For the most part, Channel 31 forecaster Chris Dunn has a sunny disposition. But even he clouds over at the thought of what he considers to be the biggest misconception about on-air weather prognosticators — "the idea that, 'Oh, you guys are always wrong' and 'If I had a job where I was always wrong and still got to keep my job, it'd be the greatest job in the world.'"
Indeed, Dunn loves his profession — but he's also proud of his ability to predict tomorrow's particulars. "I have a stack of four years' worth of forecasts here that I keep on file, and our accuracy is pretty good," he emphasizes. Yet he's constantly striving to do better, and he believes that the 150-plus television weather pros from across the country who are expected to attend the 36th Conference on Broadcast Meteorology in Denver June 25 to 29 share the same goal. In his view, "We all try to use our technology and our education and our experience to come up with the best forecast we possibly can."
The American Meteorological Society-sponsored gathering is a party of sorts — an opportunity for the small community of TV weather experts, including CNN's Dave Hennen and personalities from Seattle (Jeff Renner), Houston (Keith Monahan), Detroit (Paul Gross) and more, to dish and dis with their peers far from the nearest green screen. But the pressure isn't as low as in previous years because of the uncertainty plaguing traditional electronic media. Although the straits in which TV stations find themselves aren't as dire as those currently afflicting print journalism, broadcast operations have been taking on water, too. Outlets owned and operated by CBS, including Channel 4, engaged in some notable layoffs earlier this year, and even Channel 9, which boasts Denver's top-rated newscasts during most significant time periods, has jettisoned some personnel. According to Patti Dennis, Channel 9's news director, the station recently eliminated several technical positions, and while other hires are anticipated in the news department, including two multimedia reporters and a digital-content manager, the restructuring resulted in a small net loss in overall staff size.
Mike Alger, a veteran forecaster for a CBS affiliate in Reno, Nevada, who's organizing the conference, points out that a few people with his specialty have gotten the heave-ho in the latest round of wallet squeezing, including Paul Douglas, whom he describes as "a weather icon" in the Minneapolis market. In general, however, weather staffers have dodged the shrapnel due largely to the popularity of forecasts.
"The research done by stations usually comes back with the weather being either the top reason people watch TV news or one of them," says Ashton Altieri, a 9News forecaster. "I don't want to say we're the bread and butter, because we're not — but weather is certainly an integral part of any TV-news business." Besides, he continues, "There aren't that many of us — usually just three to five meteorologists at most stations, which is a lot fewer people than in other areas. So I think we'll be one of the last departments to see cutbacks."
Even so, forecasters face another significant threat: the Internet. Thanks to the proliferation of weather-related websites, coupled with the increasing availability of web-ready phones and other devices that make accessing forecasts anytime and anywhere a snap, fewer people may feel the need to wait until the late newscast to find out what to wear the next morning. That's why members of the TV contingent focus on extra value beyond the facts and figures. "With the Internet, you can't get an explanation and a really local look at things," Altieri says. "Sure, you can click on a map on some sites and they'll give you a computer-generated forecast for that spot. But computers still don't do it as well as people do — and it's really tough to have somebody in State College, Pennsylvania, or Atlanta, Georgia, create a forecast for Denver, Colorado."
With that in mind, Dunn, at Alger's suggestion, readied a presentation for the conference's June 26 sessions featuring representatives from all five Denver TV stations with news operations. Dunn, assisted by colleagues Chris Tomer and Crystal Egger, is set to discuss the forecasting challenges offered by Colorado's extreme elevation; Altieri will yak about the way the metro area's microclimate can produce effects with names like the "Denver Cyclone" and the "Denver Convergence Vorticity Zone"; Channel 7's Mike Nelson plans to tackle storm chasing; Channel 4's Dave Aguilera and Jennifer Zeppelin have scheduled an insider's look at major blizzards of the past; and Channel 2's Dave Fraser and Jason Boyer are expected to dig into hail as part of a talk memorably titled "Ice Balls!" This assemblage may be the largest-ever gathering of rival Denver forecasters, and Dunn expects a convivial mood. "We're all friendly away from the competitive landscape," he says before laughingly adding, "as far as I can tell."
The conference also features a field trip to Boulder for tours of facilities associated with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which is managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Among the presenters will be UCAR's Joseph Lamos, deputy director of yet another organization known by an acronym: COMET, which stands for Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training. COMET has developed more than 500 hours of online instruction in assorted areas of the atmospheric sciences that's available at www.metED.ucar.edu, and he'll be encouraging TV forecasters to explore the material there and at www.earthgauge.net, a site developed by the National Environmental Education Foundation as part of an initiative known as the Station-Scientist Program. The concept, Lamos says, is to "broaden the science perspective of the broadcast meteorologist."
Such knowledge may seem secondary given that most big-city TV weather segments these days have more in common with Laserium than classroom PowerPoints, but the AMS takes it seriously. Like teachers, meteorologists must meet continuing-education requirements in order to retain their certification, and attendance at the conference counts toward the necessary hours. "We're strange ducks," admits Alger. "On the one hand, we're scientists, and on the other hand, for lack of a better term, we're performers. It's a rare combination, and it's hard to find personality types that enjoy both ends of it." When those who do get together, as they will at the conference, Altieri says their conversations tend to mirror this split. He guesses that "probably 50 percent of the chatter will be about meteorology and weather, and the other 50 percent will be about the broadcast industry — who's going where or whatever."
Alger doesn't anticipate any revolutionary new forecasting tools to spring from the confab. Perhaps the most intriguing development involves "dual-polarized radar," a device that "distinguishes between horizontally and vertically oriented radar signals," he says. "You get two signals back instead of just one, and they can tell you a lot more about what's actually happening, particularly inside a severe thunderstorm." But viewers shouldn't expect such data to show up on their screens right away. The instrument is only slowly working its way into the field, and besides, even Doppler Radar, the most ballyhooed weather advance of recent years, doesn't play a part in the average TV forecast. "Most of the public don't know what it is or what it means, and it's extremely rare when anybody on a broadcast will show anything having to do with it," Alger maintains. "Most of the time when you see radar images, you're not seeing Doppler — you're seeing reflectivity."
Another surprise: Despite Denver stations' attempts to distinguish themselves from each other via their weather-related blocks, four of the five stations in the market use the same graphic system, LIVE, manufactured by Wisconsin's Weather Central. "We all use the equipment a little differently," Altieri allows. "But especially around the holidays, we'll get e-mails from people saying, 'That Santa that was on your map? We saw the same one waving on Channel 7.'"
Better that complaint than the one about all the forecasts being wrong.