To salute the occasion, I thought I’d spotlight a tiny sample of the hundreds of Americans who made their mark as weathercasters in the first several decades of TV. Shameless plug: these pioneers are drawn from among dozens featured in my book ”Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology” (AMS Books).
s Figure 1. Harry Volkman at WGN in 1979 or 1980, just before computer graphics came into widespread use in weathercasting. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Harry Volkman When TV was getting its sea legs in the early 1950s, tornado warnings were largely banned from the airwaves. The U.S. Weather Bureau was experimenting with their use at military bases but was worried they might panic the public. At Oklahoma City’s WKY-TV (now KFOR), weathercaster Harry Volkman took a risk and aired what was apparently the first-ever public tornado warning (pinched from nearby Tinker Air Force Base) in March 1952. Instead of triggering panic, the warning drew more than 1,600 cards and letters of gratitude. One read: “We breathe a sigh of relief knowing you are on the job. God bless you.” By the late 1950s, Volkman had moved to Chicago, where he remained on the air until retiring in 2004. He died last August at the age of 89. Here’s a wonderful tribute to Volkman from an Emmy Award ceremony, including clips from throughout his career, and a classic 1967 weathercast in which Volkman apologizes profusely for having blown his forecast of a major snowstorm.
Figure 2. Tedi Thurman in a publicity still for NBC’s “Monitor” radio program.
Tedi Thurman Women made huge inroads into weathercasting in the 1950s, but far too often they were boxed into “weathergirl” roles. Tedi Thurman achieved much within this outlandishly sexist system by combining her interests in art, fashion, and weather. She became America’s best-known female weathercaster--probably “the most recognizable female voice in the country,” said historian Dennis Hart--with the 1955 debut of NBC’s “Monitor” radio show, a talk/variety marathon that ran every weekend. Thurman wrote and produced her weather segments, gathering data from the Weather Bureau and spotlighting cities around the country based on current events and her own interests. In 1957, Thurman made several appearances on NBC’s “Tonight” show, then hosted by Jack Paar. She left “Monitor” and weathercasting in 1961 but later spoke fondly of those days: “We were heard all over the world and admired by audiences who came by our glass-enclosed studio, Radio Central. It was awesome.” Thurman died in 2012 at age 89. This NPR segment includes a brief sample of Thurman’s radio delivery (starting at 3:50).
Figure 3. June Bacon-Bercey on the air in Buffalo during the early 1970s. Image credit: Courtesy June Bacon-Bercey.
June Bacon-Bercey Although she had a meteorology degree, June Bacon-Bercey decided to start her TV career as a news reporter. As she once told me: “I did not want to do weather on television, only because at that time I felt it was still gimmickry from women.” But in 1971, when the regular weathercaster at Buffalo’s WGR became suddenly indisposed (having allegedly robbed a bank), Bacon-Bercey went on the air and became an immediate hit. In 1972, she was the first woman and the first African-American to earn a Seal of Approval from the American Meteorological Society. After four years in TV weather, Bacon-Bercey went on to a fascinating variety of other science-related endeavors, including serving as chief of broadcast services at NOAA and as a consultant for the Atomic Energy Commission. Fun fact: Bacon-Bercey used part of the $180,000 she won on a TV quiz show in 1978 to launch the American Geophysical Society’s June Bacon-Bercey Scholarship in Atmospheric Sciences for Women.
Don Kent It’s hard to imagine a career bridging more of 20th century weathercasting than that of Don Kent, a legend to generation of Bostonians. Kent died in 2010, and I was grateful for having had the chance to interview him in person in September 2009. Kent grew up listening to, and occasionally pestering, radio weathercaster E.B. Rideout in the 1920s--“he knew I was a weather nut”--and he began volunteering at WMEX just out of high school: “I went to the weather bureau at Boston at 11 a.m., got the first map off the press at 11:30, and got up to the radio station for the 12:55 broadcast,” he told me. Among other big events, he warned listeners of the approach of the catastrophic 1938 New England hurricane. After Coast Guard service during World War II and a radio gig at Quincy’s WJDA, Kent began a multi-decade career at WBZ in 1955, doing both radio and TV segments until he retired in 1983. Here’s a tribute to both Kent’s career and his devotion to children with disabilities at New Hampshire’s Crotched Mountain School.
Figure 5. Marcia Yockey’s reports at WTVW and WFIE (Evansville, IN) were long sponsored by Hesmer’s, a local maker of canned foods. Image credit: Courtesy WFIE.
Marcia Yockey During her 35 years as a top-rated TV meteorologist in Evansville, Indiana, Marcia Yockey managed to blend a commitment to meteorological rigor with a irrepressible sense of fun that played perfectly in the days when many weathercasters were expected to entertain as well as inform. Yockey came to TV after a decade with the U.S. Weather Bureau, where she landed after World War II interrupted her college chemistry studies (she’d originally intended to become a doctor). She launched her broadcast career at Evansville’s WFIE in 1953, just as the “weathergirl” craze was hitting TV. After that era subsided in the early 1960s, Yockey was one of the very few women who continued as broadcast meteorologists into the 1980s. Yockey’s on-screen antics ran the gamut from delivering weather while in a historic jail cell to windsurfing in the midst of a weather segment. Yet Yockey never sacrificed science for the sake of goofiness. “I used isobars, fronts, and adiabatic lapse rates,” she told me. “I gave [viewers] the map the way it should be.” Yockey died in 2000. You can get a sense of her inimitable style in this tribute montage, along with several other clips on YouTube.
Who else, but the weatherman? For a taste of midcentury animation at its wackiest, check out the YouTube clip embedded at bottom. It’s a sample reel of forecast segments that were designed in the late 1950s for TV stations that didn’t have their own weathercasters. The idea was that producers would splice the appropriate 20-second clip into the newscast based on the Weather Bureau’s forecast for that day (“overcast and warmer”, “haze with risk of showers,” etc.). The idea never quite caught on--it quickly became apparent that having a live weathercaster was a virtual requirement for any self-respecting newsroom--but these clips live on as a reminder of the wildly experimental nature of TV’s earliest days.
Figure 8. Nick Wiltgen. Image credit: The Weather Channel.
Remembering Nick Wiltgen The world of weather communication suffered a huge loss last week with the untimely death of Nick Wiltgen, a senior digital meteorologist at The Weather Channel. Nick’s weather.com articles will be familiar to many readers, as I often linked to them from my own posts, and he frequently appeared on Weather Channel segments. Nick joined TWC in 2001 as an on-air radio meteorologist. He shifted in 2012 to the digital arena, where he produced a wide-range of weather- and nature-related content and supervised the team of digital meteorologists at weather.com.
Along with being a superb writer and a engaging colleague, Nick had a phenomenal feel for weather statistics: where to find them, how significant they were, and how fascinating they can be. “Nick was a one-hundred-percent, pure-blood weather geek,” said weather.com’s Jon Erdman. Nick will be missed greatly by colleagues, friends, and family. The Weather Channel has posted these video and text tributes.
Jeff Masters will be back on Monday with more details on this week’s jaw-dropping upgrade of the strength of Category 5 Hurricane Patricia.