When I was a little baby disc jockey at KDTH in Dubuque, 31 years ago this spring, we read the weather forecast on the air two or three times an hour, and sometimes more. It was right there on the program log for us to check off as we did it. In those days there was no Weather Channel and no Internet, and the working assumption was that the day’s weather and the current temperature were things everybody cared about, and where else were they going to get them? So we repeated the forecast endlessly. Today, “weather every 10 minutes” is a positioning statement for all-news radio stations and some morning shows in other formats, but frequent weather updates are no longer something everybody does. At some stations, you may not hear a mention of the weather forecast outside of morning drive-time.
In recent years, the fashion is to partner with one of the local TV stations for weather information. This works particularly well for stations that are largely automated and/or voice-tracked—when the weather goes sideways, a TV meteorologist can upload the forecast to the radio station and it gets on the air with little or no human intervention. At my company, our stations partner with the local CBS affiliate—their meteorologists are on our morning and afternoon shows, they supply us with the forecasts we use the rest of the time, and during severe weather, they call us with reports.
In many, many markets, severe weather coverage has been largely abdicated by radio to TV. TV stations know the promotional value of being the one everybody turns to in bad weather, and they’re eager to have the eyeballs. This leadeth to the temptation to hype severe weather before it happens—witness the phenomenon of TV stations predicting monster blizzards that fail to materialize—and occasionally, to overreact while the severe weather is happening. (My former radio colleague Tim Morrissey, a longtime Madison newsman, caused a bit of a stir up here last week by criticizing a local TV station’s over-the-top coverage of a relatively minor severe outbreak.) Radio stations can fall into this trap, too, but in my experience, they’re less likely to do so. TV stations have multimillion-dollar investments in Doppler radar and they need something to show for it; radio stations don’t.
Nevertheless, radio stations also find value in being the one everybody turns to in bad weather. I learned the importance of weather coverage at KDTH all those years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. I’d do severe-weather updates even when I was working at classic-rock stations that didn’t position themselves as information outlets. I figured it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission, but also, I didn’t want somebody’s house to be blown away and have them say on TV, “I was listening to 93.1 The Lake and they didn’t say a word about no storm.” And sometimes, asking permission did no good: In Macomb over 25 years ago, I wanted to produce a series of public-service announcements for Tornado Awareness Week, but I was not allowed to do so, because the bosses feared such announcements might cause unnecessary panic. Thank goodness I didn’t work there long enough to find out what they’d do in the event of a real outbreak—down there in the middle of damn Tornado Alley.
One night several years ago I was watching one of our local affiliates breaking down a Doppler radar image when I heard a rustle of papers, a rumble of furniture, and a single yelp from the female anchor, followed by silence. Turns out they’d seen a funnel cloud out the studio window and had gotten the hell out of there. (With all that rigging hanging over their heads, it was the smart thing to do.) I have always wondered what I’d do if I were on the air and I saw a funnel cloud bearing down on the building. The smart thing would be to take cover, but I suspect the radio man in me would feel like he was deserting his post. It’s not a hypothesis I’m eager to test, but I wonder.