The Sky Is Not Falling, I

I need to get something straight with you, my readers. (Both of you.) I am not much of a “winter person”. In fact, I feel that at this point, I can make the judgment that winter sucks, badly. Between the snow, ice, bone-numbing cold, and dark mornings that make me think I live on the dark side of the moon; I’ll take summer any time. (Heat? Humidity? Bring it on!) Now, I must admit that as a kid, I loved winter. Yes indeed, joy was listening to the “No School” announcements on the radio, being read by a stern voiced announcer, and hearing the name of your town read. This was followed by uncontrolled yelps of joy. Sadly, those years are short-lived. As an adult, you just have to deal with the winter nasties. Employers in New England rarely call off work shifts. If you work anyplace on a production floor, you have probably heard the “We’ll be here, no matter how much it snows, and we expect you here, at your workstation, on time” speech from a steel-eyed supervisor, at least once. (Some sort of ego thing, apparently. And salaried, office people never get that speech, do they?)

During the last decade, I noticed something else, another reason to dislike winter. What is it? Television weather people! What the heck is the deal with these with these yahoo’s? Are they totally nutzoid, or do they drink black coffee for three hours before going on the air? (Remember the late Chris Farley’s character, “Matt Foley”?) Something smells bad here. If there is the faintest glimmer of a few snowflakes, these TV weather people hype it up as though it were the end of the world.

Today, we are having a snowstorm in Boston. It’s not too bad, hovering between snowfall and rain. The roadways are wet, and people are generally slowing down. About eight inches total is expected by tomorrow morning, when it ends. Now that is pretty basic for a New England snowstorm, isn’t it? Of course it is. Now, let’s take a look at two facts which cannot be denied:

1. This is New England.
2. In winter, it snows in New England.

That’s pretty clear to anyone of nominal intelligence, isn’t it? But apparently not in TV land. No, the local televisions are breaking in every 1/2-hour, with “severe weather updates”. These updates typically feature a weather person, grinning maniacally at the camera, screaming about how “this is a big one!” and pointing to a huge map, encouraging viewers to “follow the path of this major winter storm with us!” Then they switch to the “on the spot reporter”. This is usually an attractive young female anchorperson, wearing the latest designer parka (with the station logo on it) out in the storm, usually beside a well-known high traffic area. She stands there, with the camera in her face, and a station microphone, with snow swirling everywhere. Evidently, some station general managers have decided that good-looking news babes in ski parka’s, who stand outside in snowstorms, turn on male viewers. Sorry general managers, but we’re not. The News babe will stand there, pointing out how people “really need to take it slowly and easily, as this is a very dangerous storm, and conditions are treacherous”. No kidding, really?

Some TV stations have a few minutes, which they have to fill up with something, so out comes their “storm advisor”. This is always an older gent, with a liberal share of gray hair and reading glasses, and a flannel shirt. (And I could swear I have seen one of them, in commercials for a local carpet company. Can you say “Talent Agency”?) He advises viewers, in a low monotone, how and what they must do, “to prepare for the storm”. He holds up a flashlight, and a few candles, and then points to a snow shovel and a few bags of “ice melt”, leaning against a wall. I guess this is to go for “the grandfather connection”, or something. Somehow, I find it hard to believe that grown adults would not know these things. It is, after all, common sense to prepare for adverse weather conditions in your geographic location. Then again, maybe I should not be surprised, given people’s behavior at the grocery store.

So, the formula is to take a simple snowstorm, and through screaming hype and hoopla, and fancy computer generated graphics, send people into a massive panic. Today, lines in grocery stores were long, and the parking lots were out of control, with people ready to commit murder for a parking space.

And, as I mentioned in another column, everyone going into the grocery stores buys the same items. These are bread, milk, and “D” cell batteries. What are they going to do, make a battery sandwich? Often, massive grocery stores run out of these items. All because News media weather people run again like “Chicken Little” screaming that the sky is falling. Well, I am sorry, but this has just gone far enough! This hype and hoopla over snowstorms is bordering on the irresponsible.

It’s difficult to know why TV stations do this. A good guess would be that hype generates ratings and share points, and that, in turn, generates advertising revenue. That is just a guess of mine however. I seem to remember when this was not the case, when you could get a reasonably accurate, objective weather forecast from a commercial TV station.

For many years, the premier TV Weatherman in Boston was Don Kent. Now here was a guy who knew his business. His “graphics” consisted of hand drawn weather maps, sort of like big chalkboards. When he had to switch a map, he simply pushed it out of the way. (They moved on rollers) Without “computer models”, he could give viewers a rock solid, accurate forecast. And he did it, without irresponsible hype and hoopla, and without behaving like he was on a caffeine overdose. (He had just the right amount of humor for the job, which endeared him to viewers.) Alas, Mr. Kent retired in 1983, and is involved in other businesses today. (He still does some forecasting, for small market radio stations.) I wish he were back on major market TV. I can’t help but wonder what he must think of the way TV weather forecasting is handled today.

I guess I should mention something in all fairness to TV weather folks, and that would be THE blizzard of ’78. Some would suggest that it is because of that particular storm, that people get so spooked when any snowstorm is forecast. And a dandy storm it was, with up to 40 inches of snow in some areas, and screaming winds which howled for two days. And people, including TV weather people, were caught off guard. In the aftermath, a weeklong state of emergency was declared by then Governor, Michael Dukakis. Private vehicle travel was prohibited, to allow police, fire, and National Guard vehicles to work. But, grocery stores were opened two days later, and people simply walked to them. In a way it was beautiful, with people walking amidst peace and quiet, down the middle of roads where such an act would normally be impossible People behaved very differently, the week after that storm.

That storm was 25 years ago, almost an entire generation’s worth of time. As I mentioned at the start of this column, I didn’t start noticing people panicking the way they do now until the 90’s, when the “mood” of TV weather forecasting changed. Broadcasting holds enormous power, that much is certain. (And when there is a revolution somewhere, one of the first things that the opposing forces do, is knock the radio and television stations off the air, or take control of them.)

So broadcasters, when a snowstorm, hurricane, tornado (which is very rare here), or something is coming, by all means, give an accurate forecast, and perhaps some advice on how to prepare. But to send people into a panic? To carry on like a raving lunatic in front of the TV camera, and do everything but a “Bwha-ha-ha-ha” mad scientist laugh? That is just wrong. Enough is enough.

So, with our eight inches of snow, I think I’ll sleep late tomorrow, then go about my usual routine. If anyone is curious, I get my weather forecast from NOAA weather radio. It’s preset on my scanners, but if you are interested, Radio Shack (“You’ve got questions, we’ve got blank stares”) sells a nice, inexpensive NOAA radio. Oh yes, “there’s one more thing”; I own a Sears Craftsman snow shovel. I can move some serious snow with that baby.

Bruce Black

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