Penn State is place to be for TV forecasters

Meteorology program includes a class on television weather jobs

April 05, 2001|By Francis X. Clines | Francis X. Clines,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - It's demo-tape time, the outlook for jobs is cloudy to bright, and some of the best student television-weather forecasters in Heidi Sonen's meteorology class are anxiously hoping for any job short of partnering Skip the Weather Monkey at 11 or Bob the Weather Cat on the dawn patrol.

Sonen, back in the classroom after a 12-year sortie of forecasting firsthand in the nation's inane-to-sunny TV heartland, warned the class off Skip and Bob as career opportunities the other night as she taught Pennsylvania State University's TV Weather class.

In the university's grueling, science-steeped meteorology program, the course stands out as a dream for those students who have long been yearning to perform on camera.

"Getting a chance to finally do this is great fun," said Dave Skutnik, a senior. He is fluent in such obscura as the discrimination of hydrometeor type in mixed-phase clouds. Even more, he is stocking up on a telegenic wardrobe. He is polishing his three-minute demo tape that will soon be dispatched to the nation's 212 top television markets, where weather forecasting is a growth specialty.

"I spent 15 years watching all those weather guys on TV when I was growing up, and I know I can do that," Skutnik insisted, aiming for on-camera grades to match his mastery of four years of math, physics and engineering. "Nothing beats the thrill of doing a stand-up outside during a good storm."

Television forecasting is not for every graduate meteorologist, what with all the "rip-and-readers" making it out there, too, with the help of up-to-the-minute prediction information and graphics from the National Weather Service that a glib performer can pronounce as "my forecast." But that hardly discourages Sonen's students as they do regular shows, deconstruct them in group critiques and bounce back hearty as the jet stream for more "tosses" - segues from mock anchor people cueing the forecaster ("Quite a cold one today, Dave. Can we expect more of the same?").

A tough market

There are about 700 jobs at commercial stations, making the market about as hard to crack as major-league baseball, said Fred Gadomski, a professor who helped create the course 15 years ago.

"But in the last few years, there's been an explosion of opportunities for our students," Gadomski said. "It's all market-driven, and we're teaching a generation raised on the Weather Channel," he said.

In her class, Sonen does not stint on the lessons in cruel reality that she learned in working up through stations in Wisconsin, Oregon and Ohio. Notably, how a student's three-minute demo tape actually works out to about a 10-second sampling by station managers who get more than 100 tapes for every job. And, she cautions, once employed (initially at a small station for about $16,000 a year), beware the slow news day. That's when a scheming producer might want to lead the show by having the forecaster hype that lingering Arctic air mass into something ominous enough to panic the townspeople into buying up the supermarket bread and milk, on camera.

"Be yourself," the teacher says to her students. "Find your niche."

Tales of celebrity former forecasters such as David Letterman and Diane Sawyer are beside the point for the students who know weather deeply and ache to communicate it. Their buzz is more about Tom Skilling, a Chicago forecaster at WGN whose passion for weather gleams as he dishes the latest eye-candy graphics, or about Janice Huff in New York at WNBC, solid with a meteorology degree and a natural's touch for TV.

There are a few millionaire forecasters at the top of the market, but Sonen warns against such showcase spots as Los Angeles. "L.A. weather is usually boring," she says. "You need to work where it's exciting, like Florida," where, she notes, viewers are from elsewhere and ghoulishly love film of people back home mincing through a rough storm.

"Don't make the mistake of thinking you need to be someone else," Sonen says. "When you're yourself, people can sense your passion."

There is "a big nerd factor" among meteorologists, she laughingly admits, but even this can work. "Glenn `Hurricane' Schwartz plays the nerd card in Philadelphia, bow tie and all, and it works because people can see he cares," Sonen says.

Her students' true blackboard is the green wall - the backdrop that remains blank in the studio but that viewers see as a weather map with superimposed graphics. The forecaster must appear to gesture authoritatively at highlights by peeking at them on off-camera monitors.

Worst thing to do

The worst thing to do at the green wall, Sonen says, is to nonchalantly "mail it in" and never stoke passion for that approaching storm. "Even the clown thing is better - putting a bag over your head on camera after your forecast crashes - because at least the clowns are trying," she says.

As they map systems and shag tosses in the university's own TV weather station, students confess to a lifelong calling to the green wall. "I've always known," said Steven Merkel, 22, a polished performer. He looks back upon mock forecasts he did as a tot barely able to stand - cold-front spiels by the family TV.

Sonen is married to a meteorologist, Roscoe Shaw, and they once competed at stations in Dayton, Ohio. Friends learn never to call Sonen a weather girl. "That's like stabbing me," she said. "No one ever called Roscoe a weather boy."

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