In 20 years of filming “Today’s Homeowner” for a national audience, Danny Lipford hasn’t lost a finger.
Long before Mobile’s own tool man found his niche guiding novice do-it-yourselfers through home improvement projects, he was growing up in Marianna, Florida, watching the handyman his parents hired from time to time do odd jobs around the house. It didn’t always have a positive impact.
“Well, I’ve always done some of it, but I never thought about making a living at it because, as a kid, the contractor/handyman guy that my folks would have around the house some of the time only had seven fingers and he was a pretty rough-looking guy,” Lipford said of his aspirations of becoming a contractor. “I didn’t realize you can save your fingers and keep yourself in good shape. It was a while before I understood the whole aspect of that.”
In fact, Lipford was on a cross-country trip with some friends when he came to the realization he had a talent for building and design. He started his construction company in 1978 at the age of 21.
Start in television
Ten years later he started a local cable access show called “Renovation Today” as a marketing tool for that business.
“Then it kept getting more and more popular,” Lipford said. “We grew it into more stations, other towns … It helped me a lot in broadening my client base, even though I didn’t want to get outside Mobile with my building and really never did.”
The genesis of national syndication began with a builders’ convention in Washington, D.C. Lipford said he was telling friends about a challenging project he was working on in Mobile, the rainiest city in the country. Lipford wanted to take the roof off of a home, add a second floor and then add the roof back.
“I was telling a story about what I was about to get into and a guy tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Hey, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I’m a writer for a magazine in New York and that sounds like an interesting story, do you mind if I get your card?’” Lipford said. “I was like ‘sure, here’ and never thought about it. A couple weeks later I got a call from the guy and it turns out they sent the whole photography crew and writers down and did a feature story on it that turned out to be the first edition of Today’s Homeowner magazine.”
While he was entertaining the crew from New York, Lipford gave them a media kit and VHS tape of his regional show. The magazine editor showed the tape to his boss, who was looking to expand the company’s media reach, and the national show was launched in 1998.
“I was in New York two weeks later and we worked out an agreement,” Lipford said.
From there, Lipford had to juggle the very competitive, sometimes overwhelming venture of building a national television show. He said it involved a lot of travel and a lot of “big meetings,” but he stayed true to himself and that is what has helped make the show successful.
“I never tried to be anything more than a guy who absolutely loves remodeling and home improvement and just had a knack — many people told me — to be able to explain complicated processes of home improvement and complicated systems within a home in … very broken-down layman’s terms,” he said. “That made me very successful in my remodeling business because, you know, people wanted to feel comfortable with anyone they were turning loose in their home, especially if you were tearing parts of their house up. I think that same comfort level transferred over to my TV persona.”
“Today’s Homeowner” has grown from a small television show to a full-fledged media company headquartered in Mobile, with 23 employees around the country. Lipford said Today’s Homeowner Media has offices in Chicago, New York and Charlottesville, Virginia. Lipford also does a two-hour radio show once a week called “Today’s Homeowner Radio Show.”
Once viewed by some as a deterrent to a national audience, Mobile’s Southern location and housing stock variety has benefited the show over the years, Lipford said. As the interest in Southern-themed reality shows has picked up, “Today’s Homeowner” has been able to embrace its roots.
“You know, with the ‘Duck Dynasties’ and some of these other shows that aren’t necessarily my favorites, it’s fueled this interest,” he said. “So, it kind of prevents us from having to travel so much.”
From more modern homes in West Mobile to older homes in midtown and downtown, the show can encompass all types and styles of design and construction right here in the Port City.
“We have such a diversity of housing here,” Lipford said. “We can appear as if we’re anywhere with the types of houses we have here.”
The show currently reaches 91 percent of households in the United States, which eclipses the reach of even some of the more well-known home improvement shows on HGTV.
“It’s amazing,” Lipford said. “There has never been a syndicated home improvement show ever to reach that many people.”
“Today’s Homeowner” being in syndication makes it “appointment television” for its loyal viewers, he said.
“The other thing, too, is I believe there’s a real significant difference in audiences because our audience has to find us, because we’re in a different time in each of our markets,” Lipford said. “So, if you want to watch my show, you’ve got to be going to watch my show, not just have a channel playing in the background. We feel our audience is better than others because of that reason.”
Behind the scenes
It wasn’t too difficult to convince homeowners to participate in the show, even in the early days, Lipford said. Folks were a little modest when it came to price, as homeowners are expected to provide some of the materials for the shoots. Like with the show itself, the excitement from the homeowners grew, he said.
“They didn’t want everybody to know how much they paid for things … and we didn’t share many of the costs,” Lipford said. “After a while, it got to where they wanted my sign in their yard and they wanted to be on TV and they wanted to be a part of it.”
Homeowners who participate in the show do become a part of it. For each project the homeowners are entrusted with a list of home improvement duties to complete between shoots, Lipford said. Participants do it with varying degrees of excitement.
“Some really get involved, others get involved with the first night and then slack off a little bit,” he said.
For example, the “Today’s Homeowner” crew will let the homeowners paint between shoots so it can dry overnight before filming begins again, Lipford said. Having homeowners “work side-by-side” with the crew on projects empowers people, he said.
“That’s what fuels the entire brand and that’s the gratification homeowners get when it’s all said and done,” Lipford said.
The show looks for unique projects that have universal appeal and can apply to a large number of homeowners.
“More than anything we look for people who want to have fun and who are passionate about their home,” Lipford said. “They don’t have to be great home improvers; they just have to be willing to learn and willing to participate.”
The show’s most requested projects change quite a bit from time to time, but right now, Lipford said anything featuring backyard recreation, or outdoor living space is popular. Finding ways to make a home more energy efficient is also popular, as well as kitchen remodels.
“Certainly, the kitchen facelifts are very popular because of the dramatic before and after without a significant investment,” he said.
The show currently films 22 half-hour episodes per season. Lipford said the crew is on set at homes all across the country for about four days from noon on Monday to Thursday, or early Friday.
Lipford has traveled a lot for the show and still maintains a somewhat grueling schedule of seven to 10 days away from Mobile per month. He travels not only for shooting the show but for appearances as a home improvement expert on “Fox & Friends” on the Fox News Channel and “CBS This Morning.”
Even with the travel, the majority of the show’s episodes are filmed in Mobile because it has been home to Lipford since he attended the University of South Alabama in the 1970s. The fact that a national television personality calls Mobile home surprises some fans. He still gets stopped at the Mobile Regional Airport and questioned about why he’s in town.
“It’s just funny because many know I’m from here; many others just see me on TV and think I live in — many say ‘I thought you lived in Atlanta, or New York, or Los Angeles,’” he said. “I’m like ‘no, I live right here.’”
Like father, like daughter
A familiar face on the show now is Lipford’s oldest daughter, Chelsea Wolf. She now works as co-host on the show, but originally was on staff as an associate producer after graduating with a degree in television and film from St. John’s University in 2010.
It was never really her intention to follow in her father’s footsteps. She entered college with designs of being a television reporter.
“Looking back, his cable access show started the year I was born,” she said. “So, I feel like it was written in the stars … I went to school for broadcasting, so I did like the TV aspect of what I grew up seeing dad do, but I never thought that would be something I would do.”
Those feelings changed for both Lipford and Wolf when the home she purchased was featured on an episode of “Today’s Homeowner” and she worked with him on camera to renovate it.
The decision to have Chelsea co-host followed a barrage of emails the show received after that episode aired.
“We’ve never gotten more emails on anything,” Lipford said. “It’s just like everything we’ve ever done, it’s so natural and we’re not playing any role here. This is what we do all the time.”
Wolf said she views herself as a link between her father and the novice do-it-yourselfer watching the show.
“Being a young, novice homeowner myself there’s natural questions you’re going to want to ask as you’re seeing something being done and that’s where I’m able to come in and bridge the gap,” she said.
Wolf said she hasn’t made a decision on whether she’d be interested in picking up where her father leaves off.
“I’ve definitely thought about it, but it’s not a definite yes or no, really,” she said.
Although Lipford has been doing the show nationally for 20 years, which is no small feat, he has no plans to slow down anytime soon, although he admits the pressure to retire is there.
“I’ve had a lot of people think about that on my behalf, but I’m so passionate about it and enjoy it so much,” he said. “You know, physically, I can do just about anything I’ve done in the earlier part of my life. It’s such a wonderful time and I’ve worked so hard to get just where I am right now. I want to just kind of enjoy it.”
He’s just happy to have all 10 fingers.
“Yeah, we don’t have that story to tell,” he said.