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Flashback: Bob Ryan--Washington's weather chief

From the big snow storm of 1996, here's a profile of Channel 4 weatherman Bob Ryan, who announced today he will leave WRC-TV after 31 years.

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer

This is no week for funny hats and sappy celebrations of 80th wedding anniversaries. This is the stuff weathermen live for, the endless weathercast, the wall-to-wall chroma-key chronicle of a major meteorological event.

This is Bob Ryan heaven.

Thirty-six thousand hits an hour on the News 4 weather page on the World Wide Web. Thirteen hours of live coverage yesterday. Doppler and "Snow so far," storm time lines and "storm desks," the projection system for computer graphics -- the modern weathercaster is a technician and a performer, a genial, comforting presence and a science evangelist.

When the big hurricane hit Miami a few years ago, one of the local TV weathermen became a cult hero. Bryan Norcross could have been elected mayor by acclamation, in good measure because he was always there, on the air for vast stretches of time, assuring, calm, rational.

Norcross's hero is Bob Ryan.

Snowstorms once brought an eerie silence, broken only by the crunch of boots against powder, the ripping roar of great shiny mounds dropping from a rooftop. Now, the sound of a major snow is the easy, neighborly patter of Ryan, reminding us once more of his basic conservatism about predicting snow accumulations, recalling the names of the good rural folk who phone in their weather observations from Cumberland, Md., and Paris, Va.

On a normal, snowless evening, about half of the homes in the area are tuned in to one of the local newscasts. And if the surveys that are the lifeblood of the industry are correct, the broadcasters' most effective lure is not the lurid coverage of pools of blood from the latest shooting, not the detailed analysis of each Redskins' every twitch, but the weather.

(The rest, after the jump.)

The days are long gone when weathermen just stood gesturing in front of a blank green screen while viewers at home saw the big old map of the United States. Nowadays, TV stations pump millions into computer banks that generate dazzling color satellite and radar images and let the weathercasters draw wind directions on the home screen like God's offensive line coach examining the next play.

Then, when the big one hits, the four-minute forecast goes out the window and the audience numbers go through the roof. "It's a shared social experience," says WRC's vice president for news, Dick Reingold. He's the one who, unlike his colleagues at the other network affiliates in town, decided to preempt virtually everything and go with weather around the clock.

Ryan, Channel 4's weather guy since 1980, can't get enough of it. Yesterday he was up at 5:30 a.m., doing a radio spot. Then he was in his Bronco and on his way from McLean to WRC's Tenleytown studios, where he logged 10, 12, 15 hours tracking the storm, talking to his 100 Weather Watchers around the region and checking readings at the 100 area schools that Channel 4 has equipped with weather-measuring equipment.

Ryan and the station's four other meteorologists -- all degree-holding scientists -- are so heavily into this, they went out and got a NASA grant, the kind of thing generally reserved for university professors, to set up the News 4 Weathernet pages on the Internet.

"Traditionally, the weather was a lighter area of TV news," Ryan says. "But I'm not a humorist. The science has advanced and our credibility has increased. In a situation like this, it can really make a difference in people's lives if it's a professional meteorologist or an entertainer who frankly can't handle it for lack of knowledge."

And with this storm, which Ryan predicted accurately Thursday, "it was fourth and 10 and we got it." Send Out the Clowns

"The weather forecast is the most important part of the newscast," says Don Fitzpatrick, president of Don Fitzpatrick Associates, a San Francisco-based TV news talent bank that matches news personalities with stations. Weathercasts are so competitive that the latest gimmicks sweep the nation's TV stations in a matter of months: one year it's time-lapse video, the next year it's shoving the weathercaster out onto the Weather Porch to stand in a downpour or shiver in a cold wind.

Big-market TV stations spend enormously on weather, not only for the latest snazzy computer projection programs, but above all for the talent. The top-paid weathercasters in the country, Storm Field and Al Roker in New York City, rake in $400,000 to $600,000 a year, TV news consultants say. Fitzpatrick says Washington's main weathermen are probably in the $200,000 to $300,000 range, with Ryan clearly at the top of the heap.

Among the 300 or so tapes of weathercasters in the talent bank, the great majority these days are degreed meteorologists, not starlets or budding comedians. "Diane Sawyer started as a weather bunny," Fitzpatrick says. "Now the pendulum has swung to trained scientists."

The days are gone when the field was dominated by the likes of New York's Tex "Uncle Wethbee" Antoine, who had a puppet help him with the forecast, and Washington's Willard Scott, with his endless collection of silly hats and anniversary greetings. Advertisers no longer control the content of the weathercast as they once did; in Salt Lake City, one station used to require its weatherman to search out all the cities reporting 66-degree readings and post them on the map in honor of Phillips 66, the sponsor.

The really goofy weathercasters first lost out to techno-nerds in cities with serious weather. There, even professional broadcasters have found themselves replaced by refugees from the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service. The Hurricane Center's longtime chief, Neil Frank -- the earnest, indefatigable preacher of coastal safety who looks like an astronaut and backed into TV through appearances on hurricane reports by Ted Koppel and Dan Rather -- quit his government job for big money doing the weather on Houston TV.

In some places, clowns still prosper. Only four years ago, Henry Kissinger did a turn as weatherman on the "CBS Morning News." In Utah, one weatherman dons a bone-white sport jacket, his "blizzard coat," whenever he has snow in his forecast. In Philadelphia, weathermen still follow the model of the legendary Jim O'Brien, the WPVI weathercaster whose dips toward the camera and wisecracking later inspired a young Indianapolis weatherman named David Letterman.

But in Washington, shtick is simply not done. This is a serious weathercasting town.

No funny names here: No Storm Field, no Johnny Mountain or Dallas Rains, both Los Angeles weathercasters. (South Florida TV got so far into the cute-names bit that a few years ago, the news programs there featured Jill Beach, Al Sunshine, and Dwight Lauderdale.)

Another factor pushing TV stations toward science over silliness is the Weather Channel, the cable station that the average person might switch to for a forecast on occasion, but that also attracts thousands of junkies so devoted, they know the academic backgrounds and family histories of each of the seemingly faceless drones who stand before the maps.

The Atlanta-based cable channel favors cheery weather geeks, chubby, fact-filled types who look like the smarter siblings of the actors in airline safety videos.

In Washington, the trend toward the science types came early. "The stage was set in the '60s and '70s," Fitzpatrick says. "In those days, people in focus groups would say, I love Willard Scott on WRC because he's goofy and wears funny hats.' But when it came to serious weather, they'd turn to Channel 9 and see Gordon Barnes."

Channel 4 got the message and when Scott and Ryan swapped jobs, with Scott going to the NBC "Today" show in New York and Ryan coming to Washington, Ryan quickly supplanted Barnes as the most serious -- and therefore most successful -- weatherman in town.

The local competition largely pits Ryan against Channel 9's Doug Hill. Both do serious, earnest weathercasts. Both are middle-aged white guys who do not exactly exude charisma. Both serve up plenty of gadgetry and lots of explanatory info.

Sunday morning, while news anchor Jim Vance and other News 4 personalities sported sweaters and jeans, Ryan and his team sat in the Weather Center in crisp white shirts and power ties, nodding eagerly at one another's every recitation of the temps phoned in by loyal Weather Watchers.

Over on 9, not to be outdone, Hill and sidekick Topper Shutt -- degreed meteorologists both -- sat side by side in identical blue oxford shirts.

The odd guy out among the Washington network affiliates is the new kid on the block, Mark Pfister, Channel 7's latest in a long line of entries (and another hefty guy, though nowhere near the scale-popper that his predecessor, Dennis Ketterer, was.) Pfister, a gawky, yuppie-ish import from New York, does a gently humorous routine that's light on science and big on dramatic graphics, all wrapped in a simple, folksy delivery. The station dubs his routine the Pfister Pforecast, which is all you need to know.

"What WJLA is doing with Mark Pfister is they're admitting that you can't out-Bob Ryan Bob Ryan," Fitzpatrick says.

This is a market where -- unlike much of the country -- women have made few inroads, perhaps because of the traditional association between science and colorless men in white shirts. Elsewhere around the country, the weather bunny tradition has long since fallen to female meteorologists -- about 80 of the 300 weathercasters in Fitzpatrick's talent bank are women, the highest proportion ever. But the three major network affiliates here remain an all-male club; only the smaller stations -- such as Channel 5 with Sue Palka, another serious type even if she's not a meteorologist -- have broken the gender barrier.

More even than the news anchors, TV news consultants say, it is Ryan, 51, who is the key to Channel 4's dominance of the ratings -- a startling achievement for a guy who started out as a research scientist. With a master's degree in atmospheric science from the State University of New York at Buffalo, Ryan was the first broadcaster to be president of the American Meteorological Society, the national organization of weather propeller-heads.

Back in seventh grade, Bobby Ryan built a barometer out of milk cartons and wrote a report offering to help schoolmates with any of their weather questions. Now, Ryan's annual Weatherwise Almanac sits on kitchen shelves in countless area homes after 16 years of publication.

Ryan firmly believes viewers want to understand their weather, not just hear the next day's high temperature. Especially in Washington, with its unusually affluent and well-educated population, "People like to have an inside look at what goes into the weather," Ryan says. Personality vs. Training

To say Wayne Lynch disagrees would be putting it mildly. Weathercasters who have worked for Lynch say he goes stratospheric if he so much as hears the word "isobar."

Lynch, vice president for news and programming at NewsChannel 8, hires weathercasters who have enough of a science background to sound educated, but who are mainly on the air to be pleasant, informative and entertaining.

"We don't have meteorologists here," Lynch says. "We do very basic information and don't get too much into pulses and isobars. There's a handful of times a year where you think, Boy, I wish we had someone who understood snow lines.' The rest of the time, I like some personality."

It was NewsChannel 8 that a couple years ago hired Michelle Leigh, a bubbly young woman whose googly eyes and cutesy syntax made her irresistible to some viewers (think young and male) and maddening to many others.

Leigh left Washington for a big job at WDIV in Detroit, which lasted only a few months before an infelicitous bit of on-air banter sent her career into a nosedive: The station showed a report in which a black woman looking for an eligible bachelor said she preferred "chocolate-skinned" men. Then the station ran a story on a birthday party for a 415-pound gorilla at the zoo. Leigh then turned to the station's news anchors and quipped, "Does that qualify as chocolate-skinned?" She was sacked the next day.

"I like Michelle more for her personality than for her weather skills," Lynch deadpans. Weather Special

By yesterday afternoon, while the other network affiliates showed the usual soaps and chat shows, viewer interest in Ryan's reports was so intense that Channel 4 set aside an hour for him to take the audience on a tour of the station's gadgets and give viewers a chance to call in with questions.

The first caller, a woman from Woodbridge, spoke to Ryan, as so many viewers do, as if he not only predicted the weather but actually controlled it. "Bob," she said, "I don't want any more of this stuff."

Eager to oblige, Ryan let her down easy. There may indeed be another dump of snow coming our way this weekend, but it won't be anything like this blizzard. This, he said, his gentle eyes gleaming into the camera, was the kind of storm you see only a few times in a lifetime.

In the imaginations of many viewers, weathercasters are the weather. On the Internet, dozens of discussions are devoted expressly to the personalities of weathercasters. By last night, more than 1,000 viewers had sent e-mail to NewsChannel 8's "blizzard desk" on America Online. "We're getting whole families, kids with parents, sending in questions, even one kid who created a graphic for us to use in our snow coverage," said executive producer Joy Zucker. The station planned to use the 7-year-old Fairfax boy's graphic last night.

The popular obsession with weather knows no bounds. In cities with bland weather, TV news focuses on how miserable folks are elsewhere. During Florida winters, weathercasts caress viewers with long, gloating reports about the slushy mess up north. In California, where weathermen really have to be creative, they deliver detailed explanations of the grueling humidity back east. And the entire country gets to dine out on Denver's woes all winter.

All of which is entertaining enough. And very little of which is improved by the fact that the person standing in front of the chroma-key is a degreed meteorologist.

Until the big one hits.

"The thing is, you can't have it both ways," says Reingold. "If 95 percent of the time you're doing a frivolous approach to the weather, it's almost impossible to turn around and convince your viewers to give you the credibility you aspire to when the storm hits."

Nah, says NewsChannel 8's Lynch. "There's too much emphasis on the sizzle and the technology," he says. "People want straight information."

The rest is, as the TV consultants say, show biz.

"What this is all about is finding the right personality for a station's mix and for the market," Fitzpatrick says. "I mean, when it comes to the content, virtually all of it comes from the National Weather Service anyway."

By Marc Fisher  | February 24, 2010; 5:51 PM ET
Categories:  More on the story, The inside story  
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