Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Tornado Geek

With the Weather Channel hyping "Tornado Week" every couple of minutes this week, it's hard to ignore that severe weather season is here again. When I was in radio, the only time I could be sure people were hanging on my every word was when Mother Nature was unleashing a barrage--and I loved it. Not just the ego part of it, but the knowledge that at that particular moment, what I was doing made a real difference in the real lives of real people.

Like real people, I listened to severe weather coverage while I was growing up, but even though I was a radio geek, it didn't dawn on me what that coverage represented. It wasn't until I got to college and watched some of the more experienced people at the campus radio station covering a severe weather outbreak that I realized a fundamental truth of broadcasting--on most days, you're just playing records and cracking wise. You don't actually live your station's commitment to operate in "the public interest, convenience, and necessity" until you're on a full severe-weather alert.

In those days, many small-to-medium market stations had the goal of owning severe weather coverage--to be the station that everybody tuned to when the skies turned dark. In Dubuque, KDTH was that station. Even though it may have been late at night or their day off, news department staffers would materialize when watches were issued, and they set a standard for the way to do severe weather right. They knew what information people needed, who to call or where to go to get it, and how to ad-lib off the radar screen--as well as how to do it while staying cool, even when the newsroom behind the studio door was chaotic. You knew--although we never faced it while I was there--that if a tornado were bearing down on the station's very building, they'd stay on the air no matter what.

I learned a lot at KDTH, and by the time I got to my next radio job--on tornado alley in western Illinois--I considered myself an expert on how to cover severe weather. One of my jobs at the station was public-service director, which meant I was responsible for the box of 3x5 cards with "community calendar" information for jocks to read, and for the public-service announcements jocks could play to fill time. The first spring I was there, I planned to do a series of PSAs for Tornado Awareness Week--but management vetoed them. We can't let you do it, they said, because it might start a panic.

Honest to God, that's what they told me, and 22 years later, I still can't fathom their logic. But they fired me a few weeks later (not for the tornado PSAs, but for something equally loony--however, that's another post entirely), and I went to the other station in town. As it turned out, that station was about to be purchased by the guy who had been the general manager at KDTH, so I was sure my weather expertise would be appreciated there, and it was.

Within a few years, severe weather coverage, especially on music radio stations and extra-especially in large markets, started going out of fashion. In the late 80s, a jock in Dallas was famously fired for breaking his station's format rules to read a tornado warning for the area. At about the same time, I was driving home in a horizontal rainstorm driven by 50MPH winds and listening to a station in my town when I heard the jock say, "A tornado warning has been issued for a portion of our listening area. If you want to know the details, call me on the listener line."

Honest to God, that's what he said. If he'd been working for me, I'd have fired him on the spot. To this day, it might still be the single worst thing I've ever heard on the radio--although he was probably just doing what he'd been told to do.

By the early 90s, I was back in a small market, working for an owner whose commitment to the public interest, convenience, and necessity matched my own. The station was located in a little prefab house on a hill just outside of town. During the first bout of bad weather that spring, I wasn't entirely up on the local geography. "Hey," I said to one of the news people, "We've got a warning here that says a tornado is on the ground seven miles southeast of Miles, Iowa. Where is that?" She got a strange look on her face and said, "That's...here." Instead of heading for shelter in the basement, I immediately ran outside to look for the tornado. I didn't see it, but after that, I took a course and became an accredited tornado spotter for a while.

One spring, I was out of work when severe weather season arrived. That first afternoon, as I heard the sirens going off, I realized that for the first time in years, I had no place to go. Without a radio gig, I was just another listener. But I soon got a new gig, as a part-timer at a classic rock station. By this time (mid 90s), most stations in that ownership group didn't bother reading the weather at all after morning drive-time. We were told that if severe weather struck, we should assume that people would tune to the Weather Channel to get any necessary information. I heard that, but I didn't heed it--if the weather went sideways on my shift, I'd read the warnings, even if it meant breaking the format rules to do it. I did it because it's easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission--and because I was an old radio guy, and old radio guys can't do anything else.

Now that I've been good and truly out of the business for several years, I don't start jonesing anymore for a microphone when the sky gets dark. (Not too much, anyhow.) And given what's happened to the radio industry in the last few years--given the likelihood that your favorite station has no live bodies in the building after 5PM or on weekends--you and I are both better off turning to one of the local TV stations for weather information. With millions spent on Doppler radar setups, they've got an incentive to report--even if they don't do much better than we did back in the day, when we had to rely on only the AP wire, a telephone, and our experienced eyes out the studio window.


At 1:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back on August 18th last year, I was on the air when tornadoes struck Wisconsin in Viola (about one hour north of our stations) and Stoughton, just southeast of Madison. There was a tremendous amount of damage with numerous homes and neighborhoods completely destroyed. Yes, the National Weather Service alert did over-ride our station's broadcast but only twice to issue a warning for Richland County and Iowa County. I repeated the information myself numerous times and, since we're owned by WISC-TV in Madison, I had the luxury of having a WISC meteorologist on live with me at times.

It might have been the last time I will get to do that sort of thing because a few weeks later, I was removed from my afternoon airshift due to budget cuts. However, I do agree that LIVE and LOCAL is the best radio there is, especially during severe weather.


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