Friday, June 7, 2019

Tomorrow, June 8, is the 45th Anniversary of the "Day Television Weather Grew Up"

Funnel cloud, then tornado, over east Oklahoma City.
We broadcast the tornado live on WKY TV. Photo by Steve Tegtmeier.
For those who have read Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather , you know tomorrow, June 8, is a special day: the 45th anniversary of the "Day Television Weather Grew Up," which is chapter 11 in the book. My friend Steve Amburn is coming up to celebrate and reminisce. Four tornadoes hit Oklahoma City in a single afternoon plus others in central and northeast Oklahoma.
Oklahoma Tornado Tracks, June 8, 1974
Additional tornadoes occurred in Kansas
All week I've tried to write a brief summary for this blog, but so much occurred that day that influenced the future of television weather and news plus the technology of meteorology that I wasn't able to produce just a few paragraphs on it. So let me tell you one tidbit that is not in the book:

In 1974, by custom in meteorology, it was verboten to attempt to forecast tornadoes more than a day in advance. I knew that if I did it, and I was wrong, there was a very good chance I would lose my job. In fact, our news director, Ernie Schultz, had reprimanded me the previous Thanksgiving night for forecasting snow (the other two stations plus the NWS were forecasting dry weather) even though my forecast was correct.
Yours truly viewing the radar in the WKY TV weather department.
In those days, radars had to be viewed in dark rooms. TV cameras
were not sensitive so we instantly went from a dark room to extremely
bright TV lighting. The eyestrain was terrible!
As it turned out, on Friday, June 7, my new bride and I invited sports director Bob Barry over to our nearby apartment for dinner between and 6 and 10pm newscasts. As I was describing my rock-solid conviction there were going to be tornadoes the next day, Bob grew increasingly concerned. Finally, he said, "Mike, if you believe that strongly we are going to have tornadoes tomorrow, I believe you are obliged to let the viewers know." When I explained the risk I was taking he replied, "If you are sure, you should do it."

I told Bob that I would review the evening data and that, if it still looked solid, I would forecast tornadoes on the 10pm weathercast. As the evening charts from the 7pm weather balloon launches came into the WKY forecast center, they were incredibly ominous. So, I told the viewers that there would likely be a round of thunderstorms early in the morning (there was, my phone rang at 3:30am to go back to the station) and that tornadoes were likely in the afternoon. I urged people to monitor the weather throughout the day.
500mb chart, June 8, 1974
The next afternoon and evening, when the tornadoes came, there were zero deaths in our viewing area. All three Oklahoma City stations had meteorologists with radar covering the storms (including Gary England, who was relatively new to KWTV). There were 17 deaths in the Tulsa viewing area where none of the stations had meteorologists or radar.
One of 73 (!) letters, all emotional and heartfelt,
received by WKY TV after our June 8 storm coverage.
The difference in deaths, the live tornado broadcast, the proactive radar coverage and the overwhelming viewer response forced the television news consultants to take notice. The legendary Frank Magid himself visited! It was the beginning of the end of weather cartoonists and weathergirls in tight sweaters making innuendo during weathercasts and the start of the trend toward genuine meteorologists, color radar (exactly two years later) and taking broadcast weather seriously.
Letter to the Editor of the "Daily Oklahoman"
This is a tiny sample (heck, there was even a complimentary editorial cartoon in the Daily Oklahoman) of the reaction to this first-ever comprehensive coverage of a major tornado outbreak. It truly was "the day television weather grew up."

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