A move that transformed D.C.'s TV-weather landscape
* Hot & humid for the next two days: Full Forecast *
Bob Ryan's decision to move from Channel 4 (WRC-TV) to Channel 7 (WJLA-TV), where he debuted on May 17, might seem like a bombshell. After all, Ryan had been at WRC for a full three decades. But his arrival in D.C. back in 1980 was a major event of its own, with implications for both local and national weathercasting.
Ryan came onto the Washington scene as part of an unusual job switch with none other than Willard Scott, who was a fixture in the D.C. media world before gaining national fame on NBC's "Today" show. Ryan had served two years, from 1978 to 1980, as the first on-camera broadcast meteorologist for "Today." Before Ryan, newscasters had read the weather on "Today" with maps in the background. (I distinctly remember Frank Blair grimly delivering the forecast in front of a map labeled "NUMEROUS SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS" on the morning of April 3, 1974--the day on which the Super Outbreak delivered more than 100 tornadoes.)
The "Today" team plucked Ryan from Boston's WCVB as a way to bolster the show's weather profile next to ABC's "Good Morning America," where John Coleman (soon to became the driving force behind The Weather Channel) was gaining notice for his innovative, graphics-heavy weather segments.
Keep reading for more on Washington D.C.'s place in shaping television weather history...
"I think 'Today' knew they really had to beef up their weather," says Ryan. Computer-generated graphics weren't yet a regular part of TV weather, but Coleman was experimenting with satellite loops that featured electronically drawn frontal systems. On "Today," Ryan combined his strong credentials--including a master's degree in meteorology from SUNY Albany--with a more traditional graphics approach. "I'd draw up the forecast map for the day ahead, with fronts and some temperatures, then draw a map showing cloud cover. We had an artist who'd come in, take my drawing, and then airbrush in the clouds."
On the whole, Ryan was happy with how things were going at "Today," including the program's coverage of hurricanes David and Frederic in 1979. But a shakeup was in the works. William Small was hired as head of NBC News in 1979. Small's brief tenure at NBC was marked by turbulence, and Ryan wasn't to escape the crosscurrents.
"Bill Small was a hard-nosed journalist. I asked him, 'You say news is important--what about weather?' He said, 'After it happens, then it's news.' Being a journalist, he basically didn't believe that a weather forecast was on the same level of importance as a news story." Of course, Ryan adds, "Today the news often leads with the weather, and the meteorologist is a credible and integral part of the news team."
In 1980, though, with management detaching the "Today" weather segment from the newscast, the door was open to a less meteorologically driven approach. NBC decided to hire Willard Scott from WRC, which paved the way for Ryan's move to D.C.
Scott was already legendary in the Washington area. He'd started at WRC radio in 1950 as a 16-year-old page and co-hosted the "Joy Boys" series ("We are the Joy Boys of radio/We chase electrons to and fro!" ) from 1955 to 1972. In the mid-1960s, Scott created what was apparently the first Ronald McDonald character, a "hamburger-happy clown" with a paper cup for a nose and a box for a hat (check it out on YouTube).
In 1970, Scott began doing weather on WRC-TV, complete with a strong dose of vaudevillian humor. During the epic cold and snow of January 1977, he told the Washington Post that he'd fallen on the ice: "A fellow called in and said he knew. It had been registered on the Richter scale."
If you wanted your D.C. weather delivered straight up in the late 1970s, you more likely turned to "Barry ZeVan, the Weather Man" on Channel 7, or Gordon Barnes on Channel 9, who told the Post, "I think weather is a serious thing. I've always dealt with it that way." (Here's Barnes in a 1981 WDVM-TV promo.)
It wasn't immediately clear whether Scott's schtick would work on a national scale. "Was he using his hash browns, moonshine, love thy neighbor, hearty ha-ha, and good-ole-boy talk as just an act, or did he really mean what he said?" wrote Gerry Davis in The Today Show: An Anecdotal History. "Initially, complaints did come in, but before long people realized that Willard was for real--he wasn't acting." There wasn't always room for a lot of meteorology between the gags, though Scott usually made a point of calling out areas of severe weather.
Despite Scott's strong popularity at WRC, viewers came around to accepting Ryan as his replacement--perhaps in part because Ryan wasn't trying to imitate his predecessor. "I was doing meteorology, and Willard was doing Willard," says Ryan. "Willard is a loveable guy, but I was doing something completely different."
Ryan tips his hat to Louis Allen, who brought a good-natured but serious approach to Washington weathercasts on several stations from 1949 up to his death in 1976. "When I started out," Allen once explained, "the 'high' and the 'low' and the 'fronts' really meant nothing. It was all part of the scientific jargon." Allen taught D.C. residents how it all worked, as noted by The New York Times' Russell Baker: "With a few crayon strokes, Louie showed where the fronts were preparing to do their foul or maybe blissful work. Then he gave a 20-second meteorology lesson: 'Air moves clockwise around a high-pressure area, counter-clockwise around a low.' "
Ryan is now philosophical about the 1980 switch that brought him to D.C. "It worked out well for everybody," he says. Sometimes, he'd get as little as 45 seconds on "Today" to cover the nation's entire weather tableau. "I'd often joke: 'The local weather gets 2 minutes. I get 45 seconds. If anybody does world weather, they'll get 5 seconds.' "
As Ryan points out, the idea that the forecast itself isn't news is long gone. "To some extent, the role of the broadcast meteorologist has changed from giving a forecast and hoping that people believe it, to communicating what we're confident will happen so that people know what we know."
Occasional Capital Weather Gang contributor Robert Henson is the author of Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology, recently published by the American Meteorological Society. To learn more about the book, check out weatherontheair.com.