Sunday, June 8, 2014

40th Anniversary of "The Day Television Weather Grew Up"

Speaking of Warnings (below), at this time 40 years ago, I was gobbling down a quick lunch while I got ready to go back to work at WKY TV and Radio. I had been called in about 3am to cover severe thunderstorms and we were in between storms. I knew the afternoon and evening storms were going to be much worse.

In those days, we had black and white radar. The photo below shows a "hook" echo moving into Oklahoma City, with the tornado about to strike Will Rogers World Airport.

As a result of starting to chase storms two years prior, I knew the storm would pass southeast of the TV station and we had a chance to get a picture of the tornado. Amazingly, we did. Fellow chaser Steve Tegtmeier got this photo of the tornado before it touched down. It was only the second time (the first was KAUZ TV in Wichita Falls in 1959) a tornado had been broadcast live.

To keep track of each of the storms and so I could remember everything that I needed to tell our viewers, we did radar tracings like the one below. I would hold it in my left hand while gesturing to the map with my right. TW = tornado watch from 2 until 8pm and SVR TSTM = severe thunderstorm warnings in effect for several counties.
As you can imagine, the systems we were using were primitive compared to today's. Yet, somehow, we were able to get tornado warnings out for every one of the central Oklahoma tornadoes in our viewing area and there were no fatalities.

In northeast Oklahoma, none of the TV stations had radar or meteorologists (but they did have a popular puppet doing weather!) and there were 16 fatalities.
Tulsa tornado, June 8, 1974, NOAA
Because of the tornadoes and flash floods in the Tulsa area, all of the television stations were knocked off the air. The WKY weather department got a call from the cable company serving Tulsa informing us of their stations' situation and wanted to know if we would cover Tulsa until their stations were back on the air. If so, he would put our signal on their cable. We did. The contrast between our approach and what the Tulsa stations were able to do was striking.

Back in Oklahoma City, the outpouring of appreciation was simply overwhelming. More than seventy letters, an editorial cartoon and countless phone calls from people thanking us for saving their lives.
The business practices of television news then, and now, included a "news consultant" for almost every newsroom. The consultants gather what they believe are "best practices" and try to implant them at each of their client stations. At that time WKY TV (now KFOR TV), used Frank Magid Associates. Soon after, two of their people appeared at the station interviewing the meteorology department (Jim Williams, Larry Brown and myself) about how we did what we did that day.

The tornadoes of June 8, 1974, plus the invention of color radar just two years later, caused a revolution  in TV weather. Very few TV stations had radar prior to 1976; by 1980, just about every station had it. The percentage of genuine meteorologists doing weather on television soared.

There is a chapter about this day in Warnings called "The Day Television Weather Grew Up." I look back at that day and am amazed what we were able to do.

Even today, weather forecasting and storm warnings are still part art as well as science. Meteorologists, whether with AccuWeather, the National Weather Service, or your local television station, work incredibly hard -- often, under great pressure -- when covering tornadoes. They often receive little appreciation for their valuable work which has cut the tornado death rate by more than 95% over the last half-century…an amazing scientific accomplishment. 


  1. Thanks for your comment, Joel. I did not know the name of the puppet and appreciate you supplying it.

    Yes, Steve was a true pioneer.

  2. Great great post. My Dad was Larry Brown and I would love to read up more about him. He died of cancer when I was young so I don't know much about his career. Other than he didn't really like doing television. Any way to see some pics or clips? Thanks!

  3. Michael, I did not know your Dad passed away. My condolences.
    I certainly enjoyed working with him -- he had a nice sense of humor toward his work. I never would have gotten through June 8 without both your Dad and Jim Williams.
    Send me your email address and I will look through some slides and see if I have a photo of your Dad. Thanks for writing.

  4. "They often receive little appreciation for their valuable work..."
    That is a very true statement. Sadly over the past several years, I have noticed a trend here in Arkansas from our awesome meteorologists.... APOLOGIES

    Many of the meteorologists here in Central AR are often including apologies in there weather break-ins because so many people would rather watch their shows than to hear what the weather is doing... even if it's in their area.
    That only adds to the stress when people are giving them grief for doing their jobs and saving lives.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.