Friday, June 8

"Weathering the Storm" (I Stole This Title)

Remember this? It's a National Lampoon magazine cover from 1973--voted one of the Top Ten covers in the last forty years by the American Society of Magazine Editors.

OK, now check out this promo from KWTV in Oklahoma City, shown on the "NewsBlues" media commentary site. Compare and contrast. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Do you get the same message I'm getting: "Watch Gary England during severe weather or your kids will die!"

I'm disappointed. I know Gary England. I worked with Gary England. Quite simply, Gary England invented severe weather reporting on television. He doesn't need to hype his coverage or his credentials. He's the founding father of tornado coverage as we know it. His warnings have saved countless lives over the years. No brag, just fact. Why, then, the over-the-top frantic mom clutching her frightened child to her bosom and hinting that maybe God can't save us, but "Gary England" can.

I know, I know: it markets the product.

Let me counter by saying that a simple recitation of the facts can "sell" viewers on KWTV's weather coverage better than any actors-dodging-the-special-effect-debris spot can.

Gary was the driving force behind KWTV's decision to become the source for severe weather information in the Midwest. He and his company, Enterprise Electronics, developed the world's first commercial Doppler radar. In the early 80s Gary became the first person to use Doppler radar for direct TV warnings to the public. He had the first color Doppler on TV. Those little "First Warning" weather maps you see in the corner of just about every TV screen in America? Gary England's idea.

And I don't care where you live, there's a 99.9% chance you've seen Gary England. He appears (in KWTV archive tape) in the first few minutes of the movie "Twister," airing a tornado warning. That's not acting, that's the real deal, actual tape of an actual broadcast. Gary is the real deal, too. He served as a technical adviser on that blockbuster film. Some years ago I met a terrific meteorologist from WHNT-TV in Huntsville, Alabama, Dan Satterfield, an Oklahoma native. He told me he saw Gary that night. Not the Gary depicted in the movie—the actual warning, that actual night. He said it changed his life and determined his future.

You’ve heard of “Da Man?” Gary England is “Da Weatherman!”

When I arrived in OKC as news director I thought I knew about tornadoes and severe weather coverage. Guess again! I inherited a weather department that operated with military precision, staffed 24/7, ready to go at all times. And I found that Gary England ran the station—or could, anytime he chose to. He had a switch at his desk that would fire up a camera and lights and microphone and override Master Control. He could literally get himself on the air in under five seconds! The decision had long since been made that in times of severe weather the on-duty meteorologist should take to the air instantly and stay on the air non-stop until the danger had passed. The entire news staff—the entire station—stood poised to take marching orders from Gary.

Let me make it clear: I had nothing to do with it. When it comes to weather coverage I can’t claim I did a single thing in my six months at KWTV except cheer from the sidelines and run for an occasional cup of coffee for the troops. My biggest achievement? Staying the hell out of the way so Gary and his team could save lives.

Gary has written an excellent book. “Weathering the Storm: Tornadoes, Television and Turmoil.” Fortunately it’s long on the drama behind the science of predicting storms and the excitement of live TV coverage—and short on the drama behind-the-scenes at KWTV. I’ve referred to that soap opera in another post. As Gary says of the 70s and 80s, “It was beginning to become a bit confusing—another boss and another set of rules, thirteen news directors in fifteen years.”

He doesn’t mention names, but I think there's a chance he’s referring to me when he writes, “The year 1988 arrived, and with it came another news director. My fourteenth boss was older, quiet, knowledgeable, and best of all had a healthy respect for meteorologists and our array of sophisticated equipment.”

Hard to say because of the revolving door in those days, but I'd like to think he’s talking about me as knowledgeable. I know I have a healthy respect for Gary and his pioneering work.

Maybe that’s why I was disappointed with the promo and its theme music and its sound effects. The reality of Gary England’s work has been on display to Oklahomans for more than 35 years. No brag, just fact.
(A late note: in re-reading Gary's book, I'm now convinced I'm NOT the "older, quiet, knowledgeable" chap referred to. Whoever he is--and I never met the man and have no recollection of his name--he was, I'm convinced, my predecessor.)

1 comment:

Gary England said...

This is Gary England. I'm trying to determine which "ex" News9 news director is "Tying My Shoes". The blog is terrific!