Paychecks were bouncing in Bangor.
My first TV job was in the nation’s 156th largest market out of more than 200 markets. That’s not a "largest" anything. WVII-TV in Bangor had such low ratings, they only got asterisks in the ratings book. Not once in my three months there was I ever recognized by a member of the public. The station owner was deeply in debt, and those paycheck bounces made me realize it was time to get out while the getting was mediocre.
When the chance came to move up to the 54th market, Wichita, I grabbed it. To give you perspective, Buffalo was about the 37th market when I got here in 1984 (it had been larger in earlier years), and it is now the 53rd market.
Wichita was a solid medium market, and KAKE-TV was the monster in the market. When I got there, I did science reporting in the afternoon and the weather at 10 p.m. KAKE had 57 percent of the audience at 10 p.m., an unheard of share in today’s era. They were most dominant ABC affiliate in the nation. With a 57 percent share, I was a celebrity within a month. I worked a six-day week, as did my partner meteorologist, but I was at a real TV station where profits rolled in, bills got paid, and the small paychecks never bounced.
So what was Wichita like? I suspect most easterners think it’s a fairly small burg in the middle of nowhere. Well, it IS in the middle of nowhere, but it is not small. Its current city population is 390,000. Buffalo’s population is about 257,000.
Wichita had many corporate headquarters, such as Cessna, Beechcraft, Piper Aircraft, Cargill, Pizza Hut and Coleman Camping, along with a gigantic Boeing plant. On the east was sprawling USAF SAC McConnell Air Force Base, which included 18 Titan ICBM silos. Ethnicity was a bit on the thin side, aside from good soul food on one side of town and Mexican food on the other. To counter that, though, Wichita was Lender’s bagel country, haute freezer cuisine.
Still, as long as I stayed in the city, it did not feel at all like the middle of nowhere.
The Wichita metro area is a somewhat smaller market than Buffalo, because once you got out of town, you saw wheat, corn, sorghum and some oil wells. Humans thinned out quickly.
I never stopped to seriously consider what I was taking on, meteorologically, until after I got there. My college years were far behind me, and my schooling on severe convection had been lackluster. Now, I found myself in the central plains in the heart of what is commonly called “tornado alley.” Gulp.
KAKE had its own weather radar, a converted aviation radar that could be described as “dinky.” The system to make the radar imagery colored on TV cost more than the actual radar. My radar training was lackluster as well. My older partner, a former USAF forecaster, tried to bring me up to snuff quickly before he left on a long-overdue vacation.
Snuff wasn’t good enough. My second night there, he and I looked at a towering thunderstorm on radar over Concordia, Kan., 125 miles north of Wichita. When we broke for dinner, we walked outside, and I saw this cumulonimbus cloud looming, I thought, nearby. I asked my partner, “Where the hell did THAT storm come from? I saw only the storm over Concordia!” His reply: “That IS the storm over Concordia, Don.”
Growing up just north of Jersey City, my eyes were not accustomed to that kind of visibility. Yes, the plains were different!
I began to realize I was in over my head academically. Truth be told, If I had KNOWN how little I knew, I probably would have been afraid to accept the job. You see, this is the kind of thing — an F5 (now EF 5) tornado — that has been known to happen in the Wichita area:
But along came a meteorological savior. A meteorologist named Gary Shore was on KARD, my competitor. We lived in the same apartment complex. Gary was having trouble with showbiz. He had been an instructor in meteorology at the University of Michigan, and this TV thing wasn’t coming naturally to him. We were both from the New York area, became pals and developed a symbiotic relationship. He taught me how to read the models of the day (which didn’t exist when I was in college), interpret radar, and hand-plot weather maps faster. He even sneaked me in to KARD when his boss wasn’t around and let me work with their far superior radar. I taught him how to smile and be natural.
I had the easier gig. I remember calling him one night to confirm what I was seeing on our dinky radar was an actual hook echo, a signature of a tornado. Being friends more than competitors he confirmed the hook, and I was able to speak intelligently about the cell moments later, which was fortunate for our viewers and for me.
The mid-'70s were the time of the leisure suit, especially in Kansas. Heck, I even saw Sinatra wear one on "The Tonight Show." Not me, baby! I had some nice suits from my pre-television days, and they weren’t polyester. There was one in particular, a dark blue wool suit with a subtle pinstripe. That suit brought me my on-set nickname the first time I wore it on the air. From that night on, I became known to my co-anchors as Broadway Don. Fortunately, the worst Broadway Don had to deal with that year were a few F2s and one nasty F3.
Since then, the only time I’ve had 57 percent of the audience is when I give a talk. Fifty-seven percent stay awake, 43 percent nod off.
After a year out there, I’ll say this: Lake-effect precipitation may be more challenging to forecast accurately, but it gives a me time to breathe. Springtime tornadoes? Seconds count, complexities abound, lives are at stake, and stress soars.
Make my challenges wintry. I’ll live longer.