Sunday, July 31, 2016

The TV Meteorologist!

I don’t remember ever hearing someone on the radio whose only job it was to give the weather forecast. I wonder why? Upon reflection, I think weather is more of a visual thing. Back in the day the weather was read by the newscaster at the end of the local news block or by the disk jockey in the middle of the music block. But there was never someone who’s sole responsibility it was to give the weather. The closest I remember was John Purvis, the chief of the local National Weather Service bureau in Columbia would call us several times a day and we would record him as he read the forecast. Then we would play back that forecast until he would record the next one.

That was a lot of work for John. One day, I asked him why he went through the trouble; he said he wanted to get the weather on the air correctly. It seems that we disk jockeys took too much liberty and the message wasn’t getting through to his satisfaction. Even as one of the guilty parties I can sympathize with him. During the late 70s and early 80s I was the Chairman of the South Carolina Emergency Broadcast (EBS) committee. One of those springs during Tornado Awareness Week, John and I decided to postpone a scheduled test of a tornado warning on the EBS system because there was a chance of an actual tornado that day. We didn’t want to confuse anyone. So John posted a notice on the SC Weather Teletype network that we were postponing the test. Sadly to say that the morning man on my station thought that was hilarious and said so on the air. I shot him a look through the control room window that would freeze an angry bear in his tracks. All I got from him was a shrug. But John called him and the on air jokes stopped immediately. Apparently John’s bear freezing stare worked better on the phone than mine did through a pane of glass.

Left: George Winterling I’ve known some disk jockeys who went from spinning records to TV weathermen and women. Two of those were Karen Maginnis over at CNN and Jim Ramsey at WGN in Chicago who both got their start at WIS-Radio as part time DJs while I was there. A third notable is Joe Pinner who has been giving the weather at WIS-TV for over 50 years now. Joe’s first love was radio, having gotten his start at radio stations in Eastern North Carolina, Jacksonville Florida and Columbia SC. Most TV weather people are certified by the American Meteorological Society after taking their course and passing an exam. Less frequently, TV Meteorologists have college degrees in their field. Two TV Meteorologists I know graduated in Meteorology from Florida State University. One was Jim Gandy here in Columbia, SC. Jim worked early in his career creating weather forecasts for the northern Gulf of Mexico working for the oil companies before turning his talents to TV. He always includes the science of the weather in his forecasts. The other graduate meteorologist is George Winterling who started his career in the service and with the National Weather Service. In 1962, George approached WJXT management with a new idea: add a meteorologist to the news broadcast to present a weather forecast. He later created of the "Heat Index" sometimes called the “Feels Like Temperature.” Joe, Jim and I were all influenced in our broadcast careers by watching George over his many years at WJXT-TV.

The art of presenting the forecasts has changed significantly since the early days. Back in the early years, there were maps on the wall behind Plexiglas, and the weather man would write the temperatures for each of the cities and maybe a funny faced sun or a cloud with grease pencil for each forecast. The clouds and sun were mostly drawn in live on the air in order to give dynamics to the forecast. That meant the weather person would have to turn his or her back to the camera to draw. Turning one’s back to the camera was a television no – no, so they had to learn to draw fast.

Then three inventions came along that changed things forever.

The first was the chroma-key. Using this technology the technical director in the control room could replace a single color that the camera can see with a map or other graphic. In the early days, that color was a deep sky blue which created the strongest signal on the blue tube in a television camera which made for the cleanest overlay. Today, the color is green, hence the name “Green Screen” used in both TV and movies.

The second was the television graphic generator. The first of these was called a “Chyron.” The earliest ones generated text only images that were used instead of the grease pencil notations. They quickly advanced to be able to produce, maps, little suns, moons and other weather icons. So the walls were replaced with the chroma-key screens and the weathercaster had to learn to look at a monitor that shows them themselves super imposed over the image of the map or weather conditions. This was a challenge because this is not a mirror image, instead it is a true image the way everyone else sees you. Everything is backwards. If you think it is easy, try combing your hair while looking at your cell phone’s live image of you. Some long time weather folks never could make that transition.

The third major advancement was digital radar and Doppler Radar. This is what you see today. Digital signals from multiple Doppler Radars, Satellite or some combination are fed into a computer and enhanced with other graphics to show intensity and direction. In certain cases even 3-D graphics of a local storm can be shown.

Just for grins, while working in a studio that had a green screen, I switched up the weather radar over the green screen in the control room. Then walked into the studio and stood in front of it and tried to point to the passing thunderstorms. I finally got it right on the fourth or fifth try. I can just imagine being live doing that with a microphone pinned to my jacket, an Interrupted Feed Back (IFB) ear bud stuck in my ear and a big electronics fanny pack hanging on my belt. I guess it is a good thing that I have a face made for radio! Oh MY!

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