Is There Any Hope For TV Meteorologists?

James Spann
Apr 17, 2016 · 6 min read

Developments over the last few months have not been good for those of us that do weather on traditional broadcast outlets.

One of the largest TV groups in the nation, Tegna, is offering buyouts to older meteorologists (and other employees) who are making higher salaries. They are supposedly “voluntary”.

Recently, a broadcast meteorologist in Oregon took his own life, a reminder of how challenging this career can be, even without the disruption of the business model and changing times.

My friend and colleague, Dr. Marshall Shepherd, penned a well written piece in Forbes called “Why Do TV Meteorologists Quit”.

Most will say they enjoy the ease of getting weather forecasts and information on their phone, and there is simply no need for the traditional TV weather person. Who in their right mind will stay up until 11:00 p.m. to find out what the weather will do the next day by watching a “Ron Burgundy” newscast? Their days are over.

So, is it really over? Is there no hope?

For a meteorologist who believes they simply need to work an 8 hour shift, delivering weather on television newscasts 5 days a week… probably so.

I still see so many young graduates coming from a good college meteorology program believing if they wear nice clothes, get their teeth whitened, speak with non regional diction, and have really good hair, they will get a good TV job that involves working a few hours a day and making a big salary after moving up in market size after a few short years. For those, there isn’t much hope. Blow dried boobs on TV are a dime a dozen.

Yes, the old TV model is dying in the new digital world. But, for those willing to work really hard, long hours across multiple platforms, there is much opportunity and great hope.

Let me share some facts about me. I am 59 years years old, have been doing weather on television since 1978, and some probably think a dinosaur that needs to retire. But, despite the odds, I still love coming to work every day, and really enjoy producing products and services across multiple platforms. I reach hundreds of thousands daily, not only on traditional TV and radio, but across social media and the Internet as well. Significant renevue for the TV station is tied to my name, and I have more energy now that I did at the age of 30 for some reason.

I have been married for 35 years (I am blessed with a wife that is very understanding and supportive); we have raised two sons (the youngest graduated high school a year ago), and have many volunteer jobs, including being Chairman of the Board of a large hospital. Sure, this is a very difficult job with many challenges and really bad hours, but I am living proof that you can have a well rounded life while doing what you love.

I will admit I have enjoyed a “Forrest Gump” type career in that I have never applied for a job in my life. No resume, no demo reel. I could live my life a milllion times over, and this wouldn’t happen again. My first TV job was in 1978 at WCFT-TV, Channel 33, in Tuscaloosa; they called me at the radio station where I worked in high school and college, and after talking with the management they gave me a start date on the spot. Pretty much the same type thing four months later at WSFA-TV in Montgomery.

I actually left TV for in the late spring of 1979 (at the ripe age of 22) to go back into radio, thanks to an offer from Larry Stevens at the legendary WHHY in Montgomery. I was hired to work afternoons on their FM station, Y-102. The idea of working weekdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. was appealing at the time, and I got a big raise… that job paid $200 per week. Perhaps the last time I got a regular amount of sleep.

But in August of 1979, Wendell Harris of WAPI-TV, Channel 13, in Birmingham called, and after coming up to visit I accepted his offer and started my “real” career in September of that year as weeknight weather anchor of the NBC station in Birmingham at the age of 23.

I would be transferred to KDFW-TV in Dallas (Channel 4) in the mid 80s as the lead weather anchor, but was given the opportunity to come back to Birmingham in 1989 at WBRC-TV, Channel 6. I have been at my current station, ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, since 1996.

Being a big time “TV star” in a huge market has never had any appeal to me. I was born in Alabama, and I will be buried here. Working “at home” could not be better. Staying in a market for a long time has many advantages.

I just like communicating information about weather to people. After a college start in electrical engineering, the meteorology program at Mississippi State, which gave you the option of working while finishing college, came along at the perfect time, opening the door for this long, fulfilling career.

I plan on working 8 to 10 more years, and one of my desires is not to finish my career by flying this business model into the ground, but to help build a new one for the next generation. And, to help make the severe weather warning process better.

Who knows; my current employer, Sinclair Broadcast Group, might come in next week and want me to take a buyout offer so they can bring in someone “young and cheap”. Nothing is guaranteed. I agree you need a “Plan B”.

But, for current TV meteorologists, don’t give up. Remember why you selected this career. If you have a deep love for weather, and sharing your knowledge with others, there is no better job. But you have to understand this isn’t 1980, 1990, or 2000. With the changing times, these qualities will make you successful.

HARD WORK: On routine days, I handle weather segments on ABC 33/40 weeknights at 4, 5, 6, and 10:00 p.m. I do at least two detailed meteorological blog discussions daily, along with two “Weather Xtreme videos”… this is where my most serious work is actually done. I do weather reports on over a dozen radio stations in Alabama and Texas, and speak at least once a day, mostly in schools doing weather programs. And, of course, social media demands attention day and night. My combined follower count across all platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc) is over 750,000. This is no short cut, you must work hard to be a success and to survive in this business. Lazy people don’t have any hope.

I am honestly not that good at what I do, but I will work harder than anybody else. I learned this quality when my father walked away from my family when I was 7 years old; hard work was not optional.

LONG HOURS: My alarm goes off at 4:52 weekday mornings, and I don’t get home until after 11:00 p.m. Weeknights I sleep only about 3–4 hours, but I do get much more on weekends. Due to social media, our job really never “turns off”. But, I do get home for dinner most weeknights (except Mondays, when we produce “WeatherBrains”, our weekly weather podcast), and there are other random breaks in those long days that might allow for a short nap, or time to have lunch or dinner with my wife and “get off the grid”. No doubt time management is one of the most important skills needed to survive today’s world of media meteorology. But, it just comes with the hard work thing, there is no short cut in getting around these long hours.

SERVANT’S HEART: You have to put the needs of those that use your products and services before your own. Nobody likes a self centered jerk, and if you happen to have that quality, don’t be surprised that you are having a hard time succeding in this business. After a while, people can see through a phony. Even if you are the most attractive person in the world, viewers, readers, and listeners prefer a person that has their best interests in mind. Trust me, they can tell the difference.

The “crap weather app” on phones can work for a quick look on a calm weather day, but there will always be a need for professional meteorologists to communicate weather information. Especially on days when you are dealing with severe thunderstorms, snow, flooding, extreme heat, or a tropical storm/hurricane. Good luck with your crap app then.

We just have to provide the products and services that match the needs of those we serve. Meaning, of course, production and distribution across multiple platforms, some of which can’t be monetized.

So, are you willing to work hard, long hours, with a servant’s heart? You will make it, and along the way find the model for the next generation. And, just to let you in on a little secret, these three characteristics work in ANY profession.

    James Spann

    Written by

    AMS certified meteorologist in the media. Host of WeatherBrains.