Now that the "first major storm of winter" is behind us -- and yes, it did qualify as "first major storm of winter" because it had more snow than the "first storm of winter" on the winter solstice last Friday -- time to examine the annual surprise many of us feel when it snows in December.
I was struck by the wave of negative comments regarding NewsChannel 5's Mark Johnson and Jeff Tanchak of 19 Action News. I'm thinking there aren't that many of you considering Andre Bernier or Betsy Kling as the type going over-the-top or hyping the forecast when bringing us the latest weather information. Right or wrong, Johnson and Tanchak certainly have the most energetic presentation, but is it fair to argue they're guilty of really try to scare their viewers?
One must wonder if that's because northeast Ohio really IS the "Best Location in the Nation" as Reddy Kilowatt advertised back in the day on television.
You may not be in the over-50 crowd old enough to remember Reddy, or a northeast Ohio native when the advertising image for electric utilities (in our case, The Illuminating Company on WEWS-TV) was just as well known as Don Webster. Heck, you may not even remember Don doing the weather, much less hosting Upbeat, but that's another story.
It was reassuring to see Reddy motor those lightning-bolt legs across the screen, making sure no matter the weather we knew living in northeast Ohio was special. Even when we didn't see the sun for four months. Even when the rain changed over to ice changed over to snow. Even when the snowfall in the eastern snowbelt totaled feet, not inches.
We were tough enough to take the snow. We not only survived blizzards, we ate 'em for lunch and still went about our business. We had snowplows that went both ways uphill, just like we all walked to school in three feet of snow. Barefoot.
So in the course of a generation, just how did we get to be such wimps?
How did we emerge into an environment where meteorologists on TV, radio and social media stake out territory on just how scary they can make the forecast? And is it really that scary, or does it just seem that way?
Put me on the side of those who don't appreciate the scare tactics, but understand many stations adopt that position precisely because there are more folks than me who want the hype.
Some of my early, albeit fuzzy, memories of local television had folks like Webster, Wally Kinnan the Weather Man, and even the Godfather of Storms, Green's own Dick Goddard, calmly tell us what was on the way. By today's standards, it was downright archaic; symbols stuck on carpet maps with Velcro with sunny smiley faces or puffy white clouds or angry grey clouds served as modern graphics, maybe even with a snowflake. There was just radar, usually not the Triple-Double-Dare-Doppler-XXXL and it moves! radar we see today. It for sure wasn't instant, up to date, even up to the minute.
Now we have Betsy and Jeff and Mark and Andre, backed by their teams, with the latest technology that allows radar images to zoom into neighborhoods so we can almost taste the snow swirling. Weather spotters across the region can be counted on for backyard snow totals. If they're doing weather on TV, odds are they've got the American Meteorological Society Seal (and a number to go with it) so we understand these aren't just folks ripping and reading the forecast off the newswire. They've got the tools to help them create their own forecasts unique to northern Ohio's unstable weather patterns. Back in the day, Dick Goddard could tell us it was an Alberta Clipper; today's tools let weather forecasters tell us what Canadian postal code the winds are coming from.
Total trivia: when writing folks in Edmonton, the provincial capital of Alberta, use T5A 0A1 as your first choice. Calgary, go with T2P 4K1.
We even have apps from television, radio and web weather news providers so we don't have to wait for the news to give us the lowdown, which brings us to the changing presentation of the weather and what some perceive as the strategy of using scare tactics.
Truth is, this still isn't an exact science, even with all the gleaming toys. It is a lot more exact than it used to be, but going five or more days out is still dicey. So when most of the meteorologists tracking a storm think it may have a big enough punch 48 hours from now to dump a foot of snow, and when our own taxpayer-paid National Weather Service is among them, is it really scare tactic to tell us what might be coming? Would you rather they say it's only packing four inches and then watch a half-day of inch-an-hour snowfall? They're offering us their best estimate (not a guess; there's still science at play here) and it's worth remembering just how fluid weather conditions can be when offering up a forecast. Patterns change with the winds, just as snow and rain totals can change.
Besides, we've proven as a consuming audience that sometimes talking to us as adults just doesn't work. Most of us wonder why news anchors and traffic reporters always remind us to back off snowplows, and provide tips on driving in the snow and ice. Know why they do that? It's because so many drivers can't seem to hold a cognitive thought when it comes to driving in winter past spring. And they have to do it all over again six months later. Any surprise there's research to indicate it takes going overboard to get through to some folks that Station X is your choice for reliable forecasts?
Then there's the business reason why broadcasters, and television in particular, pay So Much Attention to their weather product. It's because weather coverage is in high demand when the weather is at it's worst. You won't be surprised to learn radio news stations a few years ago from Washington, DC to Philadelphia had huge spikes in listening with crippling snowstorms. Or the radio stations in the New York metro area had some of their highest listening ever when Hurricane Sandy wreaked such havoc in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Or how broadcast coverage was a lifeline to those in harm's way from Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf. It's partly because radio listening may have been the only way to get information when cable TV systems went dark, or cell service was spotty, or the only thing with a speaker that still worked when the power was out for weeks remained the car radio.
Television viewing goes way up, too, just as use of mobile devices for texting and social media hit highs. We wanted information, but we also wanted to talk about it and share our experiences. We also wanted to comment to help or disparage. It comes with the territory. We may complain when we watch and listen, but to an advertising-based media platform the keywords there are "we watch and listen."
One of my former bosses used to note what we did wasn't brain surgery. He's right, it's not. Brain surgeons get much better training and much more focused vetting than those of us on television, radio or the web. They still make mistakes, too, but when their diagnosis of the case is off the stakes are much higher. When a weather forecaster is off the mark, we complain when it isn't bad enough but wouldn't you rather swing that way than being unprepared? Do we really give more weight to the inconvenience of some businesses closing than their decision opting to hold the safety of their employees against what might happen? Really? We opted to take the fizzled blizzard seriously, especially when getting a hard look at road conditions after noon and hearing about the mountain of wrecks from police radio traffic. Some businesses didn't, and that's their call. I'm glad I work at a place where picking up the job the next day in safety ranks higher than a project that doesn't absolutely have to be finished that day. Unless, of course, you work in our news department. Or on the air.
In that case, we take the responsibility to help our listeners better understand what's happening in a style that could hardly be described as trying to scare people. But I don't think any of the local stations consciously want to scare you into action; some may have more energy than reassurance, but I'd chalk that up to being excited they have the opportunity to give you the information you need. Even when it goes over the top on occasion.
When it comes to hyperactive weather warnings, take a page from winter: chill out. The ultimate message you don't like the approach someone is taking in getting you the forecast is found when you turn the channel. Trust me, that's the forecast the folks who run the broadcast stations and web sites follow very closely.