The storm kings

By TIM LEHNERT  |  November 28, 2007
HIGH-TECH GEAR: Even with sophisticated gear, seven-day forecasts test the mettle of Channel 6’s
Fred Campagna and his peers.

Providence: “A destination location”
Among local stations, Channel 12 and Channel 10 are particularly gung-ho in promoting their weather gear, with WPRI’s Pinpoint Weather Mobile and WJAR’s VIPIR serving as two prominent focal points.
According to a promo on the Channel 12 Web site, for example, the Weather Mobile “tracks the weather in your neighborhood as it happens,” and it is extolled for its ability to battle statewide through hurricanes, blizzards and thunderstorms.
Neither WPRI’s Doppler or its Weather Mobile come cheap. “It takes up a substantial part of our budget,” Joe Abouzeid, Chan¬nel 12’s news director, says of the weathercast, noting that the station spends “a significant amount” on weather technology.
This kind of spending, in turn, leads to a corresponding emphasis. “The fact that you have the technology,” says Northeastern’s Schroeder, “means you want to get a return on your investment.”
Weather typically comprises a little less than 20 percent of actual air time (not in¬cluding commercials and promos), a figure that is higher in the morning, when audience turnover dictates frequent weather “hits.”
The weather spots come fast and furious, and in recent years, have grown more daring. The seven-day forecast is a product not only of improved weather prediction technology, but also the desire to give viewers expanded weather information. “The meteorologists are not happy about the seven-day forecast,” admits Channel 10’s Cugini, since the longer horizon makes accurate predictions more difficult, “but if you don’t give it to [viewers], they’ll go somewhere else.”

There is certainly no shortage of weather options, and Petrarca acknowledges that particularly during storms, viewers are inclined to flip around and sample multiple forecasts.
The stations try to hold their audience by alternating weather teasers (“A dreary Turkey Day or late Fall delight? Your forecast is next!”), short weather hits of 30 seconds to a minute that promise more detailed information later, and finally, the actual three-minute weather segments.
The local stations aren’t just competing with each other these days. There’s also the Weather Channel, as well as radio, print, and the Internet, not to mention podcasts, and weather reports personally delivered via cell phones and BlackBerrys.
For meteorologists, New England is a prized destination because of its climate. “We get everything from A to Z,” notes Petrarca, who feels it would be “pretty boring” to be a forecaster in Phoenix. It’s also a big enough market that the pay is respectable, although not at the level found in a market like Boston, where a $500,000 salary is possible.
Still, Providence is a “destination location,” says Mark Searles, Channel 6’s chief meteorologist. Most local TV meteorologists are not looking to move on, in part since many are native to the area and have been working in Rhode Island for decades.
Doing television weather in Providence may be a good gig, but it’s not as easy as some might suspect. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how much time we put into that three-and-a-half minutes,” says Petrarca, who describes meteorology as a “24/7 kind of thing — I’m constantly tracking the weather.”
Inclement winter weather is what most tests the meteorologist’s mettle. Storms are notoriously hard to predict, and small changes in conditions can mean the difference between a blizzard and a slight dusting, or rain.
Moreover, for such a small state, the weather can vary significantly from one location to another in Rhode Island, particularly in the colder months. There can be bare ground in Newport, and a foot of the white stuff in Foster, with varying degrees of precipitation in between. Getting it right, and getting it local, is no easy task.
We nonetheless live in something of a golden age of weathercasts, with better technology, better-trained forecasters, and a very prominent place for the subject in local newscasts.
The last point, though, speaks to a general decline in television news, with lighter subjects and celebrity-focused stories having increasingly taken the place of more significant public issues. It is this vacuum that offers a perfect space for some of Rhode Is¬land’s most recognizable faces — the weathercasters of the state’s TV stations — to literally tell us which way the wind blows.

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