Monday, January 12, 2009

Seals? I Don't Need No Stinkin' Seal!

Does Your Favorite Weather Broadcaster Have What It Takes?

Storm clouds are stirring on the horizon! A frigid over-running condition could contribute to dangerous black ice on area roadways! A “rain-bomb” dumps eight-inches in the Shoal Creek Watershed! An F-4 tornado is on the ground!

What weather source will you punch up to find the facts about our ever-changing weather in Austin? Why did you pick that channel? Does it matter whether your favorite source has some sort of seal of approval from some national association? OK. Which seal is the “good” seal? Or do you think, I’ll just go to the Internet for all of my weather fact-finding now?

Here are the facts:

> Jim Spencer at KXAN dominates Nielson ratings whenever there is news-worthy weather. It’s been that way for years.
> Meantime, “Best Weather” awards from the Texas Associated Press have been scattered among all of the local stations over the years. For 2007-08 (First place went to KTBC and second place and honorable mention went to KVUE, with main meteorologist Mark Murray getting the “Honorable Mention”.) [These awards are totally subjective with judges in different states every year. You never know what might make a judge smile. That’s why awards mean little.]

> The TV station that has always emphasized American Meteorological Society Seals for its weather staff is KVUE. Both Mark Murray and Meghan Danahey have degrees and seals of approval from both the American Meteorological Association and the National Weather Association. A KVUE promotional spots proclaims, “Only KVUE has Austin’s all certified meteorologists. KVUE—Austin’s weather authority.”

> Other Austin weather sources also have apparent strong emphases on education and seals of approval—News 8 with the most meteorolgists in town, many with strong degrees and seals and KEYE where Susan Vessell has her AMS seal and Megan Campbell holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in weather.

> KXAN has never emphasized seals; it seems to be left up to the individuals on the staff.

What matters? Go back to my first fact. Jim Spencer and KXAN win the weather ratings. Have you ever wondered why KXAN’s weather is so deep in the newscast with a couple of weather snippets earlier in the show? KXAN is trying to carry the audience into the second quarter hour of the newscast, knowing that people will hang around for the weather.

“Jim Spencer has forgotten more about weather than most others have learned,” says former Austin meteorologist Laura Skirde. Skirde holds seals from both the National Weather Association and the American Meteorological Association. TV weather is as much to do with communicating as it is the science and mathematics of meteorology. Spencer, himself, agrees. “It’s kind of funny actually—seems like those with B.S. degrees in meteorology (essentially a math degree) feel threatened by “broadcast” mets [meteorologists], who get to skip the higher level math—and are often MUCH better at telling the weather story, not to mention often better forecasters too.”

A little background may be needed here. Several of the people doing TV weather in Austin got their credentials from a Mississippi State University curriculum created with the assistance of one of the certification associations, the Nation Weather Association (NWA) in 1986. Using distance learning, students take 17 courses or 52 credit hours for a certificate in broadcast meteorology. Those hours can also lead to a degree. More than 1,200 students have gone through the program. Now, there is also a continuing education program.

Also, as of January 1, 2009 the American Meteorological Society is no longer issuing AMS seals to broadcasters. Now, they will be awarded something called “Certified Broadcast Meteorologists” and get a CBM seal. Of course, those who have the AMS seal can keep theirs. Troy Kimmel, meteorologist for Clear Channel Radio in Austin, a teacher at The University of Texas, and a former TV weatherman, was one of the prime movers in the new CBM certification program. Kimmel, a San Marcos native, majored in meteorology at Texas A&M. The AMS certification was based on a degree and demonstrated experience in forecasting on the air. Once granted, there is a continuing education requirement. Kimmel holds AMS, CBM, and NWA seals.
“Personally I can tell you it had a lot more to do with the necessary requirement for continuing ed and to insure meteorological knowledge,” Kimmel says. Kimmel adds that the test for the CBM is hard. “It was tough,” he says.
Do the professional seals really matter? “I really don't think it is so much a battle of the seals as much as trying to be the best we could be,” Kimmel says. While Jim Spencer pursues continuing education like others in the craft, as noted earlier, some sort of seal means little. “The research shows people watching at home couldn’t care less about a seal.”

Bottom lines: Can your weather broadcaster communicate? Further, can your weather broadcasters effectively use the high tech toys now in most of the TV stations? Is the TV station’s weather graphics strong, and do they also communicate? More importantly, can the weather broadcaster use these powerful tools under pressure when all hell breaks out?

By my count there are some 20 TV weather broadcasters on the air in Austin right now. Their talents and skills in all of the above areas vary widely. I have to say it: It’s not because I worked with him. I’ve worked with several and enjoy watching many. Jim Spencer is the best. He knows his weather. Further, he knows Austin weather. There is a difference.

[By the way, judging maps and weather graphics on a scale of 1-10, I score KVUE-5, KTBC-6, KEYE-7, and KXAN-8. But sometimes it depends on the person using them. Some may not make full use of the palette.]

[One other postscript: What gives me the right to make these judgments? I suppose anybody has the right and should make these judgments. But, shoot, I was the #1 weather REPORTER (Not meteorologist) in Austin in the early ‘70s on KTBC. I have the paper weather maps of my last broadcast to prove it! See the above photo. Plus, I'm a weather geek.]

© Jim McNabb, 2009

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