Nasty night tests TV weathermen

Posted on Wednesday, January 9, 2008

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Meteorologist Garrett Lewis did his best to prepare KFSM Channel 5 viewers late Monday night for “vertically integrated liquid” as severe storms raced across Benton County.

Lewis used the fancy term at least twice before advising viewers what the heck he was talking about during steady coverage of severe storms by Fort Smith-Fayetteville station KFSM-TV.

“That’s a $ 5 word for hail,” Lewis told viewers who missed reruns of CBS shows Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory to see continuous coverage of severe weather affecting parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri.

Indeed, it was a busy night for the weather broadcasters at three Northwest Arkansas stations.

Lewis; Dan Skoff of Fayetteville station KNWA / KFTA-TV, Channel 24 / 51; and Drew Michaels of Fort Smith-Rogers station KHBS / KHOG-TV, Channel 40 / 29, spent most of the evening telling viewers about the storms that moved from Oklahoma into Arkansas and on toward Springfield, Mo. Only KNWA paused between 7: 30 p.m. and 10 p.m. from the steady coverage of the storms.

“I took a few breaks to coordinate our storm spotters,” said Skoff, KNWA’s chief meteorologist. “It was only a minute or two.” Skoff counted nine super cells, storms that “trained” across the region one after another, spawning tornado sightings in Benton County. The first super cell showed up at 3: 39 p.m. in Cherokee County, Okla., and it was that storm that led to a fatality in Missouri, Skoff said.

KFSM faced the challenge of using new technology under the gun of a live, unscripted broadcast. Some aspects of the station’s Max 5 Doppler radar system were new in October, but the storms were the region’s first that required the use of the improved, more interactive weather system. Lewis said he was learning aspects of it on the fly Monday night.

“At the end of the day, people just want to hear you say hail,” Lewis said. “My brain was trying to process the new technology, and I slipped into weather-nerd mode.” Skoff said he’s made similar slips, although only a couple on Monday night.

“I did use ‘storm relative velocity,’ but sometimes we show that image because we need to see it as meteorologists,” Skoff said. “I don’t regret it at all because we need to look at it all.” Weathermen walk a fine line in their live conversations with the public, said Robin Tanamachi, a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma in Norman who does research in storm development. Tanamachi didn’t see the Arkansas broadcasters but is familiar with weather broadcasters in general.

“They do a pretty good job of conveying a sense of risk, and you have to consider they are standing in a studio in front of a lot of hot lights,” Tanamachi said.

Michaels said TV meteorologists rarely become interested in who ends up with the most viewers when there’s a breaking weather event. One station will be the first to report hail in one town while another happens to have the storm spotter in place to see a tornado in another, Michaels said. He acknowledged watching the competition’s broadcasts to monitor what they were reporting.

“I don’t look at it and say, ‘Yeah, we stomped the competition,’ but we would have been the big loser if we put a TV show on ahead of people’s safety,” Michaels said. “Those viewers are my customers.” James Warner, news director for KFSM, said he flipped his television among the three stations broadcasting in Northwest Arkansas.

“There’s a fine line between being an alarmist, which we never want to be, and delivering clear information with an urgency and importance,” Warner said.

“It’s a fine line the meteorologists walk. I’ve worked all over the country, and there are some who sound the alarm too much, and I don’t see anyone crossing that line too far here.”

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