Originally created 09/06/98

Weather Channel clears decks for hurricane season



MARIETTA, Ga. -- Meteorologist Bill Keneely has been plucked, literally, from the Weather Channel's newsroom by his producer, Lauren Chambliss. She's grabbed him by the back of his polo shirt to get him out of a conversation, then trotted him down a hall to the company van, dubbed "White Lightning," that would take them to Hartsfield International for a flight to Hurricane Bonnie's expected landfall in North Carolina.

So goes the deployment of troops at the Weather Channel, where a hurricane approaching the East Coast gets the same blowout treatment as CNN gives to a presidential address.

Every day, thousands of metro Atlantans drive right by the Weather Channel's headquarters next to I-75 near Windy Hill Road, passing another nondescript concrete-and-smoked-glass Perimeter office building. No big sign announces its presence.

Its metro location is "a well-kept secret," says CEO Michael Eckert, because the cable channel is small (about 600 Atlanta employees) and not set up to handle drop-in visitors and tours.

But that relative anonymity works against it as well, because the world identifies Atlanta with CNN and the rest of Time Warner and Ted Turner's TV empire.

With Hurricane Bonnie, interest in the Weather Channel spiked again, and viewership could have exploded tenfold, from 200,000 to more than 2 million.

Mr. Keneely, who reported from North Carolina on that day, is one of the volunteers who go to where the bad weather is for live reports.

They're not as foolhardy as the storm chasers in the movie Twister, although the Weather Channel does have a few workers who stalk tornadoes on their own vacation time.

"We have no problem with volunteers," says Mr. Eckert. "We do tell them don't get too close, or you won't go next time."

Despite such admonitions, there's still admiring talk in the newsroom about Dennis Smith, the meteorologist who lashed his belt to a hotel balcony in Coral Gables, Fla., to keep from being blown away during a live report on Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

An approaching hurricane sends the Weather Channel into what Mr. Eckert calls "clear-the-decks mode."

Catered barbecue is brought in for the staff working extra hours.

The dress code for the newsroom would probably be relaxed if it could be, but it can't, because the Weather Channel scarcely has a dress code.

Casual Fridays morphed into casual every day a couple of years ago, and so Mr. Eckert, the big boss, wears a golf shirt and slacks into the office, and assignment editor Patrick Walsh, who runs the live coverage, is dressed in khaki shorts and untucked polo shirt.

Only the on-air people -- "on-camera meteorologists," as the cable network calls them -- wear ties or chic outfits.

"The attitude is if the weather is going to keep us here, let's be comfortable," on-camera meteorologist Lisa Mozer says during a break from the TelePrompTer.

On a bulletin board behind her, out of camera range, someone has posted an article from the supermarket tabloid The Sun, screaming about a "Weather Holocaust."

But their attitude toward work is anything but casual or tongue-in-cheek.

"Our mission is to get the word out and help people prepare," says Joe Conboy, vice president of program operations.

That's the attitude of Steve Lyons, the channel's "tropical specialist" since May, when he replaced longtime hurricane expert John Hope.

Mr. Lyons, bald and authoritative with a doctorate in meteorology from the University of Hawaii, was the Weather Channel's go-to guy for Hurricane Bonnie, the channel's equivalent of CNN's Christiane Amanpour when the shooting starts in Bosnia.

"I'm just breaking in here," says Mr. Lyons, who is crisp and calm on the air even though he admits to worrying how he will do if his equipment breaks down.

Mr. Lyons got started with weather forecasting when he was a surfing high school student in Southern California.

"I wondered where the waves came from," he says, so he built a small weather hutch to gather information.

He taught meteorology at Texas A&M University and was manager of the Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch of the National Hurricane Center in Miami before joining the Weather Channel three months ago.

The cable channel began in 1982, two years after CNN's start-up, and met with similar derision by so-called experts.

"Who's going to watch a 24-hour weather channel?" is how Mr. Eckert, who's been with the channel since the beginning, recalls the initial reaction.

Along the way, the Weather Channel achieved a recognition level that amazes even those who work there.

A study last year by the advertising firm Young & Rubicam polled people on their awareness of, and opinion of, TV channels.

Fox finished first, the Discovery Channel second and the Weather Channel third, ahead of CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC.

It turns out even the Weather Channel is surprised by who watches.

TV sets at the Vortex restaurant-bars in Little Five Points and Midtown are frequently tuned in.

"One of our owners (Suzanne Benoit) is an avid motorcycle rider and she always has it on to see what the weather's going to be," says Vortex manager Kevin Jones. "And if it's going to be hot and humid, there goes my patio (business)."

Also watching, according to the Weather Channel's market research: gamblers, who want to know if horse racing tracks and football fields are going to be wet or dry; golfers (the golf portion of the channel's Web pages is its most popular section); business travelers, pilots, farmers, commodities traders, construction workers who won't get to work if it's raining.

And then there are those Mr. Eckert calls "weather enthusiasts," who sometimes have the channel on for four straight hours.

Mr. Lyons is the first to admit that predicting the path of a hurricane is very difficult.

Different computer models with acronyms such as GFDL for geophysical fluid dynamics) suggest different tracks. And getting it right is potentially a matter of life and death, a far cry from the jolly weather forecasts favored in much of TV news.

These days, the atmosphere is anything but jolly inside the Weather Channel.