'We pulled off everyday miracles': Inside the birth of the Weather Channel
When the Weather Channel launched in 1982, its founder, John Coleman, knew he was on to the start of something important and something special. In its first night on air, he presciently told viewers that the channel would "become the nation's primary source of weather information" and that it would "serve the nation with information presented in such a way that it adds greatly to the quality of American life and the enjoyment of the television set."
Shaking off skepticism from the outside world that it could succeed amid initial growing pains, the Weather Channel quickly became one of America's most beloved cable networks and, indeed, the most-watched source for weather news.
Before the internet, it provided unrivaled access to weather information and helped keep people safe in severe storms. Its programming had a magnetic quality, which despite its repetitiveness, lured many viewers to watch for hours on end.
Joe D'Aleo was the first director of meteorology at the Weather Channel and helped Coleman launch the network in 1982. He and Coleman, who died earlier this year, recently released a new book on the cable channel's earliest days, "Weather Channel Pioneers, Tales From Those Who Made It Happen."
The book chronicles the formative years of the successful network, spurred by a visionary, and supported by a deeply passionate and motivated team.
D'Aleo generously took the time to respond to my questions about the book effort and the Weather Channel's beginnings. His answers were lightly edited for length and format.
Q: Tell us about the motivation for writing the book and its intended audience.
A: John Coleman and I and a number of the original Weather Channel pioneers decided to tell the story of what it took to revolutionize the way weather information was disseminated to the nation, to tell the story of how the Weather Channel was started. We wanted to write the book before time silenced many of us. John passed away a few months after the writing began.
Many of the pioneers contributed their own experiences of working those early days, and this makes the book an entertaining and informative history, "the inside story" behind the founding of one of the country's favorite cable channels.
The book tells our stories and memories of how we succeeded in what was thought to be an impossible quest. We invite readers to step back in time and experience what it was like to make that dream a success and imagine sharing that adventure. The pioneers were in many ways trailblazers. We can only imagine how many careers in meteorology we have influenced over the years.
The book should appeal to just about everyone who loves weather and remembers the Weather Channel over the years. The book, we hope, is also an inspiration to anyone who has ever had a dream to do something different or difficult to take that chance.
Q: John Coleman is often credited as the Weather Channel's founder, with funding support provided by Frank Batten Sr. and Landmark Communications. I understand you played a pivotal role in the channel's launch as well. Can you briefly walk us through who the key players were in getting the Weather Channel off the ground?
A: John Coleman first told me about his dream of a 24/7 cable weather network when I was working as a vacation fill-in weather producer for his weather shows for "Good Morning America" in the hot summer of 1980. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to follow him. My family and I left my home in beautiful Vermont to work with John full time on "Good Morning America" out of the WLS studio in Chicago.
John was a veritable meteorological broadcaster rock star. He worked magic with green screen technology [in which maps are electronically added to the image behind the broadcaster], pulling weather maps out of the air on WLS and "Good Morning America" - in a world mostly still using magnetic maps. He was winning awards for his on-air weather presentations in the early 1980s.
As exciting as that was, John was frustrated by the fact the time allotted for each show was never guaranteed. If the news or sports segments ran over, weather took the hit on time.
He was convinced that what was needed was a 24/7 weather network like what CNN was doing for news. We would always be there when they needed weather information - much like what the Internet and mobile technology brings today.
Over the years, John polished up the business plan and sometimes, after his last morning show, would fly off to a distant city to try to sell the idea. His idea routinely was rejected. John flew home, changed his clothes and came to work.
After a year of rejections, though, I was feeling a little like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote on his impossible dream quest.
But suddenly there was interest from a number of major media players including Landmark Communications, which owned newspapers, radio and TV stations and multiple cable systems. They had wanted to expand into cable programming to do news when the CEO, Frank Batten Sr., developed cancer.
After Frank recovered, they set up new venture groups to explore alternatives. One of the members was in a poker game with John Coleman and when John told him about his weather programming idea, he brought him to Landmark. They quickly worked out a deal and we were off and running.
That's when it got crazy. We were off to Atlanta in October 1981. John and I were very busy defining the product with the artists and producers. We got busy hiring.
Résumés and [audition] tapes poured in during December and January. We hired many over the phone. The pioneers reported for orientation March 1, we started practicing in April and launched May 2, 1982.
At start-up, amazingly we had 58 full-time broadcasters and forecasters with 450 years of meteorological experience.
Q: When the Weather Channel launched, what was the level of confidence it would succeed?
A: Though there were doubters, we were confident internally we would be meeting our viewers' needs and would succeed. A National Weather Service survey indicated that TV was the main source of local weather information. This was true despite the fact that a typical station or network only devoted 15 to 18 minutes on an average broadcast day to weather coverage.
We had major challenges though - the biggest was providing the local information that the viewers needed. Our technical staff worked furiously to be able to deliver the local weather, local forecasts and all severe weather messages.
For it to work, we had to get the Weather Service to change how they formatted their local forecasts and warnings with address coding that allowed our systems to know what was important to them and where they get displayed.
During this incredibly dynamic start-up period, everyone went straight out, never entertaining the thought that what we wanted to do was impossible. We pulled off everyday miracles, overcame all obstacles and, along the way, changed the paradigms for technology, weather data, forecast and warning delivery, meteorology and on-air weather presentations. It was a time and a team like no other.
Q: What was the workplace culture like at the Weather Channel in its early days? What was a typical day like for you?
A: The workplace chemistry was generally very good considering the fact that everyone had very significant workload responsibilities.
Our technology was state of the art for the time, but the technology was changing at a breakneck pace.
It was just the start of the computer graphics revolution in broadcasting and we led the way with more than half a dozen such graphics systems. Our artists, who originally did some graphics or art on paper that was then captured by cameras, quickly transitioned to using pen and palette. All graphics were funneled through a unique frame storage system.
The on-camera meteorologists would load their shows and control the graphics display from the studio desk. There were no directors.
When the weather was bad, and it usually was somewhere in the nation, we were very serious on-air and worked very hard behind the scenes. When it was quiet, we let our hair down a little (it was the 1980s) and had some fun while still communicating information.
The network in the early days was described as the first TV reality show, one of its appeals. Our viewers increasingly loved us. In 1983, a Nielsen survey showed that at least 40 percent of the cable households tuned in at least twice a day for an average of 28 minutes.
For me personally and our other managers in the operational departments, we had to deal with the stresses our staff that worked long days or nights or on rotating shifts faced. I knew from personal experience how difficult that is on the individuals and their families.
The biggest stressor for the "company" was financial. We had fixed costs to run the business. Despite very good ratings, viewer loyalty and increasing advertising sales, it wasn't until the growing cable industry committed to providing subscriber fees that we turned the corner and became very profitable.
Q: What are some of the book's highlights and key messages that a reader will take away? What should a reader who obtains a copy look forward to?
A: There are many businesses that have been hugely successful by changing the paradigm and meeting needs in a new way, and the Weather Channel was one of those. It takes vision, teamwork and full commitment.
The "Weather Channel Pioneers" book tells one such story from one man's vision that became a shared vision of an incredible and dedicated team and then a full commitment and follow-through by the entire staff to achieve success. There are amusing anecdotes from the early days as we were breaking new ground the reader will enjoy.
Q: We know John Coleman tragically passed away before this book was published. Can you briefly talk about his contributions to the book effort?
A: [When I last saw John in 2017], his heath was declining and I decided, after discussions with some of my closest Weather Channel pioneer friends, that we needed to do that book that captures our story now. We were pleased when John agreed.
John wrote his entire section and did some editing on the early versions before the combination of this season's nasty flu and his emphysema sadly took him from us.
Q: What is your impression of the Weather Channel as a network today? Do you watch it? Do you feel like it is fulfilling your early visions? What might you change about it to make it better?
A: I watch little television, keeping myself busy with seven-days-per-week forecasting for WeatherBELL Analytics, along with my compadre Joe Bastardi and our other great staff.
The Weather Channel realized years ago that the Internet and mobile technology would cut into ratings and focused more of their energies on those areas. That was the right move.
I hope the network does as their new owners promise, recommit to being the full-time weather source on TV.
Story by Jason Samenow. Samenow is The Washington Post’s weather editor and Capital Weather Gang's chief meteorologist. He earned a master's degree in atmospheric science and spent 10 years as a climate change science analyst for the U.S. government. He holds the Digital Seal of Approval from the National Weather Association.