December 13, 1996
Twin Ports television weathermen Phil Johnson (top left) of KDLH, George Kessler (bottom) of KBJR and Collin Ventrella of WDIO/WIRT make snow angels at the playground at Duluth’s Lester Park in December 1996 before heading off to work. Weather forecasting, however, isn’t playtime. The three say their forecasts often differ because their methods differ. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)
OUR TV WEATHER FORECASTERS ARE ALWAYS IN LINE OF STORM
By Daniel Bernard, Duluth News-Tribune
You think your job is stressful? At least your job performance isn’t based on how well you predict the future.
All right, some of you may be insurance actuaries or stock market analysts or the like. But television weather forecasters deal with a subject that affects everyone.
Each day they offer their predictions in front of everybody.
Everyone knows what they look like, so if they’re wrong, people know who to complain to.
Some days, George Kessler would rather stay at home.
“If you said the day was going to be sunny, and instead you see there’s clouds everywhere, you don’t want to go out,” said Kessler, lead weather forecaster for KBJR-TV Channel 6 in Duluth. “You don’t want to see anybody because you’re embarrassed. People will come up to you in the supermarket and let you know about it.”
That’s especially true this time of year, when the weather can affect people’s lives in a big way. The daily prognostications of the TV weather forecasters can seem as worthy of attention as a news bulletin in wartime.
Hank Olson of Floodwood keeps a close eye on the TV forecasters. Olson believes that the Northland, like few other places in the country, considers the weather a high-ranking preoccupation.
“You mean an affliction,” jokes Olson, a retired plastics industry executive.
The Meadowlands native has lived in five other states. No one there could figure out why he talked about the weather so much. Neither could his wife.
“I didn’t realize why it was only me” until he moved back six years ago. Now Olson gets weather talk to his heart’s content, along with his coffee, at Jimmy’s Galley in Meadowlands.
“All the old-timers, that’s all they want to talk about is the weather — winter, summer, spring, fall. Now my wife says, ‘It isn’t your fault. It’s the area you grew up in.’”
There’s one thing Olson and his coffee klatsch can’t answer.
“If all three of the (Twin Ports) TV stations get their information from the National Weather Service,” Olson asked, “how come all three of them give a different forecast?”
TV weather is the marriage of science and educated guesses, according to the lead forecasters in this television market. An individual forecaster can insert a good deal of interpretation.
“If you give three different chefs the same ingredients and recipes, you may get three different cakes,” is how Phil Johnson, weather forecaster for KDLH-TV Channel 3, explains it. “Because each chef is going to do things a little differently.”
The raw data for the weather predictions at KBJR, KDLH and WDIO-TV Channel 10, as well as virtually all news outlets in the country, come from the federal government.
The National Weather Service observes trends with satellites and NEXRAD Doppler radars that few television operations could afford. The National Meteorological Center analyzes the observations with computer models that make generic weather predictions.
Private firms buy the data from the feds, then sort it and package it for the needs of local TV stations.
How data’s used
Meteorologists at KBJR and KDLH use the packaged information as a baseline for their predictions. They often second-guess the computer models based on their knowledge of how weather patterns can act unusual around Lake Superior.
Then there’s the hedge factor.
“My forecasting goal is to gear the forecast toward what people are going to perceive. And if there’s the slightest risk of precipitation, I’m going to include it,” Kessler said. “People are going to remember the precipitation that fell on their picnic that wasn’t predicted far longer than they are going to remember the predicted precipitation that didn’t happen.”
WDIO uses a Madison firm to make maps and other graphics for use in the broadcast, but its forecast otherwise comes straight from the National Weather Service’s Duluth office.
Johnson, a 26-year-old from Glenview, Ill., and Kessler pride themselves on their meteorology degrees. WDIO’s Collin Ventrella minored in meteorology but got his degree in mass communications. Communicating the weather is as important as calculating it, said Ventrella, 36, a Keewatin native.
“I’ve seen some meteorologists get in front of a camera and try to explain something in a very short, easy-to-understand format, and they can’t do it,” Ventrella said.
“You might call me the mouthpiece of the weather service,” he quipped. “There’s 11 meteorologists up there (at the Duluth National Weather Service office). Those are the ultimate experts. They are looking at the latest computer models, the fanciest gizmos. Once they put out a product, I feel very confident to put it out as it is.”
Viewers may give weather forecasters more guff than other on-air personalities, but they also find them more endearing.
“You watch ‘em every night, and they kind of grow on you,” said Sue Swanson, 36, of Highbridge.
And as predicting jobs go, it’s not the most stressful.
“It’s certainly not as important as medicine,” said Kessler, a “30ish” native of Winchester, Va. “Sometimes you’re just going out on a limb and people know that . . . They’re very forgiving.”
With the departure (again) of George Kessler earlier this year, the only one of these three weathercasters still on Twin Ports TV is Phil Johnson, now at WDIO.
Can you think of any other memorable Twin Ports weathercasters? Share your memories by posting a comment.