The Last 20 Years is a Blur
Looking back at some of my personal memories at The Weather Channel
(Note: In this story are many clickable links to videos and articles about what I describe. If you like, you can take a look at them and re-live some of my memories with me.)
This month I celebrate twenty years with The Weather Channel. It is the longest I have ever worked for any single employer, but the years have gone by much too fast. It would take a book to write down all of my remembrances, but I’m taking this opportunity to list at least a few of my most vivid memories. These impressions are my own, and I don’t pretend to speak for any other person at the network.
Reporting the weather over the years has been sobering, educational, enlightening, emotional, humbling and exciting. I am grateful to have worked with a group of professionals who are some of the smartest and most dedicated people I know. Though budget cuts resulted in my full-time status changing to an on-call position at the beginning of 2015, I am grateful for the opportunity to continue working at least part-time at the best job I ever had.
I came to work for The Weather Channel in April of 1999. After being on the job only a few days, I got a big wake-up call. That was when the Oklahoma City area fell victim to the strongest tornado ever measured, a powerful F-5 that carved a path through the towns of Bridge Creek and Moore. It was a sudden realization that I was in a different world from my previous job in Seattle, a place where the weather is comparatively severe-free.
I was a greenhorn when it came to reporting weather on a national scale, and I owe much of my early success at TWC to nurturing managers such as Dennis Smith, Keith Westerlage, Marny Stanier and Terri Smith, who helped me to set goals, and encouraged my progress.
My first year I was plunged into tropical meteorology in a way I had never experienced before, learning from the godfather of hurricane experts John Hope. I remember when the promotions department decided to shoot a promo with John and the “new guy” (that was me) to plug our hurricane coverage for the 1999 season. I was dutifully following instructions when the film director said to me, “Nick, I want you to point out something on the map to Mr. Hope.” I looked the director in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, I’m certainly not qualified to point out anything to Mr. Hope; if someone’s going to do the pointing, it needs to be him.” John laughed good-naturedly, and the director did it our way.
Nearly three years later John Hope passed away, and at his stirring memorial service I met his daughter Camille, whose name her father had added to the list of hurricane names while he was a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in 1969. That year, the name Camille went down in history, becoming the third most intense hurricane to strike the United States.
My tropical training helped me realize that The Weather Channel was not just a job; it was a meteorological “college” with some of the best “professors” in the field. Like John Hope, Hurricane Expert Dr. Steve Lyons was a wealth of information and was always willing to answer questions. I quizzed Dr. Greg Forbes about tornadoes and severe weather, something else I had rarely experienced as a meteorologist in Seattle. Winter weather expert Paul Kocin taught me the intricacies of lake-effect snow and nor’easters. I owe much to these men and their willingness to share their knowledge, greatly aiding my studies to earn my Certified Broadcast Meteorologist Seal from the American Meteorological Society. Our current experts Tom Niziol and Dr. Rick Knabb have graciously taken up the mantle of education where others left off.
In my early years at the Weather Channel, the network began experimenting with long-form documentaries, and I had the good fortune to be involved with them. I hosted the network’s first-ever documentary on climate change “Hot Planet,” and was the narrator for several of the original “Forecast Earth” specials. In time, those occasional “specials” turned into a staple for the network.
My retrospect of the past twenty years must include the exhausting back-to-back hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005. Beginning with Hurricane Alex in August of 2004, that season saw an amazing seven hurricanes affect the United States, including Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, all Category 3 or higher. My colleagues and I put in extra hours that summer and fall, and when the final named storm dissipated in December, we needed a rest.
Little did we know that the next season would prove to be even more formidable. With 2005’s record 28 tropical cyclones, 15 of which became hurricanes and an unprecedented five reaching Category 5 strength, we grew weary of the destruction as our nation was pounded by Dennis, Emily, Katrina, Rita, Wilma and others. As storms continued to proliferate long after the regular storm names had been exhausted, the National Hurricane Center used the names of Greek alphabet letters, racking up six of them, with tropical storm Zeta lingering a full week into January of the next year.
I was on the air with Kim Perez Cunningham and Jen Carfagno the morning Katrina slammed into the Louisiana-Mississippi border as thousands of people huddled inside the New Orleans Superdome. After our show was over and we handed off coverage to Marshall Seese and Heather Tesch, I was hopeful the Big Easy had escaped the worst of Katrina’s Category 3 winds. We soon learned, however, that much of the area’s flood protection structures had been breached, submerging nearly 80 percent of the city. The flood story dominated the headlines for weeks, even as we covered five more hurricanes within a month’s time. When the season was finally over, we knew The Weather Channel’s coverage had been excellent, but frankly most of us at the network were too weary to celebrate.
It was during those hurricane seasons that I learned to fully appreciate the abilities of our crews in the field. Jim Cantore and Mike Seidel showed how they are the best field reporters in the weather business, earning the respect of the public as well as other meteorologists, and proving themselves a hundred times over with their skill, knowledge and endurance.
It was a huge internal shock when in 2008, Landmark Communications, the family-owned company that nurtured The Weather Channel for 26 years and brought it to dominance, sold the network, along with the popular Weather.com web site. The new owners were a conglomerate made up of NBC Universal, the Blackstone Group and Bain Capital. Layoffs had been rare before, but dozens of my friends and co-workers got the axe during that time, and the rest of us were left with a strange mixture of relief and survivor’s guilt. The Weather Channel gained some helpful and impressive resources in the deal, but it also meant we all worked harder, reporting not just for our network, but also for NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, the Universal Sports Network and a few others. If our duties at The Weather Channel conflicted with those for one of the NBC properties, NBC always seemed to win out. Several times I was pulled off my own regular show (while it was in progress) when one of our NBC partners requested a weather update, and usually at our busiest times. My on-air partner had to then take over my segments and shoulder alone the forecasting load on our primary network.
I don’t want to give the impression that my job was laborious and problematic. There was plenty of fun, such as the time David Letterman took our signal live on his show and I just happened to be on the air at the time. I had always dreamed of appearing on “Late Night,” but suddenly being on the receiving end of Letterman’s benign but wry humor was not what I had expected. Stephen Colbert came to our studios to ply his trademark brand of mock-serious humor when he did a tongue-in-cheek exposé on The Weather Channel’s use of “sex and violence to boost its ratings.” And millions of viewers of The CW network heard the fictitious compliments that Sally Struthers’ character Babette heaped on me during the finale of the original Gilmore Girls series.
But the best part of coming to work at The Weather Channel was, and is, its atmosphere of mutual respect, something that is too often lacking in many television environments. No one displayed that better over the years than my three main on-camera partners Kristina Abernathy, Kim Perez Cunningham and Vivian Brown. We always had one another’s backs, and they became like family to me.
Everyone who was around The Weather Channel in earlier days remembers the lavish parties we enjoyed. During the first eight years I worked for TWC, the company hosted an annual formal Christmas bash that always included gourmet food and a live band. One year the company even hired limousines to transport employees to the venue. Every summer there was a family picnic and a company-wide outing at the Atlanta Braves ball park (and not in the cheap seats either.) Unfortunately all of those festivities went by the wayside after the 2008 sale and stockholders began to scrutinize expenses.
The company also had an unforgettable 25th anniversary extravaganza in 2007, complete with a talent show, in which Dave Schwartz and I, along with some of our friends, performed a parody of an old Gerry and the Pacemakers song.
I had been a Dave Schwartz fan long before I came to work at The Weather Channel, and my respect for him only grew after I got to know him. We were about the same age, and in the evenings we often sat at our desks across from one another singing pop songs from the sixties. (I mean, who else would know all the lyrics to “Susan” by the Buckinghams?) Dave fought pancreatic cancer— twice—and beat it, but in 2015 he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. I was in the studio with him as he interrupted his weather segment to gently and articulately explain about his cancer to viewers, totally unscripted. It was inspirational, and his positive attitude became an inspiration to all his coworkers. He died in the summer of 2016. I still miss him.
It is difficult to work somewhere for twenty years and not be changed by it. The event that may have triggered the biggest change in me occurred on April 27, 2011, when almost 300 tornadoes struck Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. 324 people died in what became known as the “2011 Super Outbreak.” 238 of those who died were in Alabama.
I have rarely been thoroughly stunned by the weather, but the jaw-dropping awe of nature coupled with the sure knowledge that homes and lives were being destroyed before our eyes made me weak. Drained, I went home that evening asking myself, “What could we have done differently?” and even more personally, “What could I do now?”
As some people know, I use music to educate young people about weather, (and once, against my “better judgment,” Stephanie Abrams egged me on until I finally burst into song live on the air). Before April 27 I had been writing songs about severe weather, and I decided to make a recording of my songs with a focus on storm preparation. Employing a phrase coined by Hurricane Expert Steve Lyons, I titled the recording “Don’t Get Scared, Just Get Prepared,” and used all income from the CD to benefit disaster relief. Together with the generous members of the National Weather Association, we were able to present a check representing proceeds from sales of the CD to the Alabama Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund at NWA’s Birmingham conference the next year, and I continue to donate 100% of the earnings from my recordings to help victims of natural disasters.
Another incident that shook me happened in 2013 when my colleague Mike Bettes was tracking a multiple-vortex tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma. The storm struck his SUV, tossing it 200 yards. He and his fellow passengers survived, but the tornado killed three storm chasers nearby. I was impressed not only with his reporting, but also with his humility in confessing the lessons he learned from the experience. Because of that, I nominated Mike for the National Weather Association’s “Broadcaster of the Year” award, which he deservedly received.
I’m still active in that organization, having served two three-year terms on its governing body, and also as the chair of its Broadcast Committee. Now, working for The Weather Channel part-time allows me to spend some energy on other projects I never had time for before. I helped my friend and former co-worker Guy Walton write a children’s book about weather and climate change. I host a regular podcast for project managers and perform my “Weather Dude” shows at science fairs and other events. I am grateful that I can undertake all this while still doing what I was trained to do, reporting the weather on television.
So I’ll propose a toast to the last twenty years at The Weather Channel and all the wonderful people, some whose names you know and many others whom you have never seen, but who have nonetheless encouraged me, supported me, educated me, and helped me grow. I think of longtime producer and wordsmith Joei Bohr and longtime director Edward Bruno-Gaston who have had my back for almost my entire term. There’s weather super-geek Stu Ostro who always encouraged and educated me, sometimes without even knowing it. My fellow long-time-on-camera-meteorologist friends Paul Goodloe, Kelly Cass, and Carl Parker are also coming up on their 20th anniversaries, and I celebrate with them. So here’s to all the dedicated folks on the network who continue to provide this nation with life-saving information, educating viewers about how the weather works, and helping us to appreciate more each day how amazing it really is.
© Nick Walker 2019
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