Weather People

Largest hailstone: Coffeyville, Kansas, 17.5 inches, September 3, 1979.
Information Please Almanac, 1991 edition

Let us now explain lightning and thunder, and then whirlwinds, firewinds, and thunderbolts: for the cause of all of them must be assumed to be the same.

Aristotle, Meteorologica

You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

Let's get one thing straight right from the start. There is no weather in Miami. Aside from the threat of a hurricane roaring through your jalousie windows someday, weather is one thing South Florida has not got. Even a weathercaster will tell you so. "What there is here is climate, not weather," says Todd Tongen, who delivers the weekday noontime report and a late-afternoon segment of "Neighborhood Weather" at Channel 10. Before coming to work in Miami, Tongen achieved some measure of fame in Little Rock, Arkansas (where, incidentally, they do have weather), after he used unconventional map pointers on two occasions: a python and an infant. South Florida employs this absence of weather as a selling point to tourists, a well-known fact that isn't lost on anyone who's ever made a long-distance call and had somebody pick up and say, "How's the weather down there?" As if they didn't know.

But the lack of actual weather hasn't deterred Miami television stations from devoting the customary three or four minutes to the subject during each news broadcast, a segment that usually divides the newscast neatly in half, separating the hard stuff from the human-interest puff. Given the number of news programs most local stations broadcast every day, a significant amount of time is being spent talking about an illusion. Should a hurricane venture toward our part of the world, of course, stations shift immediately into manic mode, sending a crew to interview Dr. Bob Sheets at the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, dispatching slicker-clad reporters to some Caribbean destination to be buffeted along dark, deserted streets while the rain lashes down in torrents.

No one should be surprised to learn that not all TV weathercasters are scholars. Any bozo with a barometer can assume the meteorologist's mantle and achieve some measure of fame. David Letterman once worked in the business, so did Ed McMahon. CBS This Morning's madcap weatherdude Mark McEwen broadcasts from air shows and baseball stadiums, but he doesn't prepare his own forecasts. Neither does Willard Scott, who actually was a Bozo (and a Ronald McDonald) before he ever wished any old ladies a happy 106th birthday on NBC's Today.

For every trained meteorologist who somehow ended up in front of a television camera, there are at least as many broadcasters who stumbled into the business. "My background is in news," says Channel 4's Bryan Norcross, a Melbourne native who earned a bachelor's degree in math from Florida State. "I was working as news director at the ABC affiliate in Louisville," he recalls, "which was a thankless and horrible job - having to be a business person."

At one point in Louisville, Norcross says, he had to hire someone to deliver the weather report. "I decided to hire a meteorologist. I looked and looked and I saw I was offering two-thirds more than I was making. I decided this was insane, killing myself working all day and all night and not enjoying it." So Norcross decided to return to FSU, where he tailored a master's program in meteorology. After graduating in 1980, he went to work in Atlanta as a "charter member" of Ted Turner's newly formed CNN. Several subsequent jobs finally led to Miami's ABC affiliate, Channel 10, in 1983, and this past year the 40-year-old Norcross jumped networks to NBC's Channel 4, where it's rumored he pulls down about $200,000 annually for describing the weather four times per day, Monday through Friday.

Like other television "personalities," weathercasters, especially those who work in prime time, are well paid. They aren't forthcoming about their incomes, but Tom Loffman, a weathercaster for KOVR television and radio in Sacramento, California, annually surveys forecasters' salaries as a service to the American Meteorological Society (AMS), for the benefit of anyone interested in entering the broadcasting field, and, he says, "to allow people who are being grossly underpaid to recognize it." According to Loffman's data, Miami's media market currently ranks sixteenth in the nation, which translates to a "fair" salary for a prime-time weathercaster of between $99,400 and $184,600. (Loffman limits his survey to weathercasters who have earned the AMS "Seal of Approval," a coveted endorsement that, with few exceptions, requires either a bachelor's degree in meteorology or a related field, or extensive work experience and science classes approved by the AMS. The AMS Seal doesn't guarantee a higher salary, though; some notable weather "personalities" receive high-six-figure salaries without it.)

In the five years he's been analyzing salaries, Loffman says, he's noticed several interesting phenomena. "Broadcasting is becoming a tighter industry economically, and salaries are the first to go," he observes. "They're doing what I call the half-and-half thing to weathercasters - when your contract comes up for renewal, they hire people half your age and pay them half your salary." Interestingly, but not unexpectedly, Loffman has found that the statistical curve of weathercasters' earnings, plotted over a range of media markets, tends to fit the shape of the population curve of those markets. "Meaning," he says, "your salary is based on how many people you reach."

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