale, featuring a live audience, popular Long Island interior designer Wendy Lepkoff and food and drink by Island-based Sexy Salads and The Murph’s Famous Bloody Mary Mix. The store donated a portion of the proceeds to Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Long Island.
This unique combination of retail, entrepreneurism and innovative journalism was a good example of the requirements of doing business on Long Island, Drake noted.
“It’s competitive here,” she said. “You have to be innovative and always professional or you’re not going to survive.
“Long Islanders have a distinct sensibility for weeding out people who aren’t legitimate,” Drake added. “They have no tolerance for people who aren’t real. If you’re not a good person, on Long Island, they’ll eat you alive.”