Moving Mountains, Not Meteorology

If you attended the joint AMS conferences—on Applied Climatology and on Meteorological Observation and Instrumentation—held in the shadow of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains last week, you encountered the rich diversity of presentations encapsulating the topics that preoccupy specialists these days.
You heard lessons learned from using familiar tools of the trade, the latest news about new technology, ways of observing drought, impacts of El Niño, and principles of wildfire management.
There was much advice about communicating to the public about climate change, and about the scientific basis presented by the National Climate Assessment. You heard advice from the folks at Climate Central. You delved into how to handle information delivery in the duress of extreme events.
If you’ve moved on to California this week for the AMS Conference on Broadcast Meteorology at Squaw Valley, you enter a different world, right? From the dark, craggy jumble of Precambrian sediments, granite, and gneiss, you’re now surrounded by the pale glow of Sierra Nevada granite. And from scientists focused on research, now you’re in the realm of communicators bringing science to mass media.
So, you’ll hear lessons learned from using familiar tools of the trade, the latest news about new technology, ways of observing drought, impacts of El Niño, and principles of wildfire management.
There will be much advice about communicating to the public about climate change, and about the scientific basis presented by the National Climate Assessment. You’ll get some advice from the folks at Climate Central.  You’ll also delve into how to handle information delivery in the duress of extreme events.
Déjà vu? Copy-and-paste error?
No. For all the specializations and variations in interests that collectively constitute the American Meteorological Society, there’s a lot in common between even the seemingly disparate branches. The roots in science grow into all sorts of permutations. The mountains may shift, but that’s a mere backdrop for the constancy of meteorology and related sciences flourishing across the land.
Enjoy your meetings.

The Other Science for Broadcast Meteorologists: Psychology!

The agenda of the 41st AMS Broadcast Meteorology Conference, held today through Friday in Nashville, covers a wide range of weather and meteorology. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot about psychology, too–including one presentation advising on-air meteorologists on “How to Develop Alligator Skin in order to ‘Survive.'”
The following column, by Rob Haswell, a Certified Broadcast Meteorologist in Milwaukee, delves into the ins and outs of that second science all too familiar to weathercasters.

Let me start by saying I love being on TV. I love what I do and everything that comes along with it–even the bad stuff. Sure, I’d like to make more money, I wish I didn’t work at crazy hours, and sometimes I’d like to be able to shop for groceries without dealing with that guy who has to grab my arm and pronounce, “Hey, you’re that guy on TV!”. But otherwise, I love broadcast meteorology.

With that on the record, I have to say there are times when I wish I could just forecast and not worry about how it was heard by the viewing and listening public. How a forecast is received has numerous variables that are outside of the realm of atmospheric science. Viewers have a form of selective listening that causes them to hear what they want–or not hear you at all. They want specifics but demand we generalize everything, and they suffer from severe long-term memory loss that causes them to relate only to what is happening in the present or very near past and future.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to any broadcast meteorologist is that of selective listening on the part of viewers or radio listeners. It’s similar to the selective hearing that children have: they can’t hear their own name shouted from the front porch but can make out the bells of an ice cream truck from miles away. Let’s take, for example, a viewer who has weekend plans to play golf or attend a wedding. When a forecaster says there is a chance of rain on Saturday, a pessimist will hear, “Your golf game will be rained out,” while an optimist (or perhaps someone in denial) will hear, “Your wedding will be beautiful and dry.” None of that changes what the actual chance of rain is for that area.
The human ear is capable of taking in everything we’re saying, but the human brain tends to lean toward the dramatic. So when a forecaster calls for a 7-15 centimeters of snow in an area the viewer will typically only pick up on the higher number and forget the lower number. When the storm passes with an average of 7-9 centimeters the viewer accuses us of exaggerating for ratings. This becomes an even bigger challenge when a broadcaster covers a large area with a variety of microclimates or that is affected by systems and fronts differently. If I feel the storm will leave 10-15 centimeters in our northern coverage area I will inform viewers to expect that snow north of a major east-to-west route just south of the snowfall forecast area. Nonetheless, a viewer well south of that route might just hear 15 centimeters and then cry foul when their area does not get that much snow! Then, when we explain to that viewer that his or her area was not in the forecast to get that much snow, they will might accuse you of “massaging your numbers” or simply deny you ever said such a thing. Are they delusional? No. They heard what they heard and that is their own reality.
Of course we could combat this by providing a more detailed forecast. In some ways the internet enables us to do that. We can put more detailed information online than we can present on the air. However, despite viewers’ demand for accuracy, they also demand brevity and generalities. Yes, a growing group of weather junkies love it when I break out the water vapor imagery or talk about vorticity, but the much larger group simply wants to know if it is going to rain or snow. We have to cater to the crowd that wants to know if it is sweater weather or t-shirt weather. We must remember that we are only part of a program whose main goal is to attract a large audience, not necessarily to teach the viewer about the intricacies of the atmosphere. We can’t expect a television or radio station to devote enough time for a complete, in-depth forecast discussion in each and every quarter hour.
So, viewers demand that I tell them the amount of snow in their driveway to the centimeter or the exact high temperature to within a degree for their backyard, but at the same time they want me to tell them in a brief, generalized manner that doesn’t overly tax their brains. In a sense, they are their own worst enemies if they want a more accurate forecast.
Lastly, the broadcast meteorologist is up against the viewer’s memory. Today’s viewer lives in the now. Our father’s and grandfather’s generations were more connected to the world around them in their daily lives. They seemed to remember what last winter brought and what the average spring is. That was partly because families weren’t as mobile then. Nowadays it’s common to move across the country or across the world, and as a result people don’t know their local climate. However, the average person–in particular from post-GenX generations–have short attention spans, which leads to confusion about climate–and in particular when discussing climate change.
Take for example the colder- and snowier-than-average February and March in much of the Great Lakes. Due to some late-season snowfalls and cold snaps, viewers were convinced that this was the harshest winter on record. They were incapable of remembering the well above-average December or the nearly snowless January. This climate amnesia is a “what have you done for me lately?” mindset.
This memory problem—this “now” focus—hits fever pitch on the issue of global climate change, which, sadly, is so contentious that very few on-air meteorologists will even touch it publicly.  If a few days in a row are unseasonably cold it won’t be very long before the broadcast meteorologist has to contend with e-mails or Facebook posts snarking, “Where’s Global Warming now?!” Or if we manage, as we did here in Wisconsin, to have a couple of below-average months back to back, you’ll hear calls of “Global Warming Fraud” because viewers have forgotten the numerous consecutive months of above-average temperatures, not to mention the deadly heat or extensive drought of the previous summer.
There you have it. The broadcast meteorologist is up against not only the scientific challenges of forecasting but also the challenge of psychology. We’re speaking to an audience of selective listeners who hear what they what to hear. A group of folks who want spot-on accuracy delivered in broad strokes and witty banter. And an audience that seems to relate only to what is happening in the world around them at this very moment.
So do we give up and just assume we’ll never get through to them? No. These are just challenges, not insurmountable obstacles. Broadcast meteorologist need to use all the tools at their disposal to provide specifics and focus their audience on what they need to know. Use Twitter and Facebook to engage the viewer and keep the forecast up to the minute. Take advantage of the internet to post more detailed data for those who crave it, and use the on-air portion of our job to create more weather junkies who will consume that data. We need to keep it simple while at the same time not falling for the traps of oversimplification. We need to use climate as a history lesson for the viewer to remind them over and over about what the world outside has been like so as to put today’s weather in context.
Lastly, we need to grow a thick skin. For no matter how much we work at educating, informing, and entertaining, some viewers will always revel in what they see as our shortcomings. Remember the old saying, “Weep for the weather forecaster. When he’s wrong, no one forgets. When he’s right, no one remembers.”

Broadcasters Bring it to Boston

Last week more than two hundred broadcasters made their way to the 40th Conference on Broadcast Meteorology in Boston. This was an impressive number of attendees given the unusual timing for a broadcast conference. With the approach of the peak of hurricane season, not to mention Hurricane Isaac, it’s typically not an ideal time for broadcasters to be away from their home bases. Yet, the chairs of the conference felt the significance of the 40th anniversary required a city of equal weight and were determined to make Boston work.
Here co-chair Rob Eicher, meteorologist at WOFL in Orlando, explains:

As one of America’s oldest cities, Boston is rich in meteorological history that goes back to 1774 when John Jeffries began taking daily weather observations.  Co-chair Maureen McCann, meteorologist at KMGH in Denver, talks about this as well as other touchstones that make the city a meteorological hub:

Broadcasters attended two and half days of presentations covering topics such as regional weather, new technology, and science and communication.  KWCH Wichita Meteorologist Ross Janssen, who had his first experience working as a meeting chair, talks about the hard work as well as the benefits of  bringing the broadcast community together at an event like this:

A short course “From Climate to Space: Hot Topics for the Station Scientist,” covered both climate change and astronomy, and concluded with a nighttime viewing session at the Clay Center’s observatory in Brookline. Another highlight was a panel discussion on the emergent use of social media in the broadcast community. Afterward attendees made their way to Fenway Park for a night of baseball. If only the Red Sox hadn’t squandered their early lead to the Angels it would have been the perfect way to wrap up the Boston event.

Broadcast Meteorology Award Winner Says 'Be Yourself' On-Air

Bob Ryan, meteorologist for WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., is the 2012 recipient of The AMS Award for Broadcast Meteorology. Ryan is being honored with this annual award in recognition of a career based on personal integrity and dedication to advancing the science of meteorology through broadcasting, education, promotion of safety, and support of colleagues.
Established in 1975, the AMS Award for Broadcast Meteorology recognizes a broadcast meteorologist for sustained long-term contributions to the community through the broadcast media, or for outstanding work during a specific weather event. Ryan, who has been a fixture in Washington TV News for more than three decades, will receive the award at the 92nd AMS Awards Banquet Wednesday evening in New Orleans.
The Front Page caught up with him to learn about how he connects with viewers when on-air and with his colleagues within the AMS. His primary advice for future broadcast meteorologists: “Be yourself,” he says, “and again, you’re talking to one person.” You can view interview below.

Never Too Early To Complement Your Meteorology Skills

Dan Dowling, The Broadcast Meteorologist blogger, posted some useful advice yesterday for aspiring weathercasters about how to deal with inevitable  on-camera jitters as they start their careers. The advice is worthwhile for all students or professional meteorologists looking to advance their careers–not just those who want to be on television.
Dowling points out that a lot weathercasters knew from an early age that they wanted to be meteorologists, but not many of them knew until much later that they were going into broadcasting. As a result, they developed their scientific skills from the start but not the confidence and polish that they’ll needed to communicate to an audience.
It takes time to develop effective on-camera manner, Dowling says, just like it takes time to learn how to write reports or to analyze weather observations properly, because all of these skills stem from maturation of deeper qualities, whether an ear for language and logic to write well, or mathematical understanding to use models and observations, or, in the case of presentation, solid belief in your own abilities:

You can work on talking slower, or stop fidgeting with your hands, or trying to smile more, but it likely all stems from a lack of being comfortable and confident. It’s also a challenge to teach out of a student because it’s usually something that just takes time. Just like jumping in a pool of cold water, it just takes time to get used to, and there is not a lot else you can do to speed up the process. If you are in high school, now is the time to start building your confidence. The students who get started sooner end up coming to college better equipped for the opportunities they will find there.

The blog relates a couple examples of successful Lyndon State College meteorology grads who got involved in broadcasting in high school, but specific experience of this kind not the only way to work on communication and confidence:

It all starts by pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. If it’s a little scary, you are probably headed in the right direction. Try acting or singing in a play, or being in a band or chorus. Get out in front of people. Play a sport. Get involved with a speaking or debate club. Whatever you do, make it fun.

The interesting thing about this advice is that it applies in many meteorological jobs, not just broadcasting. Dowling’s points echo what experienced meteorologists have been telling attendees year after year at the AMS Student Conference: don’t neglect your communications skills. Employers are looking for the ability to write and speak well if you’re going into business or consulting, not to mention any sort of job interacting with the public.
It’s difficult to develop such versatility during student years, when you’re packing in the math and science (here’s an example of a teacher who tries to make it possible by integrating communication practice into the science curriculum). But it’s a lot harder to catch up quickly on fundamental skills like writing and public speaking later in life.

The Aerographer's Advice

Ray Boylan, former chair of the AMS Broadcast Board, who died yesterday at age 76, was a Navy enlisted man who found his way into meteorology by a fluke. Maybe that’s why he never lost a homespun attitude toward celebrity and science that we ought to remember.

Ray Boylan at his first station after retiring from Navy hurricane hunting.

After training at airman’s prep in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1953, Boylan was casting about for the next assignment when he noticed that the Aerographer’s mate school was in Lakehurst, New Jersey—near home and best of all near his girlfriend.
So it was off to New Jersey for a career in meteorology. The Navy service was his only formal training in weather, and included some 2,000 hours as a hurricane hunter flight meteorologist. First assignment—flying straight into Camille in 1969:

Back in those days the Navy had the low level mission and the Air Force had the high level mission. Whatever the lowest cloud level was, we went in below those so that I could see the sea surface to keep the wind just forward of the left wing. That’s how we navigated in. I remember a fellow at a Rotary meeting who asked,
‘How many times do you hit downdrafts?’
‘Just once.’

Realizing that viewers had a realistic yes/no experience with rain, Boylan resisted using PoPs on the air, according to today’s Charlotte Observer obituary:

“I’d rather say, ‘It’s going to be scattered like fleas on a bulldog’s back – and if you’re close, you’ll get bitten.’ Or, ‘like freckles scattered across a pretty girl’s face.'”

Lamenting the hype of local TV news these days, Boylan told the WeatherBrains on their 19 February 2008 podcast,

One of the things I see now, is that every weather system that approaches a tv market is a storm system. Not every weather system is a storm system, but that vernacular is there.

Sometimes the medium gets in the glow of the medium’s eye. It’s kind of a narcissistic thing. The media looks at itself as absolutely invaluable. And it can be invaluable, but not if the media thinks so.

The work of the on air forecaster is not to impress, but in

Trying to get the forecast as right as you possibly can. Building the trust of the audience so that they’ll forgive even when you are wrong, And there’s no one out there in our business who hasn’t been wrong, and won’t be again, including myself. …If you can build that confidence and trust base, they’ll forgive you some of the small ones if you get the big one.

Speaking of building trust, Lakehurst turned out pretty well for Boylan. Fifty-five years later he would say, “The science and the girl are still with me.”
(Click here to download the audio of the full 20-minute WeatherBrains interview with Boylan.)

Weathercasters in Multiple Exposures

A recent blog post by Bob Henson, author of the new AMS book, Weather on the Air, serves as a good summary of the growing news coverage of broadcast meteorologists’ take on global warming. Much of this coverage stems from a recent survey of weathercasters released by George Mason University, in which, as Henson notes:

…the most incendiary finding was that 26% of the 500-plus weathercasters surveyed agreed with the claim that “global warming is a scam,” a meme supported by Senator James Inhofe and San Diego weathercaster John Coleman. On the other hand, only about 15% of TV news directors agreed with the “scam” claim in another recent survey by Maibach and colleagues. And Maibach himself stresses the glass-half-full finding that most weathercasters are interested in climate change and want to learn more.

Henson cites The New York Times, National Public Radio, ABC’s Nightline, and Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report as some of those that have examined the issue recently. The most recent “exposé” was a 10-minute segment entitled “Weather Wars,” on Australian “Dateline”; it features a number of AMS members.