Tim Heller, Talent Coach and Weather Content Consultant
The job of a broadcast meteorologist has changed significantly over the years. During the early days of television, it wasn't unusual for the weather presenter to wear a costume, play a musical instrument, or work with a puppet. Today the weather is usually delivered by a professional meteorologist using sophisticated computer graphics, street-level Doppler radar maps, and hour-by-hour forecasts.
"We are able to quickly warn our audience of impending severe weather, allowing them to move to safety much faster," says Chief Meteorologist Janice Huff, who recently celebrated 25 years on WNBC in New York. "We can see farther into the future with more accuracy, with new and upgraded computer forecasts."
BRIEF HISTORY OF TV WEATHER
The first televised weather report was on Huff's station (then WNBT) on October 14, 1941, and it looked a lot different than contemporary weathercasts. According to the New York Times it featured a cartoon character named Woolly Lamb. The weather segment was more entertainment than information and predicted general conditions only 36 hours into the future.
By the 1960s, television stations started hiring professional meteorologists to explain the weather using hand-drawn or magnetic maps. A digital revolution in the late 1970s and early 80s introduced computer graphics. The wall map was replaced with a chromakey screen that could electronically insert looping satellite pictures and colorful weather maps behind the weathercaster. By the 1990s, broadcast meteorologists were creating animated fly-thru graphics, tracking storms minute-by-minute, and forecasting the weather a week ahead.
ENTER THE INTERNET
The biggest change in broadcast meteorology and the entire television industry started around the turn of the 21st century and continues today. While previous decades upgraded how the weathercast looks, the expansion of the internet revolutionized how it is watched, which in turn modified the work of the weather team. Television stations today are multi-media production companies, creating content for broadcast, digital and social media platforms.
"Forecasters in general now have much better tools for storytelling, and more importantly, for communicating accurate information in a clear manner during the most acute situations," says Chip Mahaney, emerging talent leader at The E. W. Scripps Company and former News Director at WCPO in Cincinnati. However, he adds many in the weather community fail to take advantage of new digital platforms. "A few of our traditional television meteorologists have become quite adept at building and engaging digital communities. But most continue to do the bare minimum of work without seeing the opportunity to systematically build beyond the broadcast."
ALL WEATHER, ALL THE TIME
James Spann, Chief Meteorologist on ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama, is one meteorologist working all fronts (pardon the pun). "When I started on TV in 1978, I simply worried about preparing a forecast and delivering it on the evening newscasts at 6:00 and 10:00. It has morphed into a pretty much 24 hour a day operation in 2020. I work on 3-4 hours of sleep a night."
Now, in addition to the evening weather, Spann does an update for the morning news from home, reports the weather on 15 radio stations, writes a daily blog, cohosts a weekly webcast, and monitors social media non-stop. He does all that plus a couple of school visits on many days.
His hard work pays off. Spann is extremely popular on-air and online. His jacket-off, suspenders-on image is used as the background for several memes, and Spann's name often trends on Twitter during severe weather.
"Social media is an amazing tool. I get hundreds of pictures and videos per week. It also enables me to reach people that don't use television. The main downside is the time it takes to manage all of the various platforms," he says.
BROADCAST METEOROLOGISTS AS SCIENCE COMMUNICATORS
In many television stations, broadcast meteorologists report on more than the weather, taking on the role of station scientist, an initiative encouraged by the American Meteorological Society.
"Oftentimes, the meteorologists are the only scientists in the newsroom, so they may be called on to provide support for content beyond the forecast," says Maureen McCann, AMS Commissioner on Professional Affairs and Spectrum News 13 Meteorologist in Orlando. "Such topics may include earthquakes, wildfires, energy, agriculture, public health, etc.” And of course, climate change.
While on-air news time is limited, McCann points out that digital platforms offer an opportunity to provide more in-depth coverage. "The topics station scientists want to cover may be too complex for a short weathercast or a fast-paced show. The more time we are given, the easier it is to explain and engage with viewers. Separate packages may be the best way to do this so that we are less pressed for time. Naturally, social media is a great platform to continue the conversation off-air and provide expanded coverage."
FUTURE OF BROADCAST METEOROLOGY
The catchphrase in television newsrooms today is "digital." In the latest research conducted by RTDNA and Hofstra University, nearly 60% of news directors said they are "building new, digital first strategies and plans, including staff reorganization to integrate digital at the center of the news team." Given that weather is still the number one reason people watch the news, broadcast meteorologists should be involved in establishing and implementing digital weather coverage.
"I hope meteorologists will help our local stations figure out how we all can build more connections to the local consumer through the day, on whatever platforms the consumer chooses to use," urges Mahaney. "Opportunities for more live streaming, more live analysis, more long-form storytelling on streaming platforms abound for enterprising meteorologists who know how their weather-interested consumers stay connected to weather through their days."
SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE
Over time, technology modernized the way weathercasts look, the way they are produced, and the way they are delivered. As a result, today's broadcast meteorologists shuffle six different jobs: forecaster, graphic artist, weather producer, on-air anchor, digital content creator, and social media editor.
Still, Huff says one thing hasn't changed. "All the advancements in our science help us stay on top. But I haven't completely abandoned the 'old ways.' I still look up every day!"