I didn’t begin my career in meteorology until some years after I received my college diploma. I had wanted to be a television weathercaster since I was a little boy, struggled through college to get my training and then temporarily chickened out when I graduated.
I grew up in the New York area, which is the No. 1 television market in the country. You don’t break in there, and I wasn’t ready to move away into such an exotic and risky career just yet, so I worked in various jobs unrelated to meteorology (fodder for another article).
I finally move away to Georgia, did my thankfully uneventful time as an Army infantry officer, and eventually got midlife crisis while still in my twenties. That is, I slowly developed an ambitious obsession to go and do my television weather thing.
Breaking into local TV news is tough, although stations these days have a tendency to hire reporters and anchors with less experience than when I was starting out. So I started small. Bangor, Maine, was the No. 156 market then, and I was hired by what was the worst station in that small market. “Worst” was not even debatable in terms of ratings or staff size.
In my short time there WVII got hash marks in the ratings. That is, too few people admitted to watching to show up as even a fraction of a ratings point. It may have been one of the worst stations in the country. I had done lots of traveling to small markets in a previous job, shepherding university scientists to such places as Ft. Smith, Ark.; Mankato, Minn.; and Wausau, Wisc. WVII was the worst station I’d seen yet.
I paid for my own flight from LaGuardia for the job interview, since they had $0 in the budget for that kind of thing. You can only imagine what kind of $ they had in the budget for salaries. But by then, I had the fever and just had to get started…in Bangor (Hey, Stephen King still lives there!).
In the whole time I was there, I was never once recognized by a single person out in public. WVII, located on Farm Road outside of the "big city," was in a prefab building which didn’t look much different from the USMC Quonset hut Gomer Pyle lived in. I stayed only three months, because some paychecks began bouncing (not mine) and it didn’t feel like the right station to settle in with.
The owner seemed to be a terrific guy, but he just didn’t have any money. We used to “steal” the nightly network stories from ABC’s newsfeed to their affiliates without paying for them. Our reporters and sports anchor used Super 8 film cameras.
One Saturday I went with our sports guy to meet Dick Butkus at a football seminar he was leading at the University of Maine. Butkus looked at the Super 8 camera and asked us, “Are you guys REALLY from a TV station?? I got one of those on my coffee table!” He was only half joking.
What kind of programming did WVII run on weekends? We didn’t do news. Actually, a locally produced program aired Saturday nights at 11 and continued at 11:30 opposite then-brand new Saturday Night Live.
No one in Bangor watched this show except the station staff, at our kindly general manager’s house. But oddly enough it was a huge hit on cable in Halifax, Nova Scotia. So every Saturday, a busload of Halifax folks would make the very long journey to see “Dick Stacey’s Country Jamboree.” Dick was a big man in town back in the mid-'70s. He owned a Chevron station and an adjoining motel, which would house the Haligonians (that’s what they’re called, oddly enough).
The Haligonians left lots of beer cans behind in our only studio, which we would find on Monday. Anyway, here’s a sample of that show to offer a little local flavor. I promise it will be worth 3 minutes of your time:
Of course, the show had commercials, also worth your time:
During my short spring stay with WVII, we experienced a true heat wave during a week in May. Day after day, high temperatures moved into the mid-90s. I lived in an attic apartment above, coincidentally, “Don’s Pizzeria.” It was beastly hot up there, and I remember sweating the moment I got out of the shower.
One night on the 6 p.m. newscast, our young, very witty anchor said, “I don’t want to give away Don’s address, but he lives above a pizzeria. It’s SO hot in his apartment, the pizzeria isn’t using their ovens…they’re just sliding their pizzas under Don’s door ‘til they’re done.”
Actually, my landlord Dave was quite a nice guy. He actually spoke Yiddish with a Maine accent, but I have no way of making that work in print. He was kind enough to install a makeshift shower over the bathtub, because I’m a shower guy. That was generous of him.
Older Bangor housing stock seemed to have only bathtubs with no showers. I looked at one place where there was a four-legged tub sitting in the middle of a huge kitchen. That had to be an appetizing sight when you were cooking up some gourmet goulash, eh?
Our studio at WVII wasn’t air conditioned. During one hot day, some of us splurged and ordered some sandwiches to be delivered. While we were doing the 6 p.m. news, we had the studio barn doors open to let in some air. The delivery guy showed up and walked in, and seemed to be oblivious to our little dog and pony show. He started reaching into his sack, loudly asking something like “Who gets the salami on rye? I got two ham and Swiss sandwiches here (heyah),” and so on. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard on air since.
In that era in TV, most stations still had actual weather maps on the wall in the studio. I used wet paper towels to wash off the water marker fronts and symbols between the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. As the station headed into deeper financial trouble, we saw the newspaper subscription get canceled, the utility come in one day and threaten to turn off our electricity, and our paper towels disappear.
One night I was using wet toilet paper to wash the map. Our friendly owner stopped in. I asked,“What kind of station is this where the weather guy has to use wet toilet paper to wash the map?” Best answer I ever got to any question: “Uh, that’s the kind of station this is.” Smiles all around.
As for how I actually performed my meteorological duties, I would answer: sketchily. The station had no weather facilities or weather teletype. We just had one United Press International teletype out of the Boston bureau. So, I would drive every afternoon to Bangor International Airport to the FAA Flight Service Station.
Ron, the manager, set a clock so the slow-printing facsimile machine would print out what was then a state-of-the-art National Weather Service model, and he’d give me those charts. The problem was that model didn’t exist when I was in college. I was only able to guesstimate what it all meant. He’d also give me a facsimile single image of a Naval Air Station radar map, which barely reached the Bangor area anyway.
Eventually, I made the long drive to the nearest NWS Forecast Office, in Portland…hours away. There I was given a generous tutorial on this model, and they sneaked me a technical manual.
My recollection is there were no major weather events in the three months I was there. Some snow showers and graupel early on, lots of garden variety showers which I couldn’t see until their arrival due to a lack of radar and a few non-severe thunderstorms. I got out alive, and so did my six viewers.
I made a tape of a fairly good weathercast and sent it to a program director in a medium market who thought I’d do well in this business, but who couldn’t hire me with zero experience. He liked the tape, flew me out and I was finally in real television.
KAKE in Wichita, the No. 54 market, had more than 50 percent of the audience watching every night at 10. They were totally dominant, and I did very well with the Kansan audience very quickly. I had a blue Nino Cerruti pinstripe suit from New York, and whenever I wore it, the anchors called me “Broadway Don.”
Lest anyone think Wichita is a small town, it’s actually quite a bit larger than Buffalo, with a city population of 389,000. (Hawker Beechcraft, Learjet, Cessna, Coleman camp gear and Koch Industries are all headquartered there, along with a huge Boeing plant). The market is smaller than Buffalo because the minute you step out of sprawling Wichita, you are in corn, wheat and soybeans.
So, there I was in a large city/medium market, with my own radar (which I didn’t really know how to use), smack dab in the middle of tornado alley. My competition had lower ratings but higher knowledge (a University of Oklahoma grad — as good as it gets in meteorology), a much better radar and the experience to know how to use it.
Truth is, if I knew how little I knew about severe local convective storms, I probably would have been afraid to take the job. Fortunately for Kansas, they did not have one of their classic harrowing tornado seasons that spring. I stayed a year, working six days a week along with the other ex-Air Force meteorologist, and learning much.
My best friend was the competitor’s weekend meteorologist in his first TV job. He had a Penn State masters degree and was an instructor in synoptic meteorology at the University of Michigan prior to this first job. Our symbiotic friendship helped both of us get better. He taught me how to read that damn model, and I taught him how to be friendly when he was on the air. Believe me, I had the easier gig. For the second job in a row, I got out alive, and so did my viewers.