Through major hurricanes and sunny days, few media companies have created as much reach, recognition, and unlikely controversy as The Weather Channel. I lived out a weather geek's dream on Wednesday and flew to Atlanta to visit their headquarters for a day, and it was incredible experience to see how they work.
Most people who regularly follow weather news have a love/hate relationship with The Weather Channel. On the one hand, they provide top-notch forecasts that are rarely beaten by their competitors. The company has built an outstanding network of reporters who can cover even the smallest storms with a level of professionalism and detail that's hard to match. On the other hand, as I've covered extensively here on The Vane, you've got things that detract from that professionalism and accuracy like winter storm names, their recent focus on non-weather reality programs, "weather-adjacent" articles and outlandish headlines on their website, a string of really ugly social media incidents, and the occasional botched live shot.
I interact with the folks at The Weather Channel on Twitter and via email every once and a while, including the company's president, David Clark. About a month ago, Clark invited me down to Atlanta to visit their studios and let me speak with their experts about how the sausage is made. The company very generously arranged transportation between The Vane's luxurious headquarters (my bedroom) in the boondocks of North Carolina and their studios in Atlanta, and I deeply thank them for their generosity.
Housed in an unassuming, eight-story office building in the northwest suburbs of Atlanta is the central hub of The Weather Company, which consists of The Weather Channel, Weather Underground, and WSI. You can catch a peek of the building from Interstate 75 if you're looking through the trees at just the right moment. Atlanta seems like such an odd spot for a media company to plant its roots, but it works for the Blue Behemoth just as it does for fellow cable newser CNN, whose headquarters are located in the city's downtown core. Atlanta allows the network to remove itself from the urban sphere of influence that other media outlets can find themselves trapped in, while also providing the company's well-traveled reporters easy access to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the busiest airport in the world and most extensive domestic hub in the country.
If you've read The Vane before, you know that I take the weather personally. It's not just interesting or something to write about, it's a passion. Almost all weather geeks will tell you that their passion for meteorology started when they were young and grows more intense with age. My interest in the field is not unique—it follows that same path.
When I was eight, my family brought me to The Weather Channel('s parking lot) while we were in town visiting my cousin. I hopped out of the car and snapped a picture of the front entrance while a Steve Wilkos-esque security guard stared daggers into me. You know how threatening those eight-year-olds can be.
Fast forward fifteen years, and I made it a point to take the same picture (who doesn't love continuity?). This time, instead of a security guard staring at me, it was a very confused landscaper.
After passing through security, you enter the main lobby, which is exactly how you would picture The Weather Channel's lobby. They have a simple, tall Christmas tree in the center of the room surrounded by walls decorated with every type of extreme weather you could imagine—tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, floods, lightning—and embedded among the images was the company's slogan: "After all, when you see the world through the weather, it's amazing out there."
The lobby also features various tablets and smartphones loaded with the company's apps and websites, along with dozens of awards that sit on two shelves around a modest-sized television tuned to, what else?, The Weather Channel. Clark walked into the lobby and introduced himself, and we quickly embarked on a whirlwind tour of the building.
My first thought after leaving the lobby was "this place looks nothing like I imagined it would." It wasn't at all a feeling of disappointment. Before they modernized, the most you would ever see during broadcasts was a meteorologist sitting at an anchor desk with a newsroom full of old CRT computer monitors behind them. Whatever mental image you have of what their building looks like, it's probably as far off as mine was.
We got out of the elevator and turned to see two huge glass doors with a control room setup behind it. It was a veritable glass-enclosed nerve center. I was so taken by the screens and meeting people that I didn't think to snap a picture of the newsroom, but it's pretty impressive.
Along the back wall of the room are dozens of small monitors where they keep track of all of the feeds coming into the network. The center of the room is full of what had to be about a hundred computers, each staffed with meteorologists and producers getting ready for broadcasts and retrieving/compiling information on the day's weather. More glass encloses a handful of conference rooms to the right, while the left side of the room is dominated by The Lab, which is a new stage designed to provide severe weather experts the ability to conduct technical coverage during major events like tornado outbreaks or hurricanes.
No matter where you are in the building, it is impossible to turn around without running into a television screen showing a feed of The Weather Channel from somewhere in the country. There are hundreds of television sets all tuned to the product they produce—I jokingly told Clark that I expected to see at least a few of them watching WeatherNation instead of their own network. Every desk has a small TV tuned to the network, and there are sets hanging from the ceiling and walls showing their feed, as well. Using their in-house system, they have the ability to flip through the national feeds and watch coverage from different cities—one of the large televisions hanging from the ceiling showed the Local on the 8s from Buffalo, for instance.
The first impression I got of the people who work in the building calls back to The Weather Channel's slogan when they started up in the early 80s—"We Take The Weather Seriously, But Not Ourselves." They do professional work while maintaining a relaxed and almost casual atmosphere. I expected to see a bunch of people in stiff suits talking in hushed tones while scurrying around, but it was very comfortable. One of the more surprising things is that even Clark himself doesn't have an office—outside of the PR/accounting/legal department, it's all open. Much like management and the editors-in-chief sit among their employees at Gawker Media, Clark sits at a small corner spot among the rows of computers in the newsroom.
After a quick tour of the newsroom and some introductions, we went deeper into the operation and stopped by the Global Forecast Center, where a handful of experts manage the millions of forecasts the company produces for locations around the world. As I met some of their meteorologists (including hurricane expert Bryan Norcross and winter weather expert Tom Niziol), Carl Parker had just finished a live shot and walked past me. I awkwardly waved like a doofus, and Clark and I went on to one of the studios.
Just as we walked into the studio, I heard someone call out my name, and Parker was following behind us so he could introduce himself and shake my hand. The fact that he made it a point to go out of his way to introduce himself was great—if you ever get a chance to speak with him, he's one of the nicest people on earth, and he reads The Vane, too. Good taste. When I speak with people about going to the network, the first question they have is about the meteorologists they watch on a regular basis. All of the on-camera meteorologists I met—Carl Parker, Reynolds Wolf, Greg Forbes, Stu Ostro, Greg Postel, Dave Schwartz, Bryan Norcross, Marshall Shepherd, I'm sure I'm forgetting a few—are all wonderful and friendly people.
I'd be naive if I didn't acknowledge that at least some of the reasoning behind the trip was a charm offensive—I'm just a blogger and a strong critic of their network, after all—but one of my biggest concerns going into this is that everyone would be insincere just to flatter me so I would swing around to their way of thinking and lighten up a little bit. I was very pleased to have been wrong. It's pretty easy to tell fake from genuine, and everyone who works there, both on-camera or behind the scenes, is a genuinely nice and welcoming person.
You know, they say that the camera adds ten pounds, but it adds a thousand square feet to the studio. The set that they use for shows like AMHQ and Weather Center look enormous on television, but it blows you away how small they are in person. Most of the screens you see on television are actual monitors—they've still got the green screen, too—while the cylindrical column that has "Winter Storm Damon" proudly displayed (ugh) uses a projector. I took the above picture from behind the desk of their main studio just before they started the day's first block of Weather Center.
Out of the three studios I saw, the weather geek in me fell in love with The Lab. There are easily more than twenty computer monitors that populate the desk that wraps around three of the four walls of the set. Meteorologists are able to stand just about anywhere behind the desks to discuss the weather. The center of the room is where the floor "pulls away" and they digitally insert an enormous three-dimensional globe that they can use to illustrate things better than they could on a flat wall.
In the above picture, Dr. Greg Postel was doing a live spot on the winter storm affecting the northeast.
The monitors behind the desk show just about everything, including a live feed of the network (top-left), their in-house system of weather alerts called BreWS, a monitor showing a feed from the camera watching over the desk (and me—hi!), Gibson Ridge weather radar, NWS Chat...just about any tool the experts need to help them communicate during a severe weather event, you can find in The Lab.
The bulk of my tour at the network involved a thorough look at how their meteorologists go about creating the forecasts you get on television and over on weather dot com. It was incredibly nerdy and just as fascinating. I won't go into too many details (it's proprietary, after all), but they've developed an advanced and unique way to blend the power of weather models and the skill and expertise of their meteorologists in order to develop forecasts for locations around the world with relative ease and precision.
I've always been scathingly critical of The Weather Channel when it strays from its focus, but I'm equally forceful in asserting that they're spot-on when it comes to the actual weather. The Weather Channel is at its best when they focus on the weather and eschew all the junk that sets them apart from their fellow cable networks. Back in May, we published a small project using data pulled from Forecast Advisor showing that The Weather Channel's forecasts are consistently on top around the country, even beating out the National Weather Service in most spots. The network's in-house accuracy numbers reflect what we found here at The Vane—they're consistently at the top of the forecasting game in the United States.
The dedication and knowledge of the people back up their forecasts. The whole "weather nerd" persona they're trying to portray these days isn't an act—everyone in the building is a weather geek, through and through. I could see their unadulterated love for the weather shine through during personal conversations. Between all of the people who work behind the scenes, to Cantore out in the field, to watching Carl Parker dive into weather data like a hawk between live shots, it is incredible to watch how dedicated they are to the science of meteorology. As long as they stick to the topic at which they excel—the weather—and display that professionalism to its fullest extent on their website without some ridiculous crap masking it (New Jersey Storm Produced THIS!?!?) or shows like Scruffy Huffing Woodsfest and Truckers Cussing on Ice taking up television real estate, they'll manage to stay on top.
One of the biggest sticking points regarding their coverage over the past few years has been their naming of winter storms. Unfortunately, Tom Niziol had to leave before I had a chance to speak with him about the network's naming practices. I remain unconvinced that they serve a greater purpose than providing the network free advertising on social media. The unnamed Buffalo lake effect snow event and this week's unnamed west coast storm (no snow in the cities, but it's affecting 40+ million people) show that they're, at the very least, missing opportunities to create continuity, let alone have the names contribute to science in any meaningful way. Since I got home on Wednesday night, I've spoken with at least one person who didn't think the west coast storm was a big deal because, and I quote, "they didn't name it, so it's not that bad."
The Weather Channel shines when it comes to the science, but the battle between Corporate Weather Channel and Weather Weather Channel (as I like to call it) still has some pretty big issues it needs to work out to stay at the top of their game.
The end of my tour at the network included a real treat—meeting Dr. Marshall Shepherd, host of WxGeeks, and shaking hands with President Obama's science advisor, Dr. John Holdren. WxGeeks (pronounced "weather geeks") the network's Sunday morning talk show that goes pretty deep into the science and issues behind meteorology. It's Meet the Press for weather nerds, but with fewer softball questions and no John McCain.
After interacting with one another for the past few months on Twitter, it was nice to have the chance to speak with Dr. Shepherd for a little while before standing in on the taping of a segment of the show. His resume is pretty impressive—aside from hosting WxGeeks, he's a professor at the University of Georgia and serves as director for the university's atmospheric sciences program, and he also served as the president of the American Meteorological Society in 2013.
This Sunday's episode (which airs at noon Eastern) is the first hour-long show, as it features both Dr. Holdren and a special interview with Dr. Jane Goodall on the issue of climate change. The show has a wonderful premise (the name of the show is Weather Geeks, for crying out loud!), but it's painfully short. The program is allotted 30 minutes, but with commercials and Local on the 8s, the actual content only runs for about 13 minutes, give or take a few. Dr. Shepherd can hardly get into the topic before he has to move on—it feels too rushed, too summarized. Extending this episode to an hour (with the potential for more hour-long shows not too far off) is a great step forward, especially this week in order to give ample time to two guests as prominent as Drs. Holdren and Goodall.
Thank you again to David Clark and everyone at The Weather Channel who flew me down and spent the day showing me how the company operates. Visiting the network for a day was an incredible experience that I would do again in an instant. Not only did the trip fulfill a childhood dream (hey, I grew up watching the network like it was Nickelodeon), but it provided a new perspective on how things work and what goes into the making of their forecasts and broadcasts. The experience gives me a better reference point for when I have to hold their feet to the fire in the future.
The Weather Channel is far from perfect—you know it, I know it, and they know it—but even with the silly reality shows and questionable content on their website, the company is at its heart a deeply scientific operation. It's just a matter of letting the science shine through and tempering the fluff, much as they need it to keep the money flowing. My ultimate advice to the network is to stick to their brilliant slogan: "after all, when you see the world through the weather, it's amazing out there."
Through all of their shifts in focus and rebranding efforts, that is the one thing they've truly gotten right—it really is amazing out there.
[All images by the author]