Neither Wind Nor Rain, Nor Hurricane...
Weather Channel reporters brave the elements and the "weather weenies."
By Phil Kloer
Phil Kloer is television critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
INSIDE THE WEATHER Channel, you're really unsure what the weather is like outside. Sure, it has all the latest forecasting technology, but the newsroom itself has only a few small windows.
The all-weather, all-the-time cable channel is located in suburban Atlanta, a city usually associated with CNN and the rest of the empire founded by Ted Turner. Its headquarters is a big, utterly faceless concrete-and-smoked-glass building at the interchange of Interstate 75 and Atlanta's ring road, Interstate 285, meaning any Midwesterner who's ever driven to Florida has zipped right past it, unaware.
"I hesitate to call it a sterile environment," says Jeff Morrow, one of approximately 30 Weather Channelers with the all-purpose title of On-Camera Meteorologist (OCM). "But as meteorologists, our job is to convey what's going on with the weather. And when you're in a room with hardly any windows, you get to feeling very detached from what you're talking about. You can look at a satellite picture or radar and say, 'That looks bad.' But you don't really know how bad it is till you're out in it."
And it gets bad. While many of the OCMs are exposed to the weather mainly on the walk from their car to the front door, others have been in the elements, like Kristin Dodd. "My first day on the job [in 1997], was at the top of [New Hampshire's] Mount Washington in a 75-mph wind and 25-below wind chill. They wanted somebody to do this live shot on extreme weather. No one could go, and I was like this little kid, jumping up and down: 'Me, coach! I'll do it!' "
But Dodd at least learned one valuable lesson she'd never faced as a reporter on local TV in Jacksonville, Florida: When you're reporting in 25-below wind chill, you not only coat your face with Vaseline, you coat your hands and feet too, as insulation.
And she learned something else: Mount Washington is one place even the weather weenies won't go.
"Weather weenies" is the affectionate in-house nickname Weather Channel staffers have for their more devoted fans. When the OCMs go on location, fans "figure out where our location is and drive for hours and hours to find us," says Morrow. Dodd once looked up during a live shot and saw five naked teenage boys with bags over their heads running straight for her and the camera. She managed to throw it back to the studio before they arrived.
And the meteorologists who are studio-bound have their own stories of "weather weenies." Heather Tesch, coanchor of the Weather Channel's popular morning show "Your Weather Today," has heard from a man who wants to adopt her. Her coanchor, Marshall Seese, got a phone call from a viewer in Phoenix. "He was lamenting the fact that we stand in front of Phoenix, Arizona, too much on the maps. I called him back and told him we would try not to block Arizona."
"There's an enormous appetite consumers have for weather," says Decker Anstrom, CEO of the Weather Channel, which is owned by Landmark Communications, a privately held media company in Norfolk, Virginia. Unlike the newsroom, Anstrom's office does have a window. It also has a Big Mouth Billy Bass hanging on the wall. "It's kind of like a chicken-and-egg thing. Research suggests that the 24-hour availability of weather has whetted people's appetite, just like CNN built a deeper interest in news."
But where CNN can range far and wide, from fashion shows to live combat, the Weather Channel has been doing only one thing for its 19 years. It just happens to be a thing that has caught on. Weekday mornings, from 5 to 10 a.m., the Weather Channel is the highest rated news or information cable TV network, with about 400,000 homes tuned in at any time. And while, as you would expect, the average viewer watches for only about 12 minutes, research shows that some people leave it on for hours.
Big watchers, according to research: Travelers, golfers (the golf portion of the channel's Web site is its most popular), farmers, pilots, construction workers and, surprisingly, gamblers, who want to know if a given track is going to be muddy or dry.
Blizzards are good for business, but nothing can compete with a really dangerous hurricane. (The channel's ratings record is still Hurricane Fran in 1996, when 2.6 million homes were watching at one point, as the storm damaged mostly North Carolina.) When a hurricane is approaching, staffers hustle out to the company van, dubbed "White Lightning," for trips to Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport and then on to the predicted landfall. About three crews of three people each set out to cover weather disasters. Those who stay behind get catered barbecue brought in. The dress code would be relaxed, if there was one. The only neckties in the newsroom are worn by the guys who appear on camera.
The OCMs come to the Weather Channel from different backgrounds, some with local TV news reporting experience and some as meteorologists, although all have degrees in meteorology. Terry Connelly, senior vice president of programming and production, worked in local TV news for 30 years and remembers the days when forecasts were given by brash, gimmicky guys and cute "weather girls." Those days are long gone, thanks partly to changing standards, but also to the availability of the Weather Channel.
Says Connelly: "It's too serious a matter to put in the hands of someone who doesn't know what they're talking about."